In Praise of Shitty Goalies

The author, doing her part to make hockey better by playing net horribly.

The first time I ever played hockey, they put me in net.

It wasn’t ice hockey. It was inline, in tropical heat under a smoggy sky on a concrete rink by the South China Sea. They showed me a tin shed where heap of moldering equipment lay, all of it thin and shoddy, all of it various kinds of broken. There was a glove so big it slid off my fingers and a blocker that didn’t have any fingers left, a mask held together with twist ties and a chest protector with no fastenings at all save one outrageously long length of dangling elastic, which I had to wrap around my torso three times and tie to itself. As I played, it would slowly unwind around my body and pull the plates all askew, leaving scalene slices of my stomach and shoulders exposed. Even a real goalie who knew how to fit all the armor would have had trouble making this stuff function as protection, and I was not a real goalie.

Or maybe I was. If the definition of a goalie is one who stands in the net and tries to stop pucks, then I was a goalie. I was just a really, really, really, really shitty goalie. There are not enough reallys in the world to describe how shitty of a goalie I was. I hung out so far back in my net I’d look down and find I had a foot behind the goal line. I went down when skaters were barely two strides over center. Positioning? Fuck no, I was covering angles so absurd you’d need to invent a new branch of theoretical geometry to measure them. Butterfly? Only if by that you mean something that’s small, delicate, and flutters away at the first sign of danger.

Yes, I was a shitty goalie, and it sucked. I got deked by ten-year-olds and faked out by 40-year-olds and spun around so bad I ended up on my stomach facing into my own twine more than once. And I gave up so many goals. Dozens of them. Maybe a hundred. After a while, I stopped counting and just started to keep track of who hadn’t scored on me yet, and every time I came out, that number would get a little smaller, until there was only one. One guy, of the perhaps 30 who came out to Sunday hockey, who hadn’t beaten me.

He was a rookie, a tall, skinny, bespectacled first-year university student who’d never skated before. He shuffled on his blades the way people do who are still fighting the natural rollyness of wheels. They made him play with a stick from the tin shed. It was too long for him, its blade worn down to an inch high by years of scraping scraping scraping on the rough concrete, and he leaned on it like an old man on a flimsy cane. I thought, at least, I was safe from him- poor kid would never get close enough to me to take a shot. But then one day he got within fifteen feet and decided, for no logical reason, to plant his skates and put everything he had into a slapshot that was more like a golf swing. The puck caught me on bare skin, just under the collarbone where the padding had twisted away, and I fell, and it fell with me, and it was in. The rookie beamed. I moaned.

I staggered from the net and staggered from the rink and lay on my back on a tiny patch of dry grass. Chest aching, covered in sweat and dirt and the stench of ancient cheap plastic marinated in the sweat and dirt of a decade of shitty goalies before me, I stared up at the dull gray sky and asked the hockey gods why. Why am I doing this? It’s difficult, filthy, humiliating work, and I’m terrible at it. What is the point? Why even bother?

I didn’t know the answer then. I lay there for a while, then got up, yanked my errant chest protector over the bruise, drank about five bottles of water and got back in there, and I knew not why. But I do now. I did it for the good of hockey. Because if there is one thing hockey desperately needs, it’s shitty goalies.

***

Great goalies get all the praise, and in fairness, they’ve earned it. A great goalie is a remarkable creature. The product of strange genetic gifts and years of intense technical training, he combines electric reflexes, obsessive discipline, and meditative concentration into one exotic being. He’s like the illicit lovechild of a Zen monk and a hummingbird, and just as rare. But what does he do with these magnificent, beautiful, esoteric talents? He seamlessly blends them together and he bends towards one great purpose, his mission in life: ruining everyone else’s fun. Great goalies are to hockey what Satan is to some of the more Gnostic forms of Christianity- the loyal opposition, the force set against all the virtues the hockey gods- as well as the majority of skaters, fans, and League officials- pursue*. Great goalies are the ones who agitate for smaller nets, bigger equipment, and lower scores. They are the force that pull hockey towards the hell of 0-0 games, month-long shootouts, and infinite playoff overtimes that leave entire teams gasping on the threshold of death. At their best, they’re frustrating. At worst, they’re positively dangerous.

Of course, everyone enjoys a good goalie duel every now and then, and everyone loves a brick wall when he’s standing behind their own team. But for the most part, hockey fans and hockey players love goals. Love scoring ‘em, love watching ‘em, love celebrating ‘em whether on the ice or in the stands. With all the lights and the screaming and the joy, scoring is even more climactic than the winning, which is often a countdown to a foregone conclusion. Goals are the orgasms of hockey, and good goalies are the sworn enemy of goals. They’re like a big iron chastity belt around the game.

But while great goalies are busy making hockey boring, shitty goalies are making hockey awesome. They’re giving hockey more and better orgasms than all the puckbunnery** in Canada has lo these manyyears.  But forget the goals- even the saves of shitty goalies are more fun that the saves of great goalies. Great goalies in the modern style are all smart positioning and playing the percentages. They’re about catching pucks square in the chest and making it look easy. But bad goalies are always getting out of position and having to scramble back at the last millisecond, or falling over and having to snatch pucks out of the air, or just barely getting a toe on it. No great goalie save Hasek has ever been able to make good goaltending more fun to watch than shitty goaltending.

***

Now, when I say “shitty goalies”, I mean no disrespect to shitty goalies. Pointing out that bad players are bad is not, in itself, an insult- I myself am a shitty player and would not resent anyone for saying so, providing they weren’t being unnecessarily cruel or depriving me of opportunities. This is not the fourth grade anymore.  We do not get tin medals just for playing nor false compliments just for trying, and frankly, we shouldn’t need either.

There’s no shame in being bad at hockey, and that goes double for playing net. Tending hockey goals is one of the most difficult activities anywhere in sports. It requires agility, flexibility, focus, a sharp instinct for spatial positioning, and the courage to face high-velocity projectiles- all while wearing 25 pounds of thick, restrictive armor. Maybe one person in ten has half the skills necessary to be good at it; maybe one in a thousand has all of them.

But more than being just physically demanding, it’s psychologically rough as well. Skaters are only responsible for a fraction of what their team does in a game. The number of minutes they play divided by the number of other skaters they share the ice with- that’s the equation for how much of the result they can possibly control. But the goalie is out there the whole game, doing the whole job alone, solely responsible for everything that happens once a shot is fired. A skater is doing pretty damn well if one shot in five succeeds. A goalie is doing pretty damn badly if one save in five fails. Moreover, virtually no individual skater need take personal responsibility for getting all of the team’s goals-for in the way a goalie is held responsible for almost all goals-against. There’s lots of places on a depth chart for people who contribute in small ways well behind the play and out of the slot. I can count my microstats- passes threaded, puck battles won- and feel good about my improvements as a player, even when there ain’t no goals to count. But for a goalie, success or failure always comes down to one question: did it go in or not? If you’re a bad goalie and it goes in all the damn time, well, that’s a lot of failure to face.

And, oh yeah, don’t forget: it’s also incredibly fucking expensive. No wonder this position has been known to drive men mad.

Every time a shitty goalie suits up, they’re putting on many hundreds of dollars worth of equipment in order to do something unbelievably difficult that is likely to result in many different forms of indignity and humiliation. And why? So that the rest of us can have fun. So that all you great skaters can get fancy, awesome, triple deke goals that make you feel like you coulda made the NHL; so that all of us terrible skaters can get flukey, weird, deflection-off-the-ass, tip-over-the-glove goals. So that we can periodically see our favorite team rack up a great pile of points in a catastrophic blowout. So we can see the occasional wild 5-7 decision that leaves us all waxing nostalgic on the glories of old-time shinny. So we can laugh until we cry over our keyboards at pucks going in from center ice, and trickling over pads, and dropping out of gloves.

All of these wonderful moments, brought to you by terrible goaltending.

***

J is a pretty good hockey player. Good, certainly, for casual tournaments and shinny I’ve seen him play. Nimble on his skates, smart with his positioning, quick shot if I remember correctly- I don’t know if you’d call him a star but dude knows his way around a rink.

But he doesn’t know his way around a net. He comes out to play net the first time with a bag full of hand-me-down equipment, lays all of it out on the floor of the dressing room, and stands there looking down, puzzling over how to put it on. Even then, he has two false starts before he gets the order of operations right, and all game long he’s tripping over random straps and ties that seem to unfasten themselves. He’s ten times better than I was, easy, but this is on ice and everything’s faster, and he, being an ordinary mortal man, can’t just go up and down and down and up like a Bozo Bop Bag. Eventually he just goes down and stays down, scrabbling back and forth across the crease like a geriatric hermit crab in his borrowed shell.

The shot comes, and it bounces off his chest, and the rebound pops out into the slot. He lunges forward, hoping to cover, but somehow, even with his full body sprawled out on the ice, he misses. I pick it up with the toe of my stick, and- all the time in the world, a great boundless horizon of time stretched out in front of me like I never get in hockey- take it from my backhand to my forehand, around his sprawled pad, and tuck it into the net.

It’s the prettiest goal I ever scored, brought to me by terrible goaltending. Maybe it’s my karmic reward for the goal I gave up, all those years ago, to that bespectacled rookie, on the concrete rink, by the South China Sea.

 

*This is the part where some of you say, hey, no I love low-scoring defensive games!! They’re the best part of hockey!! But those of you who really feel that are, I’m sorry to say, in the minority. If you want to test it, try introducing a rule change aimed at decreasing scoring and see how far you get with it.

** Please note that I use the term “puckbunnery” not as an insult, but with the great respect and admiration that people deserve who own their sexuality enough to pursue hook-ups with whatever category of consenting adult human does it for them. But “In Praise of Puckbunnery” is another post for another day.

Comments (21)

  1. <3 I may print this out and keep it in my goalie bag.

  2. This is why goalies are weird. But I wouldn’t call us the devil so much as the devil’s advocate… the term comes from canonization debates, where one person takes on the task of arguing against the prospective saint. The idea is that if the case is good, it will prove itself against the best possible rebuttal. It’s a job with a long history, and the concept exists in many fields.

    In the same way, I think of my job in the nets as that of making the offense prove that it deserves a goal. As Herb Brooks said in Miracle, “If you score on Tretiak, keep the puck, you earned it.” Sure, you just created a 2-on-1 – the man’s open in the circle – that’s a sweet saucer pass – pretty wind-up on the one-timer. Oh, did I glove that? Way to make the most of your opportunity, chuckles.

    So it’s not really a devilish job, so much as the yin and yang of hockey, the paradoxes that fuel the greatest sport there is. You need great goalies to bring out the true skills of the most talented shooters. And in return, only a wide-open game can give the great goalies a chance to differentiate themselves from the duffers. Ten shots a game? Anyone can get lucky and stop all of them, and anyone can get unlucky and miss two. Thirty shots? Well, now twenty extra chances to prove that I can stop shots your tendy won’t. The more of those there are, the more likely it is that the better keeper makes the difference.

    So even though I’m a goalie, I actually want to see games where goalies are regularly tested; in a strange way, even when I’m playing I prefer more work to less. It will increase scoring, but more than that, it will increase scoring chances – the moments of excitement where we see if the shooter or the keeper wins. That’s the heart of hockey from the fan’s perspective. Keepers and shooters need each other to bring out the best in the game.

  3. Thank you, Ellen, for giving me a piece of hockey writing to be appreciative of! I started hockey just like you – but never left the net! After playing nearly 20 years of street / inline hockey and watching other “non-goalie” players strap on the pads, you are definitely right in that goalie with no skill but his determination is the best goaltending to watch.

  4. Any goalie, no matter how shitty, beats having to hit iron to count in shinny. I can hit posts all day with a goalie in net, but for the life of me can’t manage to come close when that’s what I’m aiming for. I almost went as far as buying equipment and getting in there myself, but then I sobered up.

    • That’s the worst, isn’t it? I always hate it when we have no goalie. It’s like I need to devastate someone’s psyche in order to feel good about me scoring.

  5. One thing I disagree about: in baseball, a triple-play gets more applause than a triple; in football, an interception gets more applause than a completion; and in hockey, a big save gets more applause than a goal.

    • Disagree on big save versus goal.
      Every arena is louder for longer when the home team scores than when there’s a diving stop by the home tendy.

  6. /makes some popcorn and waits for the “In Praise of Puckbunnery” post

  7. Bobby Orr – probably woulda been the greatest goalie ever.

    Just sayin’.

  8. The guy isn’t a goalie. He is like everyone I know who wanted to play goalie because they saw me do it and thought it was easy. I agree with the first comment more than the article. He is kind of a douche that defaces the position in my opinion. A good goalie is exciting, and just because a goalie is unorthodox and puts a crazy amount of effort into every save he makes doesn’t make him a “shitty” goalie. The reason a goalie plays isn’t so everyone else can have fun, if it is then they are in fact a player with goalie gear on. I play goalie to keep a game competitive and get my team a win.

    • Well, the guy isn’t a guy at all, but a lady… and she’s made clear that she is a player who was stuck in the net, not a goalie nor even someone who wanted to do it.

      This isn’t uncommon, actually. I’m only a goalie because I was very small for my age growing up. I was always picked last for everything, and put in the nets to stay out of the way. I wound up stuck back there so often I came to prefer it. But if I’d have been two inches taller at ten years old, who knows, I may have been a forward, and wound up sounding like you.

    • I think you maybe misinterpreted what was being said in this article.

    • “This guy”?

      The author – named Ellen? The one with a photo, captioned “The author, doing her part …” ?

  9. When EE threatened on Twitter to write a post about shitty goalies I suggested to her that there was no such thing, just shitty defensive teams in front of us. My goaltending career was rather short, ending in my 30′s when I sold my equipment for $100 after a particularly horrendous playoff series. But throughout minor leagues, high school hockey and competitive rec hockey I was usually much better than a sweater hanging from the crossbar. The next season, when I began my career on defence, our team brought in a replacement that was so much better than I was. Mostly because I was playing in front of him of course.

    Great article Ellen, as usual.

  10. *This is the part where some of you say, hey, no I love low-scoring defensive games!! They’re the best part of hockey!! But those of you who really feel that are, I’m sorry to say, in the minority. If you want to test it, try introducing a rule change aimed at decreasing scoring and see how far you get with it.

    I’ll argue this point because the rest of the article is great, but this point I disagree with. I dont like low scoring games because they are low scoring. I like low scoring games when they are the result of great defensive play and/or super human ability in net. I do not enjoy the trap, but i do enjoy a relentless forecheck, superb defensive positioning, and great defensive reads. In the case of goalies battling for 0-0 games, we don’t love them because each team is relegated to taking low percentage point shots with no chance of success. We love them because they flash the glove high up to the sky, robbing what was a sure goal. The fans still get to experience the drama of jumping out of their seats as the puck makes its way towards the twine, only to throw up their arms as it’s stopped at the last minute. It’s not just “goals” that fans like. Its exceptional ability and excitement, and i’d argue that goalie can provide just as much of those two traits as the goal scorers. So when I say I enjoy some of the low scoring games, it isn’t the type where two inept teams play a game of turtle, hoping to not be the first one to make a mistake. It’s the difference between watching Jonathon Quick vs. Jonathon Bernier. Both are great goalies. One does it with amazing physical ability. One does it with amazing technical ability. Both can get the job done, but one is infinitely ore exciting to watch.

    We don’t want low scoring games because they are necessarily better. We want low scoring games when they provide the same level of ability and drama as high scoring ones… and they definitely CAN do that.

    It’s the same reason my whole team prefers to play against a good team rather than a shitty team in our rec league. We know we’ll beat the shitty team. We’ll probably score a bunch of goals. But at the end of the game, it’s not that satisfying. I just finished a season in my roller league in which we lost a low scoring game in the finals to end the season. Both teams agreed it was an epic game. Both sides really enjoyed the game, Certainly we were disappointed that we lost, but it was exciting, and it wasn’t exciting because there were a lot of goals. There was just a lot of drama.

  11. The one BIG thing you forgot to mention: How sexy we goalies look.

  12. I completely agree. Goalies deserve all our respect and then some for putting on those ridiculous pads, and then beating the shit out of themselves all game in an effort to stop that tiny disc from passing them by. It takes an incredible amount of self-determination and will-power, and even more emotional stability, in order to do something like that. That’s why the saying goes, “It’s never the goalie’s fault.”

  13. “…being an ordinary mortal man, can’t just go up and down and down and up like a Bozo Bop Bag. Eventually he just goes down and stays down, scrabbling back and forth across the crease like a geriatric hermit crab in his borrowed shell.”

    I so recognize this! I’ve been there more than once :-P I always tell people that playing hockey is the most fun I’ve ever had being terrible at something.

    and Randall – a goalie who is constantly out of position and has to make wild dives to make a save is a shitty goalie. Not to say that said shitty goalie wouldn’t make mince meat out of any team you or I ever played against, but in the standard that is the NHL (or the AHL, or whatever HL you’re looking at) that guy is mocked (see most comments about Ricky D, or Roly the Goalie.)

  14. If the Habs were to trade Price away for a shitty goalie, would you still love shitty goalies?

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