LOS ANGELES — The NHL’s spring fashion line officially debuts next Saturday and hockey’s haute couture is all about goalies and their pants. One hundred years in the making, the league is about to go all skinny jeans in net.
Bruins shot-blocking aficionado Tuukka Rask, here this weekend as a first-time All-Star, pulled on his new NHL-certified pants Thursday night at the Garden.
“You noticed my tight [rear end] there?” Rask kidded a Globe reporter after debuting his new gear in the 4-3 win over the Penguins. “No issues. They’re good. They’re comfortable. I don’t see any real difference.”
Subtle as it is, the change won’t be obvious to anyone watching Sunday’s NHL All-Star Game or perhaps ever after, but it’s part of a much broader initiative aimed at having all goalies equipped in gear that is proportionate to their individual body size.
Following slight trimming back of the goalies’ legs pads and gloves over the last 5-8 years, the league’s Competition Committee in 2015 targeted the goalie pants, chest protector, and arm guards — gear that had some netminders using biggy-sized models in their endless pursuit of puck-stopping perfection.
“It wasn’t policed for a long time,” said ex-NHL goalie John Davidson, 63, president of hockey operations for the Columbus Blue Jackets. “And it did get out of hand. You’d see a goalie go down to his knees and his shoulder pads would magically rise up. I mean, c’mon! That’s just a man trying to beat the system. But, hey, if it’s not policed, who can blame him? It’s his livelihood.”
The new pants, more form-fitting around the waist and a more tailored fit along the leg toward the kneecap, were approved last March and were supposed to be in use for the start of the season. Fine-tuning the fit for every goalie, and working with myriad equipment manufacturers proved tricky, however, and it wasn’t announced until earlier this month that next Saturday finally would be the official start-up date.
“This was about making the playing field level within the goalie ranks, and doing what’s right for the game,” said ex-NHL goaltender Kay Whitmore, who these days is the league’s senior director of hockey operations, his main charge to help guide and implement the changes. “We wanted guys sized properly in equipment that provides maximum protection for each individual’s characteristics without creating excessive blocking spaces.”
“Bottom line,’’ added the 6-foot-3-inch Rask, “they don’t want guys who are 6 feet in the same gear as guys who are 6-5. They want it to be individualized in a way that your pants don’t look overly big on you.”
Rask needed time to find his right fit. The first iteration of his new pants were, shall we say, a bit kinky.
“Same company as I had before,” he explained. “They didn’t really do a good job with them. Then I got a new company, and it was much better . . . I don’t feel like I’m wearing a diaper now.”
With the kinks presumably worked out for the pants, the chest protector and arm guards will be scrutinized next, perhaps with tailored models approved and ready for the start of the 2017-18 season in October.
In concert, the changes come at a time when NHL goal scoring, dramatically lower than the 1980s heydays, has been falling for a quarter-century and near stagnant for the better part of a decade. Scoring in 2016-17 is up a fraction (5.44 goals per game) over last season, but has remained in a diminished and very tight range (5.31-5.46) over the last six seasons.
Goal scoring in today’s NHL is on par with what it was in the early ’60s. For all the game’s added speed, power, and flash, goal scoring today is where it was in the leather-skate and wooden-stick era. One of the game’s greatest entertainment factors has been greatly diminished.
Will the nip and tuck in goalie equipment help change that trend? Probably not.
“We have no expectations with regards to goal scoring,” said Whitmore, “and realize it could actually make the goalies quicker and better.”
He could be right. The use of lightweight, highly protective material in the manufacturing of goalie equipment over the last 30-plus years has helped revolutionize the position. Trimming back pants and various pads may take away a goalie’s bulk blocking ability, but it could allow the goalie to be faster, more agile, potentially negating whatever net gain in goal scoring might have been realized from downsized equipment
Goalies in Davidson’s playing days, for instance, wore heavy leg pads filled with horsehair. Wrapped in leather, they absorbed water, adding weight that made it more difficult to move. In part, the so-called “stand-up” era of goaltending, in which goalies were taught to remain on their feet as much as possible, was because the weight of the pads so severely restricted their movement once they dropped or dived to make a save.
“Today’s equipment doesn’t get wet,” said Davidson, who has undergone four knee replacement surgeries, the lingering effect of 300-plus NHL games in the 1970s and ’80s. “Back when we played, you might be playing four games in five nights in the playoffs — two on the road, day off, two at home — those things just didn’t dry out much.”
Even Rask, when he began playing goal in Finland at age 3-4 at the start of the 1990s, recalled using gear stuffed with old foam padding that absorbed water and added weight.
“Yeah, old school,” he recalled. “Start out at 5 pounds, but they’d end up 15 pounds after a couple hours of playing.”
Rask is among those who don’t believe trimming back the gear will increase goal scoring. Like Whitmore, in fact, he believes the changes could make for better goalie results. The competition here Sunday will be played at three on three, what is now the standard form of overtime play in the NHL.
If the aim is to add goals, said Rask, don’t look to goalie pants, but rather three on three or four on four.
“The players are so good now,” Rask said. “The sticks are light. Everybody can shoot the puck 100 miles an hour. I don’t know . . . trimming down the equipment, I mean, obviously if you trim everything down it is going to give more net to shoot at and that could create more goals. But I think the game as it is now, it is so fast and skilled, that itself is going to keep scoring down. At least that’s what we’ve seen so far.”
Rask’s coach, Claude Julien, is among the many who believe the art of shot blocking and the crowding of shooting lanes has put the greatest chokehold on scoring. That’s not to deny goalies are better, but forwards and defensemen all wear better protective gear today, leaving shooters faced with the task of seemingly having to beat six goalies instead of one.
“I think it’s not going to hurt,” said Julien, considering what impact on scoring might come from new goalie pants. “How much it will help, I don’t know. The game has changed. As much as we either complain or say the way we like the way it used to be . . . the world is changing, why wouldn’t that? There’s a lot of bodies in front of the net now. Back in the day, you didn’t have that many shots blocked. Maybe a defenseman blocked on the rush, but you didn’t have four guys in front of the net trying to block a shot before it gets to the goaltender.”
By Davidson’s eye, today’s goalies are fitter, faster, and better trained than ever, and they are working with gear that is “in the space age” by comparison to the cumbersome and clunky gear he and his fellow puck-stoppers once wore.
For all those reasons, along with the better defensemen and team defenses, he doesn’t think the scoring is going to change much.
“You don’t see a Mike Bossy or a Guy Lafleur coming down the wing,” Davidson said, “and winding up at the top of the circle to take a slap shot to try to beat the goaltender. The defensemen are on you. They are good, fast, great with their sticks. It’s really remarkable.”
In some worlds, including fashion, what’s old can be new again. But it doesn’t look like a new style in goalie pants is going to change the substance of scoring.