Sharks GM Doug Wilson is one of many who feel goalie pads are too tall, but he has the power to get the ball rolling on change. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
The debate around the dimensions of goalie pads has been around for years, if not decades. And San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson isn’t about to allow the contentious issue to fade into the background, because he and others believe the padding has become less about protection and more about stopping pucks from going through a netminder’s five-hole.
“With the length of these pads, somebody has to ask the question why they’re allowed to wear them up to their hips,” Wilson said, without pointing to any specific netminder. “It affects the way the game is played. I want goalies protected, but we’re not compromising protection, we’re compromising the integrity of the game.”
Wilson is frustrated by the league’s stipulations regarding the length goalie pads rise above the knee – specifically, he says the current standards permit goalies to take away virtually all openings to score along the ice when stretching their pads horizontally in a butterfly position – and he intends to put the subject on the agenda at the next NHL GM meetings in March. He’s not the only GM who is concerned by the issue.
“I do think the length of the pad over the knee has basically taken away the five-hole,” said Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, a former goalie in his NHL playing days. “Now it’s more about being able to prevent goals than it is about protection. But you have enough protection up there in the upper thigh with your pants. It’s something we continue to work on on a yearly basis and it’s something we need to continue to look at.”
Kay Whitmore, NHL goaltending supervisor and a former NHL goalie himself, agrees with both Wilson and Rutherford that many current netminders are playing with goalie pads that exceed the aim of protecting them and instead are used for a tactical advantage. But Whitmore correctly points out the league needs buy-in from the NHL Players’ Associaton to effect the appropriate amount of change. And that buy-in has been easier said than done.
“Most people would agree that the rise in padding above the knee is still excessive, but the thing people forget this is a joint venture between the league and the NHL Players Association and when the word safety comes up, whether it’s a really legitimate reason or not, you have to be concerned,” Whitmore said. “Doug’s contention is that the padding above the knee is a little excessive and, playing in my era, I would agree it has changed over the years and affected the style of play. We’re as concerned about the safety of these players as the Players Association. But I think when you look at goalie pads rising above the knee, it’s not for protection. It’s for stopping pucks.”
The league’s current regulations – based on a measurement for each individual goalie – allows goalie pads to rise up as high as 55 percent of the distance between the knee and the pelvis. That’s an improvement on the deregulated system that Whitmore and the NHL hockey-ops people, in conjunction with the NHLPA, helped to end by implementing a proportionality-based standard. Nevertheless, Whitmore says that has resulted in some goalies currently wearing pads that extend as much as 10 inches above the knee; he estimates that, with advances in knee protection technology, establishing a limit of between 40 and 45 percent would see pads limited from 7-to-8 inches above the knee – and the five-hole would begin to re-emerge for shooters to aim at.
“I think somewhere in the 7-8 inches above the knee range makes sense to look at and do the due diligence on in terms of testing with the input of players,” Whitmore said. “Don’t get me wrong, I understand when the shots are harder and you’re out there practicing a lot harder with goalie coaches now you’re getting more repetitions. You’re butterflying more, so the knee area can be vulnerable.
“But instead of worring about the knee-to-hip measurement, maybe you can give a goalie a longer pair of pants. Anyone who’s had goalie pads knows the most important measurement is from the knee to the floor or the knee to the top of the toes. And there are a lot of NHL goalies out there who are playing and not getting hurt with goalie pads that don’t rise as high as 55 percent.”
Indeed, goalies such as Philadelphia’s Ilya Bryzgalov, Florida’s Jose Theodore and Tampa Bay’s Mathieu Garon all play with comparatively smaller pads than do many of their peers and none have suffered catastrophic knee damage as a result. However, the NHLPA has traditionally stifled attempts to further rein in the padding. In 2004, the union filed an unfair labor practices grievance against the NHL for attempting to shrink the width of pads from 12 to 10 inches without players’ consent. And when Whitmore, in his first presentation working for the league on the issue, proposed goalie pads rise no higher than eight inches above the knee, the idea was rejected by the NHL’s Competition Committee.
The road to making changes in this new NHL collective bargaining agreement isn’t yet completely clear, but what is certain is members of the union will have to speak out in favor of shorter pads if the league is to see any change.
“There’s 700 players out there who might want to score through the legs,” Whitmore said. “If and when Doug puts this on the agenda it’ll become a discussion point and they’ll ask me what I think. If it’s something they want to pursue, hockey ops will do the legwork and we’ll need the players to work with us from there. It’s a slow and arduous process and it’s a delicate balance.”
For Wilson, it’s about correcting the current imbalance.
“The length of these pads basically go from post to post,” Wilson said. “Now (goalies) don’t have to put their stick down. They keep their upper body up and their arms tucked in, and all it does is take away more puck-stopping area. There’s no skill to it and it’s not right.”
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.