Crashing the Crease: Tools of the Trade

Image courtesy of Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

This week’s installment of Crashing the Crease is about the gear we use as goalies that seems to entitle the public to the criticism and bad goals that everyone loves (the title wasn’t self-referencing, despite what my teammates may say).

For those who haven’t put on the pads before or have done so incorrectly, this should serve as a primer on what it is we wear and hopefully provide some insight should you decide to don the gear. I’ll address some of the manufacturers and tweaks guys have made to their gear in a later post. Because goalies are creatures of habit, I’m going to walk through gear basics in the same order I get dressed for a game.

The First Layer — Basic Clothing

Almost all goalies use some slightly different clothing setup underneath all of their gear. I won’t spend too much time here, as it’s really a matter of personal preference. I know guys that wear sweat pants and a tank top or hockey socks and no shirt. Some people like kevlar hockey socks to make sure they can’t get cut by a skate when an attacking forward crashes the crease (see what I did there?). I like Under Amour Heat Gear pants and long-sleeved shirt, personally, as it keeps me feeling cool and somewhat even, temperature-wise.

The Second Layer — Extra Protection

This is the gear that I personally hate to wear, but have come to learn I have to put on. We’re talking about additional padding to protect knees, groinular areas and clavicles / necks.

Jocks and Jills

Starting with the most important component in this area, I hope I’m safely correct in saying that all goalies wear a jock or a jill, depending on personal preference, to protect their naughty bits. After some close calls, I’ve really come to prefer the protection and peace of mind that a double cup offers.

Most of these are pretty standard in design, with some additional padding in the pelvic. I’d include a pic of mine, but there are nicer things to look at in life. Here’s a link to a top-of-the-line Vaughn unit. The concept and function are simple: absorb impact and dissipate energy. If the jock / jill doesn’t work, you can imagine what the consequences are.

Thigh and Knee

The next component, the knee / thigh guards, are more widely ranging in design. You’ve got pieces that range from a pretty simple thigh guard…

Image courtesy of Reebok

…to a hard shell knee guards with thick lower thigh protection.

Image courtesy of Reebok

Why choose one over the other? I could say personal preference, but there’s actually a strong influence from the leg pads worn by the keeper, primarily from the knee cradle, an area I’ll discuss shortly.

If the goaltender’s pants aren’t large enough, movement can also feel pretty inhibited. I used to wear Vaughn Velocity 2 leg pads which were pretty tight in the knee and had smaller landing gear (again, will discuss shortly). My pants at the time were 18-year-old Vaughn goalie pants, which were basically player pants with extra padding. Due to this configuration, I was using a pretty minimal knee guard, as nothing else would fit. After switching to some newer gear last November, I made the jump to the hard shell knee guard shown above (held up with a hockey garter belt, of course).

Neck and Clavicle

This is the third major component of the second layer, and I’m also starting to feel like I’m describing a Taco Bell meal. I don’t see as many guys wearing this because the clavicle is often covered by the chest protector and the neck is covered by the mask, but some prefer to use a unit like the one pictured below:

Image courtesy of Reebok

Goalies should be taught to not turn their heads away from the puck if it’s going to hit the mask, as I’ll detail later, but even the best can get caught off guard sometimes. The neck is easily and dangerously exposed in this case. Equipment such as the neck guard above or the more protective neck and clavicle shirt below provide additional coverage should a shot sneak through:

Image courtesy of GoalieMonkey

The nice part about the neck guard is that it provides some level of cut protection, as well. While the likelihood is low, no one wants to see another Malarchuk incident happen (warning: the video is graphic and not linked here).

The Third Layer — Outer Gear

Pants

I’ve never put much into pants. I basically want a pair that will protect well, let me move quickly and provide good blocking area. I know some guys put a lot of effort into finding the perfect pair, though, so I’ll just have to admit my knowledge here is lacking.

Image courtesy of Bauer

Inside a typical pair of goalie pants, you’ll find some pretty obvious padding differences from player pants. The biggest one I’ve noticed is that the thighs and pelvic region are beefed up, as are the inner thighs. Outside of that, I’d say they’re like snow pants in comparison to regular pants: the same thing, but just bigger, a little more cumbersome and better padded.

Skates

Perhaps the most critical part of the goalie gear pile is the skate. The other gear is important, but a bad pair of skates can stop a netminder before he even starts.

Image courtesy of Bauer

The goalie skate starts with a low-cut player’s boot, in essence. Since goalies typically need more ankle flexibility to get into a deep crouch, a high boot is not preferred. Of course, there’s Martin Biron, who puts a roll of tape around each ankle before games. He says he did it because he saw Felix Potvin do so, but it also does seem to mimic a player’s boot while holding his well-aged skate boot together.

Biron’s ankle tape

The white part on the Bauer skate is called the cowling, and this is what prevents your slapshot from breaking my foot. Although the kick save has dropped nearly off the face of the earth, there are still times when the inside of the boot or the toe of the skate take a shot directly, and it’s at that exact time that the clown shoe appearance of my skate becomes completely irrelevant.

A lot of people operate under the misconception that goalies should basically play on a flat, dull skate blade so they can shuffle well. This couldn’t be more wrong. For those who aren’t entirely familiar with skate sharpening, here’s a quick rundown.

The more traditional skate sharpening has two main components: hollow and radius (this is for all skates). To understand hollow, imagine the bottom of your skate blade as it typically comes out of the box: completely flat.

Image courtesy of www.SkateNY.com

Take a circle of a certain radius and put it “into” the steel, as shown above. Looking below, you can see this is done with the grinding wheel to a depth typically dependent on the hollow, although I’ve had bad sharpenings where this didn’t exactly happen.

This gives the bottom of your skate a “hollowed” out portion with an arc shape that allows you to dig into the ice. The smaller the hollow, the sharper the skate is and the more it bites into the ice. I actually prefer a 3/8″ hollow, which is relatively sharp, as it allows me to move more explosively. If the edge is biting a bit too much, I’ll run my skate over the dasher board by the bench a couple of times to take a little edge off.

One thing to watch out for is the guy at the pro shop who insists goalies should be using a 1″ or greater hollow. I haven’t seen this in a while, but it does still happen. As a goalie gets more used to the position, he or she will figure out what works best, but you should not default to what amounts to unsharpened skates if you’re a reasonably skilled skater.

The next part of the skate sharpening is the radius (or profile or grind). This is not the same as the hollow, although the hollow is measured as a radius (confusing, I know). The easiest way to discern the two is a skate hollow radius will typically be measured in inches, while a skate rocker radius will be measured in feet.

Image courtesy of www.noicingsports.com

If you took a blade looking at it from the side and placed it in large circle, the radius is the size of said circle that touches the edges of the blade. Goalie skates typically have a larger radius, which you’ll see at the toe and heel of the blade, but are profiled to be flat in the middle to give some additional stability.

There are an incredible number of tweaks that can be made based on personal preference regarding profile, hollow and all that. In addition, different sharpening techniques, such as the Flat Bottom V, add a completely new wrinkle to the discussion.

Image courtesy of www.blackstonesport.com

The long and short of it, however, is that goalie skates need to offer good support and mobility while being light and protecting from broken bones. Goalies also do not need to have incredibly dull skates, but how sharp is a function of style, preference, weight and leg strength.

Leg Pads

This section could be thousands of words long. The development in this area has been somewhat incredible in the past 10-15 years. In order to keep it quick and effective, though, I’m going to focus on the key components as I see it and skip over sizing for now, as the gear manufacturers have good guides for that.

Key Components

  • Boot / leg channel
  • Knee cradle
  • Thigh rise
  • Material of construction / stuffing

Vaughn Velocity 5 – Image courtesy of Vaughn

The boot and leg channel is simple to understand. It’s just where the leg rests in the pad, as shown above as the grey area in the above picture of the Velocity 5. Fifteen years ago, a lot of guys would be looking for a tighter leg channel that really wrapped the pad around the leg tightly. As the Pete Smith-developed Velocity 1 pad took hold of the market around the end of the millennium, though, goalies started to re-evaluate what they wanted.

In particular, the leg channel started to open up more. As shown in the picture above, the newest pads on the market will typically have more space here. The black calf wraps are offset from the grey leg channel by a few inches. Compared with the original Velocities seen below, you can easily see the difference:

Image courtesy of Netminder32

Why? It’s simple, in my opinion. An open boot and leg channel allows the goalie to drive the pads to ice slightly quicker and with more authority, as the leg can get closer to the ice and provide more stability. I remember that, in my original Velocities, I often felt like I was falling out of the pad if I went down into a butterfly even slightly awkwardly. In my new Reebok X-Pulses, which are very open, I feel much more capable of quickly driving to the ice and sealing off down low, which is crucial in tight.

The knee cradle / landing gear is also visible in the above pics, but I’ve included pictures of an older set of Vaughn Velocities I owned to illustrate more closely. In the picture below, you can see an inside picture of the landing gear, as it’s often called:

In older pads, this landing gear was made of smaller, thinner pieces of foam stacked three-tall.

When coupled with a larger knee guard, however, there was a strong propensity to slide off. My new pads are different, though, as the drive here has been towards increasing the area to place the knee on and to stabilize it further by using a single layer of thicker foam. You can see this on the newer Velocities, again using the same picture from above of the Velocity 5:

Image courtesy of Vaughn

This is why, when I talked about knee protection earlier, I said it was largely influenced by the knee cradle design. If it’s smaller and more restrictive like in an old Velocity, you’re going to always feel uncomfortable in a larger knee guard. In a newer pad, however, the space is more open, meaning bigger knee guards will fit more comfortably.

Now onto thigh rise. Again, if you go back to 1995, most goalies had pads like Martin Brodeur. They didn’t have much pad extending above the knee, as the butterfly save was not as widely and frequently employed in the way we see it today. Take a look at Brodeur in the 90s…

…in contrast with a more current-day Bryz.

Look at the area from the knee to the top of the pad and the overall size of the pad. The difference is noticeable, and Bryz doesn’t wear excessively large pads like I’d say a Lundqvist does. A lot of goalies have gotten more and more comfortable with using more thigh rise to provide additional blocking area. Peter Skudra took this to a new level a few years back, but the basic idea stuck around as the thigh rise area (more technically illustrated as measurement B below) has grown.

Image courtesy of Goalie King

The final focal point for leg pads, and one that has had an absolutely massive impact on the way modern pads play, is the internal materials of construction.

Looking back at older pads and even the initial incarnations of the modern “box” pad, they used to be stuffed with with loose-fill material like foam chunks, or deer hair if you’ve been playing longer than I’ve been alive. Some sheets of foam were inserted for structural stability, but relatively recent developments (the last five years) in injection-molded foams have really taken gear to a new level. Now pads are larger and lighter than they were even ten years ago, while retaining their shape and performance characteristics for a much longer time. They no longer settle or shrink, which was a major complaint I had with my old Velocities.

Chest and Arm Protector

While the basic concept behind the C/A / chestie / chest protector has remained the same, they’ve also gotten more protective while retaining mobility. This unit is typically made of four pieces: the chest, the two arms and the back plate. Various straps and ties hold the whole thing together to provide shot protection for even the heaviest of bombs in the slot.

Image courtesy of Reebok

Contrasted with the C/A I had as a kid and my goalie predecessors had back in the 70s and 80s, it’s like night and day.

Image courtesy of www.netminding.com

Goalies are more and more comfortable with using their bodies to block pucks, whereas they used to have to catch them before to prevent bruising. The padding has gotten continually better.

Image courtesy of Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

As for selection, it’s really another fit and feel discussion. The best way to pick is to go try the gear on, but you sometimes have to hope for a good fit on a blind purchase. My current C/A, a Reebok Pro Spec, is very large but has broken in to be very mobile, as well. I couldn’t be much happier with it despite my looking like the old Michelin Man.

Glove

The glove is pretty straightforward. It’s also an incredibly personal piece of equipment for a lot of goalies. Some will spend years trying to find the right one, while others have taken to making their own. I know I’m hanging on to a dying Vortek (the company no longer exists) because it’s the only glove I know that feels like a baseball glove. The main areas I concern myself with on the glove are the cuff (the flat part with the blue coloring) and the pocket (where the puck’s supposed to go).

Image courtesy of Reebok

Gloves typically have a single or double break, as well as a specific thumb angle. A single break has one “crease” going across the palm…

Image courtesy of GoalieMonkey

…while a double break will have two.

Image courtesy of www.goaliestore.com

I prefer the feel of a double break, as it allows me to feel like I have a more natural catching closure motion. Of course, I make so few glove saves that it’s pretty irrelevant.

The thumb angles I’m used to seeing are 60° and 90° relative to the pinky. The larger angle  creates a different pocket for the glove, with a closure that brings the fingers more back to the thumb. The smaller angled gloves create a pinching feel between the thumb and fingers that more closely mimics a baseball glove. This one is purely personal preference and takes some time to figure out.

Blocker

Some guys will flat out tell you they don’t care about the blocker, in that whatever you give them will work. I’ve found over the years that this is not exactly true for me. The major variants I’ve found in the blocker are the board (flat or curved) and the glove positioning. Some blockers have the glove very far back up the board, making it a little more difficult for me to go paddle down (others will disagree, I’m sure).

Dwayne Roloson paddle down – Image courtesy of Ingoalmag

I prefer it to be a little closer to the front edge to get a good seal with the ice when I do paddle down, while still getting good balance when I’m in my stance. Although not nearly as much as the catcher, there is usually a feel aspect to the blocker that the keeper needs to work out through experience.

Mask

This one… this is another can of worms.

Pro’s Choice Mask – Image courtesy of www.goaliestore.com

There are numerous manufacturers of masks out there, large and small. A great deal of vitriol can be stirred up just by starting this discussion. Such discussions are legitimately referred to as mask wars in online goalie communities (yeah, we have those).

The key to a solid mask starts in the fit. While an off-the-shelf mask may fit comfortably, a custom mask should be made to minimize the transfer of impact energy to the skull. A lof of this comes down to understanding where the mask should rest on the skull and how to minimize bad contact / transfer points. Also, that’s one of the big keys to the mask design: a mask is not meant to absorb energy as much as it is to deflect it.

Flat, broad surfaces facing the puck are typically bad. Turning your head on a shot is also bad, as you expose the flat sides of the mask to a significant, blunt force (see Mike Richter’s skull injury for evidence). Combos (helmet / cage combos) are particularly bad at this, as players helmets were not designed to deflect puck impacts.

Image courtesy of www.elitegoaltending.com

Of course, a well-fitted mask where the user doesn’t turn is only part of the discussion. Here, material of construction again rears its head. This is usually where those mask wars start up, though, as proponents of different makers will argue about how many layers of fiberglass or Kevlar a mask has, how well those layers are laid and all that good stuff. I’m not an expert here and I refuse to claim to be one, as it’s more trouble for me than it’d ever be worth. Suffice to say, experience has shown me you will pay more for a mask with better materials and fit.

As with other gear pieces, there are parts that can be selected based on user preference. A big one for adult goalies is the use of a cat eye cage, seen below:

Image courtesy of Yong Kim / Philly.com

This cage offers better sight lines, but it also exposes the goalie to a higher probability of objects getting through the cage, including pucks.

Brian Boucher’s getting up close and personal with a puck.

Most youth and junior organizations, if not all, in North America do not allow goalies to wear this cage, though, for the aforementioned safety reasons. Instead, they require a certified cage. Some will say that a properly designed certified cage, which has smaller openings, offers little if any disadvantage relative to a cat eye, but I disagree based on my experience. John Vanbiesbrouck used a certified cage with great success, though, so maybe it’s more to do with the goalie’s skill set.

Beezer in the certified cage

The other major accessory on the mask is a dangler / throat shield. In place of or in addition to the previously discussed neck guards, a lot of guys will use a Lexan dangler. The nice part about the dangler is that it handles tipped and redirected pucks well, providing better protection for the unexpected shots. It can be clunky, though, and it takes getting used to, especially when looking down.

Image courtesy of Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

Sticks

Sticks can be highly customized around many aspects, including the lie, paddle height and curve, to name a few.

Image courtesy of Reebok

Stick lie refers to the angle between the paddle and the blade. Most goalie sticks will have an angle of 123° to 115° between the two, correlating to a lie of 11 to 15. Which lie to choose depends on the stance of the goalie, including how far out the blocker arm is held and how he likes to move his stick while tracking shots.

Paddle height is simpler. It’s just a measurement of how tall the paddle is, in short. Taller goalies will typically want a larger paddle height (closer to 27″), but if they have a lower stance, they may choose to go with a shorter value (26″ or even 25″). 25-to-27 inches are the standard values for off-the-shelf sticks, but as with all hockey gear, this can be customized.

The curve easily enough refers to where the curve is on the stick. The two most common categorizations are mid and heel, with some sticks having a slight toe (near the end of the blade) curve. See the Reebok chart below, courtesy of GoalieMonkey, for some visuals.

Image courtesy of Reebok and GoalieMonkey

And with that… I think I’ve covered the basics of goalie gear. There’s always the chance that I didn’t cover something well enough, as I see it almost every day. If you have any questions, clarifications or comments after reading this, feel free to comment away and hopefully I’ll fill in those gaps!

Thanks once again for Crashing the Crease.