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The latest positive development in the NHL’s ongoing goalie gear overhaul came when Kay Whitmore walked into the boardroom of an equipment manufacturer and noticed two mannequins outfitted from head to plastic toe. One represented an initial prototype of potential changes, which several netminders viewed in January at the All-Star Game in Nashville and came away unimpressed. The second mannequin was the one that made Whitmore, a senior manager of hockey equipment who handles goaltending gear for the league, think to himself, “Wow. That’s what we’re looking for.”
What differed exactly between models? Well, that’s hard to describe, which has always been the core obstacle facing those who are plotting reform. Unlike three years ago, when the NHL reduced the percentage of allowable leg pad height between the knee and the pelvis from 55% to 45% in an effort to goose scoring, there are no calculable numbers floating around here. The targeted areas include pant size, jersey size, chest protectors, elbow pads and shoulder caps. The buzzwords are harder-to-label concepts like contouring and streamlining, which produce plenty of, You’ll just know it when you see it.
“We’re trying to clearly define what we want,” says Devils goaltender Cory Schneider, who serves on the competition committee. “More like this, less like that.”
But they are drawing closer to final results. Whitmore presented proposals to NHL general managers at their March meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. He and players union representatives have made the rounds together at factories for Bauer, CCM-Reebok, Vaughn and Brian’s, viewing prototypes in person. Official rules still need to be written and approved by the competition committee, but Whitmore is hopeful that goaltenders can have measurements taken and receive new gear for summer training by the end of June. “If we can get it to them for skating in July, that’s my goal anyway,” he says. “I think that’s what we’ve talked about in the past.”
That the two sides have talked this much, Whitmore adds, also represents a significant shift as these new rules come together. Schneider, Washington’s Braden Holtby, Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk and Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop provided their input on new gear in Nashville. Philadelphia’s Steve Mason and Arizona’s Mike Smith have also been sounding boards, and Vancouver’s Ryan Miller, a previous member of the competition committee, has been occasionally consulted. The NHLPA recently hired Rob Zepp, who made nine starts for the Flyers last season and provides an up-to-date voice in meetings.
In other words, there’s peace in progress. Instead of the NHL badgering the players about changes, for instance, it was the NHLPA that brought goaltending equipment to the agenda at last June’s competition committee meeting.
“You include them, have them become part of the process, but I think this is the most they’ve ever been part of it,” Whitmore says. “More of them have been engaged in it. It’s good to get feedback and I think they’re more honest than ever.
"In the past many some token guys were involved, but not as much as they are now," he continues. "The goalies we’ve met in Nashville, it wasn’t just a, ‘Hey, how are you, see you later.’ It was a great conversation of over an hour, talk about what you think. It’s that’s the difference. The engagement and cooperation is the reason to be optimistic.”
Almost two decades ago in Ontario, Steve Mason received his first full set of brand new goalie gear. For a time, the set his youth league provided didn’t have a right-handed glove, which Mason uses, so he wore a glove on his left hand and a blocker on his right. Gifted with proper equipment from his parents, young Steve, who was then about eight years old, rushed to dress, hurried into the basement and dropped into a butterfly position because he was so excited. “I still enjoy getting new stuff,” he says. “It’s more of my hobby than anything, seeing what’s out there, seeing now if I can help along the way to make sure we’re getting the best deal possible for us regardless of how this plays out.”
At the heart of the efforts by Mason and his colleagues, really, is insecurity. League-wide scoring continues to drop and those masked men in the crease, strapped into baggy pants, occasionally even blocking shots with the flaps on their oversized jerseys, continue to inspire scrutiny. “Guys hear the drums beating,” Schneider says. “Change is coming, one way or another. Guys are recognizing that they’d rather be part of the solution or discussion. Guys, they become nervous, because they’re not sure what’s happening. By hopefully getting more guys involved they can understand the process."
As he currently challenges Martin Brodeur’s single-season wins record of 48, Braden Holtby has’t communicated much with the NHL since Nashville, where he spent an afternoon inside a conference room at the players’ hotel, looking at prototypes. But he senses growing support among brethren too. “The more the merrier,” he says. “A lot of us goalies think a lot alike in terms of the way the game’s played. We might have different opinions on equipment, but we’re the only ones who see the game the same way. I felt like Cory was doing a little too much based on what the reps had told me, so I just want to help him out a little bit.”
The more Whitmore, known around the NHL as its goalie cop, explained the mission to those on his beat, the more an understanding was reached. While even NHLPA executive Mathieu Schneider admits, “I’m not sure they’re going to increase goal-scoring,” citing steady drops despite the leg-pad reductions of 2013, these efforts are as much about establishing new baseline rules than waving the pitchforks at Michelin Men. (Or, like Dubnyk says, “It’s a little bit frustrating for the goalies, because at some point it’s like, when’s it going to stop?”)
“That’s why we’re doing this thing, to really reel this whole thing in and get it caught up,” Whitmore says. “Sometimes you need a chance to refresh and get everything back in order, but I think there is a perception that way, there’s always this mystery … that the other goalie looks bigger than me. Everyone thinks the other team’s goalies look bigger than theirs. Even if you don’t know, you think there’s a perception that something’s wrong with this guy. The more measurements, the more restrictions in the rule book, the more we dial all these things in, maybe it helps curb this. But maybe it’ll always be there. You never stop questioning things.”
Adding to the reassurance felt by goaltenders was the promise of increased enforcement. Whitmore says the NHL has even discussed 3-D body scanners that would both send specs to equipment companies and digitize measurements for internal record, but “that’s obviously way down the road.” For now, Whitmore says he plans to increase the number of spot checks, handing out suspensions and fines for rules violators, and wants to crack down on more unseen equipment tweaks, like loosening the toe straps on leg pads for greater 5-hole protection or connecting the shoulder pads in a way that allow them to ride up on high shots.
“Right now there’s no real fear of punishment,” Schneider says. “If you are doing something, I don't think there’s any fear of repercussion. That’s not on Kay. He’s doing everything he can. But I think the league needs to step up and provide some more help and resources throughout the whole process.”
So everyone is on board. Hip-hip-hooray. What next?
“The idea is to rewrite the rules with more teeth, more pieces, more numbers, and even an addendum section that says just because it doesn’t say you can do this, you can do this,” Whitmore says. “I know it’s thick already, but let’s have it a little more defined, so it should make the policing easier, because if you are doing something, it should be a lot more obvious and less gray. Hockey seems to have a way of creating a lot of gray in a lot of areas. It’s never going to be black and white, but let’s look at these things people complain about.”
According to Whitmore, initial talks about reducing the size of the “cheater” portion on the glove, which covers the wrist, slowed after realizing it required more testing to ensure safety. Reducing that, he said, is not reasonable for next year.
But everything else seems moving forward. The promise of greater policing assuaged fears among GMs in Florida, leading Whitmore to confidently say, “I think you’ll see a redesigned pant and upper body” next season. The onus now falls onto equipment companies to produce final models and standardize sizes—another tricky issue that will involve measuring goalies like suit tailors—but even if they’re slower to find something that works, Schneider says that implementing new gear “wouldn’t be off the table for midseason … if everyone’s doing it and it’s a fairness issue, I think guys are generally okay with it.”
And isn’t having everyone on board the most important thing?
“I know there’s a lot of naysayers saying, What’s different this time?” Whitmore says. “Well, that’s what’s different this time. You’ve got guys cooperation and they want to get this done as well. They believe in it.”
Whether it produces the desired effect and goal lights come on more frequently around the league next season is, of course, the big question. You can be reasonably certain that goalies will be doing everything they can to make sure the answer is no. They may be all for getting the gear question right, but not at the expense of their ability to do their jobs well. And so they're likely to revisit this issue again, as they have been doing for the past 20 years. But at least for now there's some harmony at work.