The grumbling was immediate. The latest volley in a storied battle between goalies in search of any competitive edge and a league mindful of the fan-appeal of scoring came prior to the 2018-19 season, when the NHL moved to restrict the size of chest, shoulder and arm protection in goalie gear.
Goalies feared more than bruised feelings.
“You get stingers and bruises and stuff like that,” Vegas Golden Knights netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, who has taken to wearing an extra undershirt, told The Washington Post.
“You start to be afraid of pucks, actually, especially in the practices,” Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky told The Columbus Dispatch.
In hockey’s early days, goalies wore leather pads modeled after those worn in cricket, filled with furniture stuffing. In 1925, in one of the earliest efforts acknowledging the appeal of goal scoring, the width of goalies’ leg pads was limited to 12 inches.
Masks weren’t common until the 1960s, after the Canadiens’ Jacques Plante caught a puck in the face in the ’59-60 season and started using a fiberglass mask he designed himself.
By the ’90s, that 1925 regulation was long forgotten. Goalies were wearing huge chest protectors and shoulder pads; sweaters so big they were loose even over that outsized padding; and five-hole sealing leg pads that were wider than a foot and nearly cup-high.
By 2003-04, per-team scoring had dropped to 2.57 goals per game in the NHL, the lowest since 1955-56. Also a far cry from 1980-81 through ‘89-90, when NHL goals per game never dipped below 3.67 per team.
In 2005, the crackdown on NHL goalie gear began. For the 2005-06 season, overall NHL goalie equipment size was decreased by 11 percent. Per-team scoring immediately jumped to 3.08 goals per game. Over the next several seasons, rules enacted included:
The NHL has even forced change during a season, as when it ordered goalies to wear uniformly slimmer pants starting in February 2018.
The current crop of equipment adjustments dictates that chest and arm protection must be anatomically proportional. All arm and shoulder pads were reduced in height by approximately an inch.
Which is to say, it suddenly became a lot easier to tell a 180-pound goalie from a 250-pounder. That, according to the NHL’s vice president of hockey operations, was the idea.
“Three or four years ago, talking to some of the best goalies in hockey … they wanted us to try to find a way to make goalies look closer to the size they were,” Kay Whitmore told the Canadian Press.
Whitmore, a goalie with four NHL teams, said the tweaks didn’t compromise player safety, noting, “There’s no expectation that a goalie should have to do his job getting bruised daily.”
Some goalies have welcomed the change, noting talent will rise to the top when oversized gear isn’t acting as an equalizer.
“It’s about being square,” Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen told Sports Illustrated. “If I’m relying on that extra inch, I’m in trouble already.”
Added fellow Leafs goalie Garret Sparks, “It just pushes me to be better. I’m open to the challenge as long as everybody’s covered.”
Scoring is trending up again. As of March 11, NHL goals per game, per team, were at 3.03, topping the three-goal barrier for the first time since the 2005-06 goalie gear crackdown.