Let's try a little experiment. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Okay, now pull your knees in together, without moving your feet. Now, drop to the ground, knees first. How does that feel? Not too bad? Well, then, get up and repeat the operation about fifty times in a row. If you can pull that off successfully for days and years on end, and you have no fear of being hit by flying rubber or bowled over by large men, you might have what it takes to be a butterfly goaltender.
The butterfly position, originally used by luminaries like Glenn Hall and Tony Esposito, became the de facto style for the vast majority of goalies after rookie Patrick Roy burst onto the NHL scene in 1986, winning the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophies with his twitchy, on-his-knees way of getting the job done. A generation of Quebec-born goalies who idolized the young Roy copied him, and coaches, who saw the advantages of covering low shots with the spread pads, leaving the upper body free to protect the high part of the net, encouraged them.
Now, nearly thirty years after the explosion of kids taking on the butterfly, the first wave of them is retiring from hockey. J.S.Giguere, who hero-worshipped Roy as a young goalie, and later grew up to train with Roy's coach, Francois Allaire, decided to pack it in this year. In the 20 years since he was drafted in the NHL's first round by Hartford, he's seen his name etched on the 2003 Conn Smythe as one of only five winners whose team lost out in the Stanley Cup Finals. He made up for that by leading his Ducks to the 2007 championship. He's played a lot of hockey and now, he says, his joints are paying for it.
"It's not great," he admits. "I already had a hip surgery about ten years ago on my right side. From meeting with the doctors at the end of the year last year, it looks like I might need a hip replacement in the next five or six years. We'll see. I can still function day to day, but running is out of the question and any big physical activity is tough."
Giguere is 37 years old. He says even though his joints hurt all the time, he found the pain of playing goal bearable with therapy. Ironically, it was the constant therapy itself that he feels started to take the fun out of the game for him.
"It gets to be redundant, coming into the rink every day and having to do so many exercises," he explains. "Being on the medical table every day for 25 minutes and working with the trainer, that became very hard. I didn't even play that much in the last couple of years and I still had to do that, so imagine if I played more games. It's very typical of goaltenders in our day. You can't just come to the rink and go on the ice. You have to maintain your body, you have to work a lot with the therapists, the massage therapists, the conditioning guys on your stretching and your recovery, making sure your core, your glutes and your groin are strong to minimize the effect the position has on your body."
If it's tough to be the guy on the table, the person treating a goalie has his work cut out for him as well. That's where Dave Green comes in. He's with Cove Sport Therapy in Halifax and he frequently assists his friend, Habs trainer Nick Addey-Jibb, with the Canadiens in Montreal. At this year's training camp, he spent many hours with the goaltenders, particularly Carey Price. He sees first-hand the effects the butterfly is taking on the player.
"I just think about Price in the first week of the season. You go on the road, you play, you're in the plane or on the bus and you don't get the proper treatments on the road like you do at home. Maybe by the fourth game, he was worn out. No doubt his knees were stressed," he says. "At 27 years old, he's still really young, but he's not bouncing back like he used to. I remember Price as a rookie at his first camp. It just seems like yesterday, but you put ten years on that body, 50 or 60 games a year, and all of a sudden, he's in the clinic all the time now. Whereas, when he was 22, 23, 24, I did almost no work on Price in his first three or four camps. This time, I spent an hour a day with him. In my experience, I can see he needs more work than he did in the past."
The strain on a goalie's body is different from the physical toll the game takes on skaters. As Green says, there are five guys trying to score and only one trying to keep the puck out of the net. Goaltenders are playing an entirely different game, physically and mentally.
"When you go knee-knock, it's called a valgus stance in therapy, so you're putting an extreme pressure on your medial collateral ligaments, when they're in a stretch position," Green explains. "You and I, if we were to fall to our knees, your heels will hit your bum. That's natural. Basically, everything from your belly button to your knees is in a wonky position when you're in the butterfly."
When you look up "valgus," which is the technical term for people whose knees touch, you'll often find it followed by the word "deformity." That's because the butterfly position isn't natural for humans. The repetition of the position, Green says, is what really causes the long-term joint damage butterfly goalies often sustain.
"When you drop, you have 200 pounds of your body falling onto your knees and ankles, and sometimes the pads don't save you from your ankle hitting. And there's also pressure from the ice when you hit. Goaltenders go down in a butterfly more than thirty times a game with a lot of shots. It's the overuse, the continuous impact. Every time a goaltender goes in the butterfly, he's putting a little strain on those ligaments because the position isn't natural."
Add to that the extra stress of having large men moving at high speed fall on a goalie in that vulnerable, stretched-out position, and it's easy to see why knee injuries like those Price has sustained in the last two playoffs happen.
"Let's compare to baseball," Green says. "A pitcher throws 70 or 80 pitches a day in a rotation, then they rest for four days. They have little micro tears in their muscles from the repetitive motion of pitching. When a goalie is going down in that repetitive motion, then someone lands on him, it can cause contusions, bleeding internally, inflammation, anything with impact."
That's why, he believes, goalie careers aren't lasting as long as they used to and younger players who play more games, practice more and attend more hockey camps at a younger age are feeling the pain earlier.
"I think the curve is starting to change. How many goaltenders in the last decade have been good for five or six years, then all of a sudden they're not that good anymore?" he asks. "It may be they're just not as agile in that position because their knees have taken such a beating and their ligaments are stretched and strained.
They're probably doing more maintenance before and after games. That's what I've noticed in the last few years. You can keep them in the game a little longer with that...extend their careers. Zach Fucale, who I work with here with the Mooseheads is a 19-year-old kid, but his hips and his knees look like they're beginning to wear down already. He needs more therapy than he did as a 16-year-old here in Halifax."
Green thinks if teams invest long-term in a franchise goaltender like Carey Price, they're going to have to change the way they view the position. Goaltenders, he believes, need more rest than they get now, and dividing ice-time more evenly between two or more goalies would help prolong the career of that star netminder.
J.S.Giguere agrees more rest would help a goalie last longer, but when asked whether NHL teams are ready to go back to a platoon system, he laughs.
"Good luck! It sounds good in theory. I think, at the end of the day, winning a game has become so important that everything else, they forget about. They might say they'll rest the number-one guy, but as soon as a must-win game comes up...and we see those in November now...the coaches forget about all that stuff. There's so much money involved. I can't say they don't care, but they're not going to think that far ahead. I can't see it happening. I think you're lucky if you have a team where your number-two goalie can play 25-30 games at the right time, and you're not afraid to play him in difficult games. That's a luxury."
So, goaltenders continue to absorb the pain of their joints rebelling against repetitive, unnatural movement. Giguere says most butterfly goalies of his generation...including his idol, Roy...are paying the price after years of abuse.
"I know Patrick had tough hips when he played. That was one of the reasons why he did retire. A lot of the guys are tight and feel it in their groins and hips. It's pretty common. It's something we just learn to deal with.
You get up in the morning and you're stiff walking around, but you get used to it. If my pain would stay like this until I die I could cope with it, but you don't know what the future will bring."
Giguere is pretty sure his future will bring a hip replacement surgery before his 45th birthday. Many of his colleagues will experience the same kind of premature aging of the joints too. For today's players, therapy and building up muscles that balance out the strain on ligaments will help them prolong their careers. It means they have to invest long, boring hours in the training room as part of their daily routines. Even so, that help can only go so far. Teams banking on a Cup window with a star goalie in net have to realize the player's longevity is compromised by the job's requirement to twist his joints into unnatural shapes and pound them into a solid surface repeatedly.
It seems a lot to ask of a player, especially one already dealing with the technical requirements of playing a difficult position and the mental strain of the spotlight in which goalies live. That they continue to do so, despite the pain and long-term damage to their bodies is a testament to the competitiveness of pro goaltenders.
As they say in hockey, goalies are different.