Jimmy Howard laughed.
A year since hanging up his pads after tending goal for 14 seasons in the NHL, Howard was tickled by the differences in goalie equipment over that time.
“Everything about equipment has changed,” he said.
Few positions in professional sports have experienced more drastic equipment changes in recent decades than hockey goaltender. As recently as 45 years ago, some goalies played without a mask, and the ensuing generations went from bland, brown leg pads that soaked up sweat over the course of a game to lightweight pads that make them equipped to handle shots coming off composite-material sticks faster and harder than ever before.
“My son’s 16 and I look at his equipment compared to mine when I retired — and that’s eight years ago — and it’s night and day,” said Martin Biron, who played in the NHL from 1995-2013. ”The blades are better. Everything is better. The equipment that I had eight years ago would be dinosaur-like to goalies now.”
Career games played, wins and shutouts leader Martin Brodeur figured he weighed 2 or 3 pounds more at the end of a game than the start, just from the pads taking on his sweat from 60 minutes or more in the crease. Ron Hextall used to break in his pads for three months before using them.
“You can also use equipment right out the box,” two-time Stanley Cup-winning starting goalie Chris Osgood said. “The size of equipment got bigger and it weighed less. It was a game-changer.”
Better goaltending equipment has changed the game and how the position is played. Gone are the days of Bernie Parent and Dominik Hasek contorting their bodies to make saves — a lost art of sorts, but a necessary one with equipment that prioritizes the butterfly style of going to the knees as the default setting.
“It’s impossible, even if you wanted to, to stand up with the pads that they’re wearing today because if you stood up and tried to make a save, you can’t get your heels together to close your five hole,” goalie-turned NBC Sports analyst Brian Boucher said. “You have to butterfly. You’ve got to go on the ice. That’s the only way those pads work.”
That’s why Parent liked the old pads. He said goalies of his era “had more flexibility because the pads weren’t as stiff as they are now.”
But changes in technology — and NHL rules that shrunk the size of some equipment — had some advantages for athletic netminders.
“They thought it would increase scoring and maybe take away from the goalies when you took the bigger gear away, but in my mind, I actually felt like I could move better,” said Michael Leighton, who played 126 NHL games from 2003-2017 and broke Hall of Famer Johnny Bower’s American Hockey League shutout record. “They took away that kind of bulkiness that maybe restricted some of your movements a little bit, where now everything’s contoured to you and you move a lot easier.”
Goalies feel free to move about the ice, unlike in Kelly Hrudey’s days in the 1980s and ’90s. The guy who backstopped Los Angeles to the 1993 Cup Final often would allow lift his foot off the ice to let shots go by in practice so the puck wouldn’t hit his toes.
“I was OK with that because I just didn’t need my toes to get more bruised up than they already were,” said Hrudey, now an analyst for Sportsnet in Canada. “That’s the greatest change for that position because we were afraid of the puck at times, and these guys just never are. They’re rarely ever hurt by a shot, and we were always dinged up.”
The protective elements have undoubtedly made modern goaltenders more fearless. While some have complained the league’s most recent restrictions on chest and shoulder pads have caused a few more bruises, it’s a far cry from decades ago when goalies would feel every shot.
“When we’d get hit with shots, we still feel them,” said Jim Rutherford, who played from 1970-82. “Some harder than others, some to the point where it would actually hurt. And the equipment today is just so much safer.”
AP Hockey Writer Larry Lage contributed.