I thought we’d get into a bit of technical aspect, history and opinion on a popular hockey catch phrase. Butterfly goalie. To illustrate some points and opinions, I will need to explain a thing or four, so it may be understood to those who might not know some of the of the nuts and bolts involved with the butterfly save. I’ll try to make it interesting for the learned as well as the uninitiated.
The butterfly goalie. A term almost everyone has heard from the talking heads of hockey. What is it, where did it come from? Why is it such a widely used term? What are some of its strong and weak points? Where does it go from here?
As for its source, we have to trace goaltending lineage way, way back. To the days of no masks, deer hair stuffed pads, and straight bladed sticks. See, the stick and mask thing is connected and in turn so is the butterfly. I’ll explain.
Before the advent of curved blades, pucks tended to stay down more often. I speak of a percentage here, that isn’t to say a shot could get above knee level back then. But for simplicity’s sake, we’ll go with generalities. The shots could be hard, with little or no padding and in the freezing cold; it was bound to put a hurtin’ on you. Check out some old school photos of goalies. Missing teeth, scars, concussions, crushed occipital and cheeks bones, weren’t all that uncommon. Those usually low shots and the possibility of the huge amount of pain, were some of the reasons goaltenders stayed on their feet. Now you ask, well if all the shots were low, why stay on your feet to make them? Besides the pain factor I mentioned, up until 1918, goaltenders weren’t even allowed to leave their feet to make a save. The rule was based on some odd concept of fair play, with the goalies having an unfair advantage if they were allowed to drop to block shots. The belief was, that staying upright (as if the rules and pain wasn’t enough incentive) you could see better and have good rebound control. You’ll even find coaches now, at many levels, yelling for the goalie to stay on his feet, based on a deep-rooted and ingrained belief of being able to see better and for rebound readiness.
Advancing through the years, you find more powerful players, curved sticks, rule changes, and you arrive at an era of cross-roads (much like the current NHL). The game was changing how it was played (hockey history nuts will know what a rover is), the speed, the power, and with that, harder and higher shots. By this point, goalies were dropping for shots, but the order of the day was the sweet kick-save, pad-stacks, poke checks and nasty gloves saves. All the while knowing full well you could get blasted in the kisser. These men were beyond brave, perhaps a bit touched in the head, and I don’t mean by a puck. This style meant that faces were getting plowed up and even once was too much. So, and the source of this is still debated today as to whose responsible for it, but with the introduction of the goalie mask, hockey evolved even more. At the NHL level it is attributed to his holiness, the great Jacques Plante, after some arguing about it with his coach. Before that however, there is documented evidence of goalies in international play wearing masks, and even a female goalie, Elizabeth Graham, wearing a fencing mask in college play.
Regardless on the first goalie to have worn one, it changed the game. Suprisingly however, goaltending style stayed stagnant up until the 1980?s. Please note, I am not taking anything away from any goaltender to have played up until that era. Quite honestly, I feel there was more individual style and personal flair with goalies up into the 2000?s. Again, this is just another piece to move forward. But in short, fear of a career or life ending injury from shots and skates to the face (face, not neck. See: Clint Malarchuk) began to fade and the mask’s reverberation was felt throughout the hockey world. With the mask alleviating the fear involved with dropping for shots, a new age was born. Enter the creation of the down style that gave birth to the butterfly.
So what about the butterfly save itself? In a very short instant a lot is happening down there around the knees and lower legs that you don’t see that allows the butterfly to happen. The physical mechanics are fairly simple. Adapting a wide stance helps with executing the maneuver itself. It’s executed by driving your knees in together, while driving them down toward the ice, simultaneously kicking your heels up and out, being sure to roll over the instep of your foot, and not dropping forward over your toes. The leg is cradled in the leg channel of the pad, which is equipped with knee blocks and calf wedges- quite simply blocks of foam covered with a material and attached to the inside of your knee and calf area of the pad. What this does, with proper strapping of the pad, is allow the pad to rotate by means of the inner edges of the pads resting on the ice staying stationary, as your legs comes to rest in the cradle, with the face of the pad now facing the shooter.
Standing up right, your knee and pad both face the shooter. In butterfly, your knee faces down at the ice and the pad turns to face the shooter. With an old school pad, your knee and pad stay locked together with no rotation, and if you executed this move, the pad wouldn’t rotate, and you would have the outside edge of the pad and side of your lower legs facing the shooter, as most of your pad would be beneath your knee.
So knowing all of that, how does this play into butterfly as a style?
The save is the basis of it. It’s meant to save guess work and go with numbers. Hit the butterfly position and let the puck hit you. Some goaltenders are being instructed to stay strictly with this positional blocking technique. Their entire skill set is based off of it: stationary, moving referred to as a butterfly slide, recoveries, proper leg placement and technique. It is a very energy and movement efficient system, if followed stringently. It does have its benefits. The opposite of it, is a reactionary style, which is what it sounds like- reacting to the shot. There are more active hands, getting shots with the stick and gloves before letting them hit your body. These are the two fundamental schools of thought, with the reactionary style not being taught at all, as it is seen as a dead art, which is true to a certain degree. We’ve evolved past using it as a singular school of thought.
That brings us back to an earlier statement. That “stagnant” period I mentioned. That was goaltending at its core in my opinion. Stop the puck first. You would know who was making the save even if the jersey didn’t have a name or number. You would know who it was just by how he chose to do it and the way he did it. Goalies had individual style. People talk of Martin Brodeur and Dominic Hasek. How they are unpredictable and what they do cannot be taught. Well no, you cannot teach the burning inner desire to hate goals, to fight to the very end to prevent one, and try by any means necessary to prevent it. Goalies must have that in themselves by nature. Style exits where determination exists. Just stop the thing. Learn your angles, play your fundamentals and position, set up for the initial save, but if you cough up the rebound, you sure as heck better get the rebound, and not worry about looking good doing it.
The butterfly, as I think of it, is a save selection. It is a component of a whole. Strictly butterfly style I feel has hit it’s pinnacle, as has a strict reactionary style. Like the game in which it is played, goaltending evolves, doors open, shut and revolve, and pendulums swing back to the direction they came. For as good as butterfly is, it’s just a blocking technique. When you execute it, you are playing percentages. You are eliminating options, but yet revealing new ones. At higher levels, shooters are so accurate and have such an eye; they really don’t need much to shoot at. What you know, they know, puck view as opposed to player view, they know you are taught to center yourself on the puck and not the man.
What I am saying is, the robotic, mechanical predictable blocking style is starting to easily get picked apart at higher levels. The organic and unpredictable reactionary style will have to come back and compliment, not take over goaltending style. There is room for both. Hybrid style some may call it. It’s the perfect intersection of form and function. To ignore one over another is folly. Down low, through traffic? The shooter can see more than you can. Play the percentage and cover the bottom half of the net in the butterfly, get ready to snare anything up top with a reactionary save. Facing a breakaway? Immediately drop into that percentage playing butterfly and get lit up because you expected something. Never bet on what you may or may not expect. Human factors immediately change that. The numbers can fail you. So, take it all in, use it, and utilize one over the other in the appropriate time and manner.
With the current butterfly craze, the mistake of thinking it is the end all, be all when it comes to goaltending has tarnished the hockey community as it seeks to define what exactly makes the ideal goaltender. The tall lanky goaltender is now a highly sought after item. Not only with the genetic make up of Scandinavians (oh come on how many short thick-set Swedes do you know?) but with the high caliber individual coaching that starts with goalies at a very young age in their system, the Norseman invasion is in full swing. The thinking is, the long legs of tall goalies will easily cover the bottom of the net, the long torso will reach high up over the cross-bar of the net, and the big equipment will fill it out.
Sad news for an aspiring goalie of sub 6 foot height wouldn’t you say? Scouts will make no bones about the fact. I hope no one invents a time machine, goes back, and tells a young Mike Richter that.
I believe that this is a trend. As truth reveals all, the balance I think will come back, albeit with the “normal” evolution overall of athletes getting bigger, stronger, and faster. I don’t feel that a young goalie of average or below average height should get disheartened. I have a gaggle of children and perhaps a goalie or two in the bunch. I will support them with any healthy direction they choose to go in their lives and if goaltending is it, great. My mantra where that is concerned is, should they get to that level and have to worry about their height holding them back: Just be better than the competition. A scout is a fool to ignore talent over a trivial thing such as height. One to two goals a year based on that extra half inch flair of butterfly a season, as opposed to giving up none (I speak in a situational aspect here) because you can just simply stop the puck?
In referring back to Marty, most people love him or hate him. He’s either extremely talented or lucky. After all, he’s played behind that New Jersey trap for all those years. Extremely lucky I’d say, to string together a Hall-of-Fame career based on no talent, tough defense in front of you, and luck. His style, or lack thereof, as some goaltending snobs will say is ugly and sloppy. He has no form to mimic or lessons to be learned from. If that is your opinion, then nothing could be learned from Hasek, Cheevers, Parent, Hall, Espisito, Plante, Sawchuck, Worsley, Richter, Vacheon, Dryden, etc. They were after all just scramblers and stand-ups with no sense of style or grace. Brodeur is a hold-over. A goalie of a by-gone age some will say. Well, stopping the puck is ageless. Its benefit to hockey is far greater than how pretty a save is. And while some may think the clock is ticking on these dinosaurs, I’d argue that it’s ticking even faster on the strict picture perfect butterfly only style.