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John Harvard's Journal

Stick, Helmet, and Butterfly

Protecting against the puck

March-April 2008

Hockey parents, they say, don’t like their kids to become goalies because goaltenders wear so much costly protective equipment. But those special helmets do save money on dental bills. Unlike many icemen, Crimson goalie Kyle Richter ’10 has a perfect set of teeth.

This season, Richter has had ample reason to smile. Although individual statistics change with every game, Richter ranked second in the country in goals-against average (at 1.46 per game) and led the nation with a .951 save percentage after the Crimson’s first 11 contests. He had shut out Rensselaer, Union, and Dartmouth. Harvard ranked thirteenth nationally, with a 6-3-2 record, at that point, and the performance in goal of the six-foot, one-inch, 188-pound Richter was an important factor. “I like the extent of responsibility, being the one guy there to stop a goal,” he says. “As a goalie, your mistakes get counted on the scoreboard.”

But stopping opponents from scoring has become more difficult in recent years. Both the National Hockey League (NHL) and the NCAA have changed their rules to promote the offense by broadening the definition of what constitutes infractions such as hooking or interference by defenders. This means more penalties called, hence more power plays and more opportunities for goals. At the same time, technology has improved hockey sticks: today’s more flexible graphite/composite sticks put more power into a shot than the older wooden sticks, while the wider variety of curves in the new sticks’ blades lets skaters cradle the puck and lift their shots, if they choose, toward the upper reaches of the net.

Goaltending has also progressed. Modern goalies like Richter employ the “butterfly” style—dropping down onto the ice with flared legs, knees drawn in tightly, using flexibility in the hips—to make saves. Coaches feel the method allows a goalie to get more body between puck and goal than the older “stand-up” technique. (Richter, who grew up in Calgary, is a fan of the Calgary Flames of the NHL, but also admires the butterfly moves of goaltender Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks.)

Line changes give the skating players relief from their exertions every couple of minutes, but as a goalie, “You are on the ice the entire time,” says Richter. “There’s no time to relax. You’re always on your feet, and when the puck is in the zone, you are constantly in the crouch position. It’s physically draining, and equally draining mentally.” Hyper-alertness is essential, not only because of the speed of play and the velocity of shots, but to stay on top of oddities like a “flutter puck”—a shot that might spin or tumble end-over-end through the air, perhaps unexpectedly changing direction when it hits the ice.

Despite these demands, or perhaps because of them, Richter, who first skated at age three, has loved being in goal since he started playing there at eight. After high school in Calgary, he played for two years for the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Hockey League, a “Tier II” Junior “A” league in Canada. Richter laughs about the hockey world’s consensus that you need to be a little crazy to play goal. “A lot of goalies are ‘different,’” he admits. “My coach in the juniors told me that I was one of the most normal goalies around.”

Nonetheless, he does things on the ice abnormally well—such as picking up the trajectory of a puck when players skating in front of the goal screen his view. “Finding the puck when there’s traffic in front is half the battle,” he says. “To control a rebound on the ice when you can barely see it in the first place is a real challenge.”

Saves, whether with stick or body, inevitably create many rebounds, and hence more chances for the attacking team to shoot, often from close range. Richter pays serious attention to rebound management. “You want to make rebounds go to the right spot,” he explains. “That means keeping the puck away from the center of the ice.” Ideally, a goalie will deflect a shot to his own teammate, starting a transition to offense. If the other team does get the puck, the goaltender tries to make sure that happens in a less dangerous area, such as the corners of the rink or behind the net.

Breakaways present special challenges as well as opportunities for the goaltender’s most spectacular feats. “You want to skate out of the net and attack the [oncoming] player,” Richter says. “Then you move back as he comes forward, so if he makes a ‘deke’ [decoy, a feint], you can use your momentum to go with him. By staying in front of him you cut down his angle if he shoots. Guys are getting pretty crafty with fakes. As a goalie, you want him to make the first move, to commit himself. The bottom line is patience. Reaction and patience.”

Of course, the goalie has plenty of help from his teammates. (Though the crowd usually cannot hear, players do plenty of talking while play is in progress.) Richter’s position gives him a panoramic view of the ice that allows him to help teammates by letting them know, for example, what is developing behind them. True, in the final analysis, he’s the last line of defense, but, as he points out, “I didn’t pick this position because it was easy.”

~Craig Lambert