The massive undertaking to streamline a snugger chest protector and more contoured pair of goalie pants has been a lot more challenging than anybody could have imagined 18 months ago. But soon, the 60-plus goalies in the NHL will look a little thinner in the bottom.
The barrel look will be gone when goalies begin to wear pants that are rounded at the thighs and no longer flap out at the sides — those flaps acted like puck blockers when they dropped into a butterfly.
The chest protector redesign has been put on hold, but dozens of new tighter-fitting, cleaner-looking pants that more resemble the shape of a goalie’s legs have started to be delivered to NHL locker rooms.
The Wild’s Darcy Kuemper received his new pair of Vaughn pants, although the Wild’s busy schedule hasn’t yet provided him the chance to break them in. Devan Dubnyk had to return his; he wears CCM but was mistakenly sent a pair from a different company by the NHL’s clearing house, which inspects and measures all goalie equipment.
“The pants were agreed upon to be put in this season, and it was just a matter of getting them manufactured and delivered,” said former NHL goalie Kay Whitmore, the NHL’s senior director of hockey operations. “That is getting very close. The companies one by one are slowly fulfilling their orders for their players, and we’re almost to the point where every guy’s got it.
“The plan is to get every guy a pair of pants in the new style and once they all have received them, determine what the date would be that they’ll have to wear it in a league game.”
Dubnyk, who has given up nine goals in the past eight games and is off to a terrific start with a .948 save percentage, 1.60 goals-against average and three shutouts, is concerned, that some goalies will have more time to break them in than others.
Two months ago, Dubnyk thought it made no sense to introduce new equipment in-season, especially because some goalies are more finicky breaking in equipment and, depending on each team’s schedule, not all goalies would get equal practice time.
After taking a look at Kuemper’s, Dubnyk doesn’t “think they’ll be a problem,” but, “I just want it to be fair, especially now that they’re trickling in. Essentially Kuemps has his now, and I don’t, and that’s the way with a lot of goalies in the league. It seems many guys do. And I told the [NHL Players’ Association], there better be plenty of time to break them in before I’m told to wear them in a game.”
Whitmore agrees that’s a valid concern.
“I’ve talked to 45 or 50 goalies in the last couple weeks, and the opinions differ,” Whitmore said. “Some guys that have had them on say, ‘I can wear them tonight if I had to.’ So I don’t know if the answer is four to five skates in them, or more.
“But I understand that worry. So we have to look at the schedules for each of the teams and come up with a date that makes sense. We’ve waited this long, we may as well do it right, but I don’t think this is something that should take more than necessary.”
In March, after looking at prototypes, the league GM’s recommended smaller, more uniform goalie equipment to level the playing field so the 6-foot-7 Ben Bishops of the league aren’t wearing the same size equipment as the smaller goalies. Also, just maybe, a smaller goalie would equate to more goals.
The competition committee and Board of Governors approved the changes for this season, but the manufacturing of the equipment proved to be slow and complicated, especially with the anatomically correct chest protectors.
The NHL doesn’t build equipment for a living. The expertise, knowledge and experience of hockey equipment companies are vital to getting it done right.
But the chest protector is a complex piece with lots of moving parts that work in concert to protect some very vulnerable areas. When goalies got their hands on some redesigns this past summer, there were all sorts of issues, like the arms being too short and areas in the shoulders that were exposed.
“One of the four major companies came up with a model and good design we were ready to take to the players, but three other companies either didn’t get the look or we weren’t happy with the protective qualities,” Whitmore said.
It’s a difficult climate for equipment companies such as Reebok/CCM, Vaughn, Brian’s and Bauer; and all were damaged financially when Sports Authority, which owed the companies massive amounts of money, filed for bankruptcy.
In the middle of the chest protector process, a Brian’s designer left. A 19-year pro rep from Bauer also left.
And it’s a huge cost issue because the 60-plus pro goalies are only a drop of the bucket for the equipment companies. They’re in business for retail, not to make specialty gear for the NHL.
“So it’s hard to control what the big manufacturers do,” Whitmore said. “They work with us, but they don’t necessarily stop everything they’re doing and redesign a whole line.
“I’ve been looking at alternative companies that don’t necessarily deliver to our guys to see if there’s something a third party can bring to the table because they don’t have a horse in the race and they can give some honest feedback.
“We’ll keep soldiering on. We hope to deliver some new models to goalies in the spring, have them try it [in practice] on the ice and get some in-season feedback. We may as well take the rest of the season to get it done properly and safely.”
Focusing on pants
So after it became clear to the NHL and NHLPA that the chest protectors would not be ready for this season, they focused their attention on the pants, which simply was a less intricate redesign.
“It took longer than we would have liked, but the companies have done a good job producing a good-looking pant with a lot of protection,” Whitmore said. “No one ever likes change. I know I didn’t as a player. But I think the goalies will actually feel better on the ice, maybe even quicker, which should help them play better.”
That’s the irony, Dubnyk said. All Dubnyk wants is a level playing field and to be safe and protected, but all this work to redesign gear, and he predicts goal scoring won’t increase.
“It’s not going to affect anything,” Dubnyk says. “It’s going to do nothing long-term to goals against.”