When the N.H.L. Began Play 100 Years Ago, Goalies Stood Tall

Benedict’s habit of dropping to his knees to stop the puck had led Toronto fans to mockingly call him Praying Benny.

“It was against the rules then,” Benedict told The Ottawa Journal in 1962, “but if you made it look like an accident, you could get away without a penalty. I got pretty good at it.”

(Goalies would have wanted to avoid penalties: They served their own penalties until the 1941-42 season, forcing their teammates to guard the net in their absence.)

Still, it seems that Art Ross, best known today as the namesake of the N.H.L.’s scoring trophy, was the man behind the rule change. Ross’s lifelong friends Frank and Lester Patrick had changed the goaltending rule in the rival Pacific Coast Hockey Association. Ross liked the modification and introduced it for the 1916-17 season in the Art Ross Hockey League, an amateur organization he led in Montreal.

Ross had been one of the top players in hockey since the winter of 1905-6. The 1917-18 season would be his last as a player, and a few days before the start of the N.H.L.’s inaugural campaign, he spoke about changing the rules for goalies. Ross, then 32, pointed out that any other player could drop to his knees anywhere on the ice — even if he found himself guarding the net with his goaltender out of position.

Three weeks after the start of that first season, the N.H.L. made the switch to allow goalies to drop to the ice. Ross’s Montreal Wanderers had already withdrawn from the league, but newspapers in Montreal and Ottawa noted that he “can enjoy a measure of moral satisfaction from the fact that a suggestion made several weeks ago has been officially adopted by the National Hockey League.”

The former Maple Leafs great Johnny Bower, the oldest living N.H.L. netminder at 93, said he was not aware of the old rule.

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Frederik Andersen of the Maple Leafs said he was always taught to stay on his feet, though rules today allow him to drop to the ice.

Credit
Brad Rempel/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

But Toronto’s current goalie, Frederik Andersen, 28, had heard of “that funny rule change.”

Andersen’s father was his first goalie coach in Denmark, and Andersen said that while he later had an instructor teaching him how to play low to the ice, his coaches generally expected him to stay on his feet.

“I think that’s one of those things where you want to be patient,” Andersen said.

Patience is hardly the word to describe Bower’s coaches, whether it was Punch Imlach in Toronto or any number of them during his long tenure in the American Hockey League.

“If you fell down, the coach would come after you,” said Bower, who played in the 1950s and ’60s. “ ‘Stand up as much as you can,’ they’d say. ‘If you fall down, you’ll be in trouble.’ ”

The Hall of Famer Ken Dryden, the Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender in the 1970s, said standing up was the style of play long after Bower, and it was reinforced by coaches and the news media.

“Anyone who didn’t was a flopper, and that was a disparaging term,” he said.

Dryden said it was not until after he stopped playing that he realized the standup style was simply a compromise for safety. It was not until the 1960s that many goalies started wearing masks.

“You protect your head,” he said. “Keep it out of the way, above the bar. It didn’t have anything to do with effectiveness. Even after the mask, standup was still the style.”

But playing standup did not necessarily mean playing upright. Of the goalies he watched growing up in the 1950s, Dryden said: “Terry Sawchuk crouched, but he didn’t go down much. Jacques Plante played on his skates. He was very fluid, and in a deep crouch, but it was still a standup style.”

Dryden loved the way Glenn Hall moved around his crease. Hall is considered the pioneer of the butterfly style, spreading his legs wide across the ice to cover the bottom of the net.

“They often called me a flopper,” said Hall, who was known as Mr. Goalie. “I’d get upset with that. I was the opposite of a flopper. I was under control.”

Before Hall, and for a long time after, when goalies went down, they often flung themselves to one side of the net or the other, stacking their pads to provide the largest barrier.

“I found that you could spread your legs wide and cover more of the dangerous part of the net,” Hall said. “If you stacked your pads, it took you all weekend to get up. With the butterfly, all you needed was to catch an edge with a skate blade, and with a slight rocking motion, you were back up and in position.”

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Ken Dryden said Dominik Hasek, right, “understood that he could bring his whole body under the bar.”

Credit
Paul Sancya/Associated Press

It was not until the 1980s, with François Allaire as the first modern goalie coach and Patrick Roy as his star pupil, that the butterfly style became the norm. Modern innovations also lightened and strengthened goalie equipment.

And then came Dominik Hasek, who, Dryden said, “understood that he could bring his whole body under the bar.”

“It was all about finding as much of your body as possible to put between the puck and the net,” he added. “Stand up, lie down. It’s no longer a compromise between performance and safety. You’re perfectly protected now. It’s all about performance.”

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