Against the Butterfly

I’ve spent these Stanley Cup Playoffs wondering why I prefer watching Tim Thomas tend goal to pretty much everything else on the ice. The answer would seem obvious to anyone who’s watched the man: he tends goal like no one taught him how. Which, as it turns out, is true: Thomas went to his first goaltending school during the 2004–05 NHL lockout. “I kind of grew up doing whatever worked for me, with no real—I don’t want to say I didn’t have any goalie coaches—but I was always so successful at a young age that they didn’t change anything, I guess,” Thomas has said. He is successful now, too. This season he stopped 93.81 percent of the shots he faced, the highest such percentage in NHL history. Should Boston win the Stanley Cup, he’ll get the Conn Smythe trophy for playoff MVP.

Most hockey people agree that he’s done this despite being “unorthodox,” a “feel goalie,” a flopping anachronism who stops pucks by pedaling his arms and legs across and around the crease unthinkingly. Most hockey people are genuinely excited for him, but they also condescend to him. He couldn’t have done what he did if he gave any thought to what he was doing. He pieced together an impossible season with uncanny saves; there’s nothing about his performance worth studying because the sum was greater than its parts. Ignorance is bliss. Thomas does cop to this, kind of: “I didn’t even know how I was moving. I never even thought about it. I just did it. And part of me is still that way today.”

But he also hints at something most hockey people are missing: “Getting myself into position nowadays I would say I use a lot of technique. The first save in general is a lot of technique. Just after the first save is when it kind of goes out the door.”

This Stanley Cup Final is the first since the lockout to feature two veteran, salaried goaltenders. Roberto Luongo is making $10 million this season; Tim Thomas $6 million. Luongo is the third-highest-paid player on his team; Thomas the first. Both are nominated for the Vezina Trophy, which goes to the goaltender of the year; Thomas will win it. But Luongo and Thomas likely won’t reverse the trend of the last five Finals’ goaltending match-ups: one reasonably priced mercenary (Roloson, Giguere, Osgood) versus a rookie on an entry-level contract (Ward, Emery, Fleury, Niemi, Leighton).

In the salary-cap era, NHL goaltenders are judged only by their efficiency, their performance relative to their pay rate. Teams now have only so much money to spend, and general managers have had success spending most of that money on first-line offense and defense. In net they play anyone—rookie, journeyman, waiver fodder—so long as he is efficient and provides baseline consistency, say, nine pucks stopped out of ten.

General managers can do this because never before has goaltending been so consistent or so cheap. Goaltending schools in the US, Canada, Finland, and Sweden turn out reliable if unspectacular goalies at a great clip. Almost all adhere to what’s known as butterfly style, a passive system of blocking off the net from one’s knees that was once a complimentary technique but in the last two decades has become the goaltending standard. Fifty-three of the sixty-seven goalies who played at least ten games this season saved more than 90 percent of the shots they faced. This has led to a glut in the marketplace. When at this year’s trading deadline the Florida Panthers tried to sell off an all-star goaltender in the prime of his career, they received one offer for him, a fourth-round draft pick, because he was still owed much of his $5.7 million salary.

Like most multi-million-dollar employers, today’s NHL teams outsource. They draw short-term solutions for net jobs from a skilled, global workforce. Goaltending is freelance work now.

Tim Thomas is from Flint, Michigan, 5’11″ and 37 years old. He played for nine teams in five leagues in three countries before he made the NHL in 2005. He won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender in 2009, received a four-year, $20 million contract, then lost his job as Boston’s starting goaltender the very next season to a younger, cheaper back-up. His team tried to trade him in the off-season, but his age, large contract, and recent hip surgery quashed any interest. Then he had the greatest season of any modern goalie.

Roberto Luongo is from Montreal, Quebec, 6’3″ and 32 years old. He was drafted fourth overall in 1997, the highest a goaltender had ever been picked. He grew up four blocks away from fellow goaltender Martin Brodeur, who has won more hockey games than any other. Luongo has been nominated three times for the best goaltender award, two times for the award for best player as voted by peers, and once for the most valuable player award; he won none of them. He was Vancouver’s captain for two seasons, and he won a gold medal with Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics when he backed up and eventually supplanted Brodeur.

For about a hundred years nothing much changed about hockey goaltending. Goalies were smallish, between 5’2″and 5’10″, and they stayed on their feet as much as possible. To meet shots and cut off angles, they telescoped out of the net in an athletic crouch, their stick blade between their feet and their catching hand nearly scraping the ice. Their padding was heavy, leather, and felt, stuffed with deer hair that absorbed water as the game dragged on, and it did little to protect. Over his career, Terry Sawchuk endured a broken instep, a collapsed lung, ruptured discs, severed tendons, a swayback from crouching that prevented him from sleeping more than two consecutive hours, and 400 stitches to his face. The physical anguish was only half of it. Gerry Cheevers: “A baseball catcher’s job is the closest thing to it. I mean, he alone dons the tools of ignorance and crouches behind the plate like an orangutan. But even the catcher goes up to hit like the rest of the ballplayers.” Jacques Plante: “Imagine yourself sitting in an office and you make an error of some kind—call it an error of judgment or a mistake over the phone. All of the sudden, behind you, a bright red light goes on, the walls collapse and there are 18,000 people shouting and jeering at you, calling you an imbecile and an idiot and a bum and throwing things at you, including garbage.” Bill Durnan, who was goaltender of the year in six of seven NHL seasons before quitting abruptly: “It got so bad that I couldn’t sleep on the night before a game. I couldn’t even keep my meals down. I felt that nothing was worth that kind of agony.”

The genesis of modern goaltending was the slapshot, which became widespread in the NHL in the 1950s when legendary goalscorer Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion proved the hard shot was worth the long (and defendable) wind-up it required. Slapshots were considerably faster than any other shot goalies had yet faced; they had little time to react to them, and opposing teams would obscure the shots’ trajectories by crashing the net. Three-time Vezina winner Glenn Hall: “The game changed. You were looking at more screens, and then I got into the butterfly kind of by accident.” The “butterfly” was his term for the technique he adapted in which he charged out of the crease and dropped to the ice with his knees together, legs V-shaped, hands held shoulder-high. Hall’s butterfly went against the central tenets of goaltending: stay on your feet, never over-commit. With it he could cover the bottom two-thirds of the net while leaving the top corners open, which happened to be perfect for stopping the powerful but inaccurate slapshot.

Masks were crude then, and Hall’s butterfly put him in a vulnerable position, so he used it sparingly, part of his larger repertoire of saves. (He was also said to have prepared for games by “swearing at hockey, his goalkeeper’s fate, teammates, fans, at the world in general,” interrupting himself only to vomit.) Hall was 6’, huge for a goalie then, and the few others who assimilated his butterfly technique were similarly tall. But it didn’t become widespread. Hockey is a conservative game, and the success of Hall’s radical technique was attributed to his rare combination of size and flexibility. (To keep his goaltenders from dropping down in practice, Eddie Shore tied a noose from their necks to the crossbar.) Goalies remained small men who stood up.

In 1972, a 17-year-old French-Canadian goaltender named Francois Allaire despaired of his positional education. His coaches at the College de Saint-Jerome left him to develop within the game, figure it out on his own. The only technical manual available to him was written by Jacques Plante, and it was mostly a collection of generalities like: “Twenty-five percent of goaltending is talent. Twenty-five percent is positioning. The other 50 percent is concentration.” Or, “You have to grow up, mature, and suffer a multitude of setbacks and defeats before you’re a great goalie.”

Allaire wanted something more programmatic. At 20 he enrolled in the University of Sherbrooke’s physical education program and became the first to study the physiology and psychology of goaltending. After college, he toured European hockey schools, observing their practices and analyzing their methodology. He returned to Canada, and for two years he haunted the National Library, reading over 200 works on goaltending from North America, Europe, and Japan.

Although his goaltending résumé included only twenty games for the semi-professional Thetford Mines Coyotes, Allaire began to coach junior goalies. He turned them into exceptional skaters, as lateral movement was the foundation of his technique. Allaire’s system was based on the idea that a goaltender will stop more shots if, instead of standing upright and splaying to make saves, he pushes off, stops, backs up, and pushes off, always fronting the puck. Before Allaire, the blades of goalies’ skates had been dull or convex, so they could slide laterally and make dramatic kick-saves. He demanded his students’ skates be razor sharp, for better stops and starts. More importantly, he insisted that they abandon the stand-up style and adopt Hall’s butterfly, which would no longer be a situationally useful tool like a cut fastball, but the bedrock of modern goaltending. With the butterfly they could stop almost every low shot, which proportionally are most of the shots taken during a hockey game. They left the top of the net unguarded, but to hit those open corners a shooter needed time and space, which Allaire’s students counted on being taken away by defensemen. Allaire told his goalies to buy bigger pads, as big as the rules allowed or even bigger, for if the butterfly was to work there could be no fear of the puck. (Plus the large pads would cover more net when the goalies were down on their knees.) Allaire’s school of goaltending couldn’t admit the short or physically unyielding.

Allaire moved up the minor coaching ranks, eventually finding his greatest student in Patrick Roy. Roy was 6’1″ and already a butterfly goaltender after the style of his hero Daniel Bouchard. Allaire instilled in him his core tenets: mobility, advantageous equipment, and an unshakable confidence in technique. Roy won the first of his four Stanley Cups in his rookie season; through him, Allaire would perfect positional butterfly. Roy made goaltending seem smooth, easy. He knelt before his net and shots melted into his chest.

A generation of boys–Quebecois foremost among them–grew up idolizing Roy. The position that had always been for the shrimp or the flatfoot was suddenly popular. As Allaire took on more and more NHL clients, his methods became dogma. He opened a junior goaltending school just outside of Montreal at the Co-Jean Ecole de Hockey that became like some salon, like the goalies’ own Iowa Workshop. It seemed the surest path to the NHL. One of the admitted was 14-year-old Roberto Luongo, who had submitted a video résumé of saves.

At this point in time, Tim Thomas was a goalie at the University of Vermont. He was drafted but never signed by Patrick Roy’s second team, the Colorado Avalanche (then the Quebec Nordiques). He led the NCAA in save percentage his junior year. “The butterfly technique, it’s pretty recent,” he said. “I mean Patrick Roy didn’t really come out with the butterfly technique and people didn’t start copying it until I was already 20 or 21.”

The modern butterfly goalie first learns to take away the bottom of the net with his legs. His pads are hard and flat, so from his knees he can seal off the ice surface and kick pucks away. Luongo’s are white; they look like pinball flippers.

His elbows he pins to his ribs. If someone takes a shot from a distance, he holds his hands up and in front of him. Here goaltenders with bad glove hands can seem vaguely pathetic, their shortened arms dangling useless like therodpods’. If a shot comes from in close, he holds his hands down and open, a supplicant.

He makes saves with his upper body and core, but he spends more time moving into position to stop pucks than he does stopping them. If for instance a shot is fired to his right side, he places his weight on the inside edge of his left skate, explodes laterally, and slides into the shot on his knees chest-first. If the shot misses the net, or if he leaves a rebound, the butterfly goalie will dig his right inside edge into the ice and push himself back into position, all the while on his knees. He shunts pucks from his netmouth like this, a sliding wedge not unlike the paddle used by a child to guard an air hockey goal.

Before Thomas broke it by one thousandth of a percentage point this year, the single-season save percentage record belonged to his hero, Dominik Hasek. Hasek, like Thomas, was considered heterodox. He sprawled and barrel-rolled, threw his stick away to clutch pucks with his gloved hand, and frequently ended up on his neck and shoulders, with his arms spread on the ice and his legs in the air in an inverse butterfly that was as effective or more. He was six times judged the NHL’s best goaltender, and twice its most valuable player. He was the “best player in the game,” according to Wayne Gretzky. But Hasek couldn’t (or wouldn’t) explain how he did what he did. “I just try to do anything I can to stop the puck,” he said when asked. “I largely taught myself how to play goal—mostly by watching other goalies and taking parts of their games and adding that to mine.” (If the situation called for it—long-distance shots, shots through traffic—Hasek used butterfly technique. It was flawless.)

Hockey people treated Hasek like he was an inimitable idiot savant. What he did to stop pucks seemed irreducible, and thus uninstructable. He was preternaturally lucky, they said, his strings of saves janky, ad-hoc. It seemed as though shots had to be directed at him and stopped in succession, lest his game come apart. Watching him you had to hold your breath.

Hockey people never mentioned Hasek’s intelligence, or that he was unpredictable by design. The way he tended goal, Hasek had to concentrate for sixty minutes straight. He had to know what options were open to the puckcarrier at every second. He had to know the puckcarrier’s proclivities, and how those proclivities were affected and would be affected by current and future variables. He had to see each decision branch into its tributaries. The great Soviet coach Tarasov put it this way: “The only thing that will help you . . . is your intelligence. You are going to have to read people’s minds. Yes, yes! You have to know beforehand how the game will develop, who the forward will pass to, when there will be a shot at the net. You have to know everything about forwards! Everything about defensemen! Everything about hockey! More than any other hockey player!” Hasek did. He saw the game as it was and as it could be, over and over again, each scoring chance a multiverse to him.

Hasek understood his position better than anyone ever had. A hockey goalie isn’t a bystander or an unfortunate. He isn’t only “done to.” Hasek’s great rival and fellow unorthodox goalie Martin Brodeur believed that to tend goal is “to be the most creative player on the ice. It is a position that demands innovation and imagination, an ability to adapt and consider alternatives in a split second, the capacity to generate multiple answers to the same, or similar, questions.” Brodeur and Hasek shared the same approach, which was “to beat the player with the puck, not just prevent him from beating me.” After Hasek had run through all of a puckcarrier’s options, he would pick one and force it on him. He would shy away from a post, or leave his legs slightly ajar, or charge out of his crease. He would overplay a pass or hint with his hips that he was anticipating something. The puckcarrier was given the illusion of agency. He would play into Hasek’s hands almost every time. “You have to be smart with what you’re doing,” Hasek said. “If you give them something to shoot at, you can set them up for failure.” Like a spider, or anything that weaves anything, a goaltender is successful only when the person on the other end doesn’t realize he’s in a web until it’s too late. It’s over if he sees the strings.

A few thoughts on the Final:

Thomas never gives up on the play. He always has one last limb to throw at the shooter. In a game in the previous round, his helmet was knocked off but he still stuck his bare face in front of a puck. I read that a teammate dubbed his style “battle-fly.”

The stops after stops he makes during netmouth scrambles seem to knock little bits of consciousness out of him. His play down low reminds me of a Peking Opera fight scene–he’s always there to meet the puck. Players seem so frantic, so caught up around him. They believe they’re always on the verge of scoring and they rush their shots mindlessly. This has to be conscious on Thomas’s part.

Technically sound blocking saves like Luongo’s end with the goaltender looking as though he just dropped something precious.

Thomas on technique: “Some of the kids having trouble because they rely on technique too much could probably use some street hockey. You need to learn the technique and you need to practice the technique, but when it comes game time you have to do whatever it takes. I’ve seen a lot of kids that have great technique but they turn into robots and it’s like their arms are glued to their sides and they don’t have the ability to throw a shoulder, or whatever it is. You have to be able to move out of that technique mode when need be.”

Actually, technically sound blocking saves might end with Luongo looking as though he’s tucking into himself in the face of a strong, cold wind.

When he was new in the league, Luongo sometimes forgot his technique and tended goal like Thomas. In Florida, he’d sometimes charge out of his crease and play the puck as if it were a bee that instead of fleeing from he wanted to buffet and trap. He spewed rebounds all over the slot, but he was brilliant. He’s moved on from Allaire to a new goaltending coach, Rollie Melanson, who has taught him to play deep, deep in his crease. Luongo can do that because he’s so big, he fills so much net.

Luongo waving his stick while stuck in his net, a fiddler crab.

Watching Luongo brings to mind how little diversity there is in goaltending nowadays. They’re all big, and they all learned the same stuff in school. Goalies have put on two inches and six pounds in the last decade; 84 percent of the goalies now are taller than the league average ten years ago. Jacques Plante would’ve had this to say: “Your height is a minor thing. The main thing is that the aspiring goalkeeper be a fighter, not a coward; after he lets in a goal, he blames himself, not others.”

Tellingly, Luongo’s save percentage in the shootout, which is much more cerebral and individualistic than in-game situations, is .685 percent, slightly better than average. Thomas’s is .714. Thomas has been unbeatable on breakaways in this series.

From Martin Brodeur’s biography: “As I got older, I attended two different goaltending schools, one run by Quebec goaltending guru Francois Allaire on the north shore of Montreal, and the other by former Soviet goaltending great Vladislav Tretiak in nearby Brossard. I preferred Tretiak. In fact, going to Allaire’s school made me realize that what I was already doing was more than acceptable. In fact, it was the right thing. I hated the Allaire school and only spent one week there. Everything was about playing the percentages, and everything was planned. . . . I didn’t believe in the butterfly then, and I still don’t.”

The way Luongo plays now makes for ugly hockey. The surest way to score on him is by jamming the net or shooting through screens. Attacking him is like a siege: Players amass; sometimes they crash his gates, but mostly they lob projectiles from afar. And, like in a siege, there’s no middle ground. He’s either impregnable or pillaged. He went from a 1-0 win to an 8-1 loss and then was pulled after giving up four in the fourth game before winning the fifth 1-0. Fans watching the fourth game on the jumbotron back in the Vancouver arena cheered when he was pulled. And they cheered after he shut out the Bruins in game five.

It’s hard to say of any one game, “Luongo played poorly.” Usually it’s that Luongo allowed goals he’s wont to allow by playing butterfly so deep in the crease: deflections, corner-picked wristers, breakaways. Those kinds of goals are always possible when he’s in net.

Longtime Chicago Blackhawks goaltending coach Stephane Waite: “They just want to be perfectly technically and they think they are going to be all right. . . . And they are so predictable now, that’s the biggest problem we got. Every goalie plays the same thing, same style exactly and they are so predictable for shooters.”

Tim Thomas lost game two in overtime like this: there was a Boston turnover in the neutral zone, and a Canuck came in alone down the left wing. One of the biggest, best defensemen in the world was angling him from the right wing. Thomas knew that this defenseman needed a beat or two to fully catch up with the Canuck, so Thomas came way out of his crease to challenge the puckcarrier. This then caused the Canuck to fake a slapshot, because he assumed that Thomas charged out of his net expecting a shot; if he faked a slapshot, he could freeze Thomas, force him to the ice, and then walk around him and score into an empty net. Of course, Thomas did not bite on the fake shot he engineered, and his defenseman caught up to the Canuck. Now the Canuck could not cut across the goalmouth. There were no Canucks in the zone; there was no threat of a pass. In effect, Thomas had lured him into a trap. Thomas’s defenseman closed on the Canuck, reached around him, and got a stick in the shooting lane. Thomas left him no angle for a shot. The defenseman was so hugely strong that the Canuck couldn’t think of trying to spin off and buy time. To finish the play, Thomas lunged even further from his net and swiped the puck off the Canuck’s stick. It went behind the net for his defenseman. However, Thomas hadn’t counted on his all-world defenseman getting outworked behind the net by the relatively tiny Canuck. Before Thomas could return to the net, the Canuck had wrapped the puck around the post and in. All of which is to say: Thomas’s style is much more team-oriented, situational, and, ultimately, trusting. Tim Thomas trusts in his teammates. Luongo plays apart from his, like a temp. What the team does in the defensive zone has little bearing on Luongo in his net. (Except in game four, when his defenseman tried to block a shot but instead deflected it on a course that wasn’t in line with how Luongo had positioned himself. Luongo stared daggers at him after the goal.)

Because he charges so far out of his crease, Thomas, unlike Luongo, is able to snuff deflected shots before they fly on their tangent. Also unlike Luongo, Thomas won’t abide anyone in his crease: he was credited with a bodycheck when he put one Canuck on his ass, and he was charged with a minor penalty when he slashed another.

Thomas is one of the few goalies on whom going top shelf isn’t a sure-fire goal, because he’s not only playing the angle but staying on his feet.

This would seem to be his biggest vulnerability: Say he doesn’t control a rebound when he’s out challenging, and the puck ends up on the stick of a Canuck oblique to the open net. Thomas looks to be caught; he’s staring at the man with the puck, and the man with the puck is staring back, almost shocked that it’s on his stick. When this happens, time seems to stop for a moment so everyone—on the ice, around the rink, at home across two countries—can gasp. It brings to mind some paramour hurriedly stomping into his slacks when the husband fills the door frame. Paralyzation, which allows the paramour just enough time to dive half-assed for the back window. Such is Thomas on these plays. Again, this has to be conscious. After his daze, the shooter grips his stick too hard, doesn’t settle the puck. He clips a fluttering shot back to the middle of the net, which Thomas always gets when he dives across. (Or almost always: In game five this worked on Tanner Glass but did not work minutes later on Maxim Lapierre, who happened to be standing in just the right place when a point shot that missed the net rebounded off the end boards right onto his stick. Luongo: “He might make some saves I won’t,” but “it’s an easy save for me.”) Still, when Thomas does make these saves, they are not luck.

There is no such a thing as untutored genius, not at this level. Thomas, like Hasek before him, knows exactly what he’s doing. And his game works so long as everyone believes he’s winging it, believes that it could be on the next shot that the magic will fail him, so hurry up and put it on net.

What’s interesting and rather disconcerting is that Thomas was so good at this that for years he basically psyched NHL general managers out of giving him a job. He had excellent save percentages in almost every league he played in, was an All-American and won MVPs in Europe, but what stuck out most was the impression that he was unpredictable, and thus inconsistent. Which is the whole point. As Brodeur put it, the good goalie knows, “I have to get in somebody’s head.”

Tim Thomas designed his own goalie mask. Specifically, he created a new wire cage to look through, which has huge square openings over his eyes so he never loses sight of the puck when it’s in tight.

Father of the butterfly Glenn Hall on the butterfly goalies he helped spawn: “What bothers me is that they accept not seeing the puck. They accept the screen, which is unacceptable to accept.”

A butterfly goalie doesn’t visualize the game like Thomas or Hasek. There’s no point; he’s playing an if-then program based on percentages. But what this means is the butterfly goaltender implicitly accepts failure. He can imagine situations in which he cannot stop a shot.

Butterfly goalies believe that there’s nothing else to learn; goaltending has an end and they are it. Certified butterfly goalies go out to teach butterfly goaltending and produce other butterfly goaltenders who are not real goaltenders, but who produce still other butterfly goaltenders who are not goaltenders.

A strict butterfly goalie is a kind of a coward. He is minimizing risk but also limiting reward. He is settling for a consistent very-good in which he can rationalize his few goals: “There was nothing I could do, the shot was perfect”; “My defense gave him too much time.” He is fatalistic. He is trying to make himself less culpable. He in no way resembles Tretiak’s ideal goaltender: “He is his own only hope. And he is his own judge.”

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