The Tyranny Of Trapezoids, Or Notes On The Proper Tending Of Goal

Ron Hextall wasn't the best goaltender of his era, or any other. But he was good enough at one thing to sneak into a kid's dreams, and stay there.
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The fantasies of adolescent boys oscillate exclusively between the overtly sexual and excessively delusional. They rarely overlap, and no middle ground exists. And so it was that, as a younger me slept alone in the second floor bedroom of my parents' house in suburban Kansas City, bizarre images crept into my dreams. A tall white man named Ron wore a mask, clasped a large wooden paddle in one hand, and glided towards me.

I didn't wake up from fear, but my heart raced and I sweated through the sheets. Excitement hot as electricity coursed through my body. I was dreaming about hockey, with the intensity that only a kid can dream.

I can't exactly pin down when hockey first entered into my life. For all of grade school, I had stuck to the comfortably American sports of youth soccer and baseball. In fifth grade, though, a Quebecois expat family moved in next door. A boy with a mischievous grin named Shane dazzled me and my best friend Robert with his pair of rollerblades and a hockey stick. The coup de grace involved Emilio Estevez conquering the world with his Mighty Ducks, but this was a thing I fell in love with while doing it.

Street hockey was our gateway drug. Neighborhoods carved up into battle zones and innocuous streets named after English forests demarcated teams. Cul-de-sacs filled with plastic nets and the shouts of teenage boys rolling and crashing and occasionally hitting a decent slapshot, more or less by accident. Plastic pucks broke windows and mothers shouted down the streets as the sun set, reminding us of dinner. Losers rolled home silently and shoulders slumped, vowing revenge the next day.

Shane was wholly unimpressed with his American "faux hockey" player friends but both fed off of my enthusiasm and ultimately fed it in turn. He taught me the history of hockey from a Quebecois perspective. Maurice "the Rocket" Richard was a deity whose name could only grace glowing sentences. Ken Dryden was a softie college kid, a goalie that insisted on wearing a mask, wimp that he was; still, he had played for the right team and that's what counted. The second a player signed a professional contract with Toronto, he died both spiritually and materially. And one could only pity those who plied their trade in Edmonton and Calgary, lost as they were amid the steel pipelines and toothless prostitutes in Canada’s frigid oil country.

I absorbed all of Shane's knowledge without question. All the players he named had hang up their skates decades before our births, but I drooled over their vintage playing cards that Shane let me see when his dad was at work. Only one active player was worthy of our time and attention. He of course played for the right team (Les Canadiens de Montreal) and had recently led them to an unexpected victory over the Wayne Gretzky-LA Kings in the Stanley Cup finals. He spoke to his posts and bent his knees in unnatural ways.

Patrick Roy, aka St. Patrick, showed me that, in hockey, goalies could be both wildly eccentric and highly valuable. And appreciated. I found my position in the game.

 

Playing goalie in soccer sucks. The goal is much larger than you, for one thing, and aside from oversized gloves and possibly a cup, you wear no protection. More importantly, by the time the ball gets near your area, your defense has normally made some horrible mistake and you're pretty well screwed. Even with the best reflexes and positioning and decisions, you will get scored on. You need at least as much luck as skill, if not more.

In hockey, the equation changes. The goal is much smaller, leg pads get exponentially wider with each passing year, and you wear a chest protector that could stop bullets. And the masks, oh my, the masks; no one is taking the shit Dryden took for his, and I thought they were extremely cool. And I really didn't care how well I played or if my team won so long as I got to wear one of those things for three periods.

A strange thing happened, though—I was suddenly decent at a sport other than soccer. As a southpaw, right-handed shooters naturally flung pucks at my reasonably quick and eagerly waiting glove hand. Of course, the competition was not amazing, but at the time I felt proud to stand out among my peers. I honed my craft and studied the game as best I could, taping NHL games on cable at my friend Robert's house in that pre-YouTube era. Shane even loaned me his old videos, so long as they were returned the next day.

I admired the double pad stack of a well past-his-prime Grant Fuhr, the impeccable butterfly of St. Patrick, the elastic flexibility of Mike Richter, and the octopus floppery of a young Dominik Hasek. I imitated as best I could their shot-stopping antics. I protected my five-hole. I baited with my glove hand. I played the angles. I came out of the crease on slap-shots from the point. I poke-checked slick-deking forwards. I learned what all that meant.

But one man, and set of skills, caught my eye. When other goalies dove or groveled on their knees, one man stood tall. For decades, netminders had dutifully stood in their crease, watching the game fly by and contented themselves to stop pucks. With his Tom Selleck-ian bushy moustache that would make El Chapo look like a peach fuzzed adolescent, Ron Hextall bucked this trend of passerby-dom. And for that he became my hero and idol.

***

I did not wish to stop pucks like Ron Hextall, to be clear. His 2.98 goals against average was decent for the time, but criminally high for a contemporary elite netminder. And yet, Ron Hextall refused to accept the world as it was. Before Ronnie, goalies clumsily and weakly handled their goalie sticks. If/when they left their crease, they played awkward passes. Basically, they enjoyed a one-dimensional and oppositional relationship to the puck. They only stopped it: they did not caress, feel, or manipulate it.

Ronnie, though, changed all that. He deftly played the puck and passed to his teammates. He even forced opposing teams to reconsider the tactic of "dump-and-chase" because he would get to the puck first and play a nice outlet pass. Then, one night, with the other team's netminder pulled for an extra attacker, Ronnie scored the first goal for a goalie:

Accountant, attorney, and sooth-stayer Islanders fans will shout "Billy Smith." Ignore them. Touching a puck before an own goal is not a "goal," it's an accident of circumstance. Only Ronnie had the courage and confidence—and skill and craft—to lift a puck high into the heavens and watch it gracefully sail, then bounce into an empty net.

Sadly, perceptions change at the pace of erosion. Everybody but me saw Ronnie's play as a fluke. Every nice pass was the result of luck to the ignorant. Only I could see Hextall and realize the amount of work he had to put into his craft. And I knew this because I too sweated out the days, weeks, and months of practice at the rink to develop the forearm strength in my blocker hand and finger strength in my glove hand to properly flick a pass.

Ronnie inspired an entire generation of goaltenders, including Martin Brodeur, to play the puck. That is laudable, but these merely successful and well-paid professional athletes were copycats, imitators, hollow men. They read and memorized the script, but the message never truly entered their heart. They did what Ronnie did, but dared not dream further.

In eighth grade, I convinced my best friend and teammate Robert of a plan to advance the art of the puck-playing netminder, and even the sport of hockey, in my grandiose tweenage opinion. During a tournament in one of those rustbelt Midwestern wastelands like Sioux City, Iowa or perhaps Michigan, Robert actually passed the puck backwards to me as I played goalie. I then played the puck to our other defenseman. The other team was momentarily confused and nobody else seemed to notice this historic occasion, but I smiled under my mask.

We lost all our games at that tournament, but I slept well that first night. I dreamed of the next baby steps to be taken. That first intentional back pass to the netminder was just the start of something bigger, and I could feel it. If I had worked hard to learn how to dribble somewhat and competently pass the puck, why couldn't I learn how to do a wrist shot? Could a goalie come forward on a powerplay and man a third point? Could hockey adopt a possession style of play?

A million possibilities bounced around my head. However, somebody else had noticed the play Robert and I had made. A few weeks later, at a league game, Robert reacted to pressure by passing me the puck, and I had to dump the puck down the ice due to a harassing forward. In the locker room between periods, our coach gave us the hair-dryer treatment, a verbal assault of borderline homicidal proportions. This must never happen again, we were informed. Robert nodded in acquiescence. I merely stared into space, unmoved.

Before I could switch youth teams to work under a less conventional coach, money nipped my goalie revolution in the bud. My parents danced the divorce-bankruptcy two-step that tosses so many families from a life of comfort to scraping by, or at least into the degraded, uncertain middle class version of it. New leg pads were not in the cards, and so I kept playing hockey as a defender thanks to scholarships and need-based fee waivers.

The NHL, though, could still smell a revolution in the air. In 2005, a flock of narrow-minded General Managers voted to institute a "trapezoid rule"—goalies could only play the puck in certain areas. Think free-speech zones, but more restrictive and much colder. Like a Republican-donating proprietor of tanning salons, I felt ambushed by the sudden wave of regulations. With a raising of hands in a single tyrannical GM vote, I felt my old blocker hand and glove tied behind my back.

I couldn't help but think of poor Ronnie and his contemporary, Martin Brodeur. Defeated and despised in my adopted sport, I returned to soccer, where goalies could no longer pick up back-passes due to a rule change, but were actually learning how to play with their feet. Manny Neuer had not yet captured the world's heart with his daring play for Germany, but I could smell him coming decades earlier.

***

This past summer, in July of 2015, I had a follow-up appointment with my orthopedic surgeon. I had broken my leg in two places playing soccer months earlier, and rehab had gone well enough. Framed photos of my doctor and his teenage sons playing ice hockey dotted the hallways of the clinic. He said my leg was healing fine, but if I tried to keep playing into my late 30's and 40's, my ACLs would go. It was just a question of time. He recommended I play a sport a little less hard on the knees. Say, hockey.

This past summer, whispers turned to grumblings as General Managers reflected on the wisdom of the trapezoid rule. Their logic was laughable—goalies playing the puck would make mistakes and that would help offense. Ha. Still, a feeling long dormant slightly rustled to life in me. Over a decade has passed since I last wore a pair of leg pads. I doubt I could drop into a half-decent butterfly stance, let alone attempt the splits of my younger years. Yet the visions from my youth now sometimes come back to me during the sleeping hours. As my wife silently snoozes beside me, I toss and turn. In my mind I'm standing over frozen water.

I hear the snap of a stick heel hitting the ice and look up—I am decked out in goalie gear and in front of a goal. An opposing player has just dumped the puck into the corner. Before my defenders can turn around, I am speed-skating furiously. My head is down; I pump my blocker hand and glove hand from side to side. Leg pads weigh down my legs, but I bend and move my knees as best I can. I stop, look up, and then loosen my grip and pull my blocker hand up to the end of the stick, as a knight draws his sword.

I am graceful. I am beautiful. I am a star. The revolution has just begun again.


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