Monthly Archives: March 2015

Net Results…

Are bigger nets the answer to more scoring in the NHL?

The debate has come up from time to time since the end of the lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. Goalies these days are bigger than ever, and the NHL has made an effort to reduce the size of the equipment they use. Still, there seems to be little appetite for increasing the size of the nets from the 6-feet-by-4-feet they’ve always been since netting was first draped over metal posts in 1899. Tradition is often given as a reason in the arguments against enlarging the nets, but surprisingly, such talk dates back a lot further than people probably think.

Early Net

With scoring in the NHL down considerably in 1926-27, sports editor Frederick Wilson of The Globe in Toronto noted in his column on February 21, 1927, a suggestion made in New York to widen the nets to seven feet. Nothing come of it, and scoring continued to drop, reaching an all-time low in 1928-29. Only 2.8 goals per game were scored on average that season by both teams combined, meaning the typical score was 2-1 in overtime. This is the year that George Hainsworth set records with 22 shutouts during the 44-game schedule and an average of 0.92. Every one of the NHL’s 10 starting goaltender had an average of 1.85 or better, and eight of them had at least 10 shutouts. More modern passing and offside rules were introduced in 1929-30, and offense jumped to over six goals per game. However, scoring dropped dramatically again in 1930-31, although it wasn’t nearly as low as it had been at its worst.

Even so, the Mercantile League in Toronto (which played out of the Ravina Rink, near Keele and Annette) was given permission by the Ontario Hockey Association and the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association to experiment with nets that measured 7½ feet wide from January 28, 1931, until the end of its regular-season schedule in March. The new nets resulted in a few games with scores as wild as 10-5, but most were still 3-1 and 2-0.

Smythe Nets

Maple Leafs boss Conn Smythe loved the wide nets. He wrote letters to NHL president Frank Calder and his fellow governors inviting them to Toronto to see for themselves. Smythe, Calder and Leo Dandurand attended a Mercantile league doubleheader on February 18, but Mike Rodden, writing in The Globe the next day, noted that the teams “proceeded to give their worst displays of the season.” (The games were 3-3 and 3-1, Rodden worked both as referee, and elsewhere in The Globe it was noted that they were marked by “exceptional goalkeeping.”) Calder and Dandurand were unimpressed, though the NHL president noted that the nets didn’t strike him as alarmingly wide.

Given the animosity between them, it’s entirely possible that Conn Smythe supported the wider nets simply because Art Ross had designed the ones the NHL had been using since 1927-28. (The Art Ross net would be used without change through the 1983–84 season, and all the new nets used since then are still just a variation of his original design.) The 6-by-4 size had been well established long before then, but Ross still became the go-to guy whenever talk of the nets came up. It’s unlikely he saw any of the wide-net games in Toronto in 1931, but he did give his thoughts on the experiment to Boston Traveler hockey editor Ralph Clifford. “Adhere to the rules,” Ross said. “Have them strictly enforced … and you will have a game that is wide open enough to satisfy the most exacting fan.”

Art Ross with sons Arthur (the goalie) and John. Courtesy of Art Ross III.

People don’t think of the heyday of Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard as a low-scoring era, but the 1952-53 season saw only 4.8 goals scored per game. Once again, people wondered about widening the nets. “Somebody brings that up every time the defense gets ahead of the offense for a while as it is right now,” Tom Fitzgerald quoted Ross as saying in the Boston Globe on November 28, 1953. “We’ve gone through a lot of different phases like this, and certainly the hockey has been interesting this season, even if fewer goals are being scored… Increasing the width of the nets a little wouldn’t boost scoring to any great extent.”

Speaking about scoring again a few days later, Ross said: “It’s pretty simple. The more you keep shooting at the net, the more chances you have to score. There are a lot of factors that are going to help if you pour enough shots at a goalie – deflections, funny bounces and the like. If you just keep shooting away the percentages will work out for you.”

But chances are, Art Ross never envisioned a game where players blocked shots like they do today, or one where goalies were so large, agile and well padded. He’d been involved with the game at its highest levels since 1905 as a star player and then an executive, but Ross never seemed to be bound by tradition. It would be interesting to see where he’d stand on enlarging the nets if he were alive today.

Would 4-on-4 Mean More Goals Get Scored?

With a little more than three weeks to go in the NHL season, the race for the Art Ross Trophy is incredibly tight. And yet there doesn’t seem to be much buzz about it. Perhaps that’s because whether the winner is John Tavares, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, or one of the others in the bunch, he’s likely to end up with no more than 86 points. If so, that’ll be the lowest total in a non-strike season since Gordie Howe led the league with 86 points in 1962-63. But, of course, the NHL season was just 70 games long then.


Howe’s points-per-game average of 1.2285 in 1962-63 works out to about 101 points in an 82 game season, whereas 86 points in 82 games translates to only 73 points in a 70-game schedule. Nobody has led the NHL with fewer than 73 points since Max Bentley led the way with 72 in 1946-47. But the season was just 60 games long at that time, so even Bentley’s total would work out 84 points in a 70-game season, or 98 points in 82 games.

Given that no one has led the NHL with less than a-point-per game total since Toe Blake topped the league with 47 points in a 48-game season back in 1938-39, (comparable to 80 points in an 82-game schedule), we’re looking at a fairly historic lack of scoring in the NHL this season.

David Feschuk, writing in the Toronto Star on March 13, noted that the decline in scoring can be traced directly to power-play offense, with man-advantage chances at the lowest level in 50 years. Feschuk quotes St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock and Nashville Predators’ GM David Poile as saying that everyone seems to be on board these days with what is and what isn’t a penalty and that coaches are happy with the way games are being called.

Hockey Cards 1

Yet Feschuk also quotes former referee Kerry Fraser as saying that the current, younger, referees have been insufficiently trained, and that they’re calling minors instead of majors, or sometimes nothing at all, because they’d rather let plays go knowing that anything they missed will be flagged for additional suspensions, if warranted, by the NHL’s video review. Fewer power-plays means fewer power-play goals, and, even worse, calling fewer penalties makes it that much easier to clog things up for the skilled players. The game may be faster than ever before, but that doesn’t mean much if there’s no room to move and no time to think.

Of course, there’s also the argument that scoring – briefly on the rise after the “Dead Puck Era” by the tweaks to the rules introduced in 2005–06 after the season-long lockout ended – is once again on the decline because goalies today are better than they’ve ever been. They may well be. They’re certainly better-trained than they’ve ever been and physically larger too (even if their oversized equipment has been reined in somewhat).

Hockey Cards

So, if scoring chances have more-or-less remained the same, but goalies (based on their save percentages) are stopping more shots, then what’s the answer? People aren’t saying it as much as they were a few years ago, but is it larger nets? (We’ll look at that next week.) But if there really isn’t enough time and space on the ice, then maybe the answer is fewer players.

Talks are moving forward on some form of 3-on-3 overtime to break more ties before going to a shootout, but there’s little if any talk these days of going to 4-on-4 in regulation time. I’m not saying that 4-on-4 is the answer (and you’ve got to wonder how much the NHL Players Association would support it), but there did used to be a rover in the early days of hockey and the decision to eliminate that extra position (which was first made in 1911-12) worked out pretty well! Not everybody was on board with that in the beginning either. I think it was future Hall of Famer Marty Walsh of the old Ottawa Senators who said that playing hockey without a rover was like playing baseball without a shortstop.

Newsy clip

Yet as early as 1946, another early era Hall of Famer, Newsy Lalonde (who survived and thrived after the change from 6-on-6 skaters to 5-on-5) already believed that the best way to allow speed and skill to flourish in the coming years would be to eventually reduce the game to just four skaters and a goalie per side. Future Hall of Famers Ebbie Goodfellow, Joe Primeau and Charlie Conacher shared Newsy’s view, as did Hooly Smith. “There’s no more stickhandling,” Smith complained, “and 90 percent of the goals are scored by passouts from behind the net or from scrambles in front of the goal.”

That’s a complaint that’s pretty familiar!

About Face

A month ago, I entitled my story about early hockey radio broadcasts, Hockey Nerd – Part II. This could easily be Part III, but I’ve decided I’m going to try not to refer to myself that way any longer. It was my friend and colleague Roger Godin who set me straight. In my recent story reviewing the film Red Army and discussing the Winnipeg Falcons heritage moment, I referred to my criticism of the Falcons jersey color as being “pretty nerdy.” Roger left a comment, saying: “Let’s rid ourselves of that description ‘nerd.’ Those of us in this business just want to get things right and frequently find ourselves up against a wall of indifference…”

Often times, the problem isn’t the indifference of others but the mountains of misinformation already out there. For example, if you ask people, “who was the first goalie to wear a mask?” most of those who’ll offer an answer will say, “Jacques Plante.” Plante was my first favorite hockey player when I was a boy and he was starring with the Maple Leafs. He had certainly popularized the use of goalie masks, but he wasn’t the first to wear one … even in an NHL game.

Before he wore one in game action for the first time on November 1, 1959, Plante had been one of many goalies (most of the others at the amateur level) experimenting with masks in the late 1950s. In September of 1957, Delbert Louch of St. Mary’s, Ontario, unveiled a “head-protector and face-shield” that caught on with many NHL goalies for practice, but proved impractical for games.

Louch mask

Long before then, a handful of goalies wore wire masks (like baseball catcher’s masks) in international competition in the 1930s, and many people know that Clint Benedict wore a mask with the Montreal Maroons in February and March of 1930 during his final season in the NHL. Benedict’s was a leather face shield he wore after being sidelined for several weeks following a couple of shots to the face that January.

The NHL had modernized its forward passing rules for the 1929–30 season, and just as the schedule was getting under way, Conn Smythe of the Toronto Maple Leafs stated that he planned to introduce a proposal at the next league meeting making it mandatory for all NHL goalies to wear masks. Smythe stated that there were several NHL managers in favor of the move, but no goalie wanted to be the first, so a rule should be adopted to compel them all to do so.

Smythe Masks

Apparently, the Ontario Hockey Association had passed such a rule for the 1920–21 season saying that goalies may wear a mask for protection though nobody appears to have done so. Despite what Smythe said in 1929, it would be many years before the NHL adopted similar legislation. Amazingly, even as late as 2009–10, the NHL rule book only said that: Protective masks of a design approved by the League may be worn by goalkeepers. The wording was not changed to say must be worn until 2010-11!

These days, the trendy answer to the question who wore the first goalie mask is Elizabeth Graham, who donned a fencing mask while playing net for the Queen’s University women’s team in 1927 … reportedly under pressure from her father who had recently paid for some expensive dental work. However, others had already worn masks before Ms. Graham. The earliest story I’ve come across about a goalie wearing a mask in a hockey game is from the New York Times on February 24, 1916. The Union Club defeated the Knickerbocker Club 14-0 the night before as part of a Charity Ice Carnival for the Belgian Relief Fund during World War I. Knickerbockers goalie J.G. Milburn Jr. was replaced after the first period by J.J. Higginson, who, the Times noted, “wore a baseball mask.”

Interestingly, in a story reported in the Regina Leader on February 8, 1912, the National Hockey Association (forerunner to the NHL) was said to be considering the use of face protection for goalkeepers “in the shape of a baseball mask,” which some clubs in the United States were already said to be using in practice. A story about roller polo – essentially hockey played on roller skates – in Pittsburgh in 1906 describes the goalie as looking much like a modern-day lacrosse goalie, and wearing a catcher’s mask. (Perhaps the fact that hockey was not nearly as widely popular in the United States as it was in Canada, and was played mainly at elite schools and swank athletic clubs, meant Americans were less hung up on the “manly” aspects of the game?)

Early Masks

Still, the earliest example I’ve come across of a goalie using a catcher’s mask and/or a leather face shield is from Canada in 1903. Eddie Giroux (often misspelled as Geroux in newspapers) was hurt in preseason practice with the Toronto Marlboros on a shot by teammate Tommy Phillips on December 9, 1903. When Giroux returned to the ice a few days later he was wearing some sort of facial protection. Here’s a quick summary of the newspaper accounts:

• sustained “a nasty cut” in practice – Toronto Globe: Dec. 10, 1903
• skips practice, will return with baseball mask – Toronto Globe: Dec. 12, 1903
• practiced wearing a “padded hood” – Ottawa Citizen: Dec. 16, 1903
• discarded his baseball mask – Toronto Globe: Dec. 17, 1903
• experimented with baseball mask; discarded it – Montreal Gazette: Dec. 18, 1903
• discarded baseball mask, using leather headgear – Winnipeg Telegram reporting from Toronto News: Dec. 21, 1903

Whatever it was Giroux was wearing, he does not appear to have used it when the Marlboros played their first exhibition game in Barrie on December 18, nor in any games that followed during the 1903-04 season. He was said to be having trouble locating shots from the side while wearing it. Baseball catcher’s masks date back to the 1880s, and hockey goalies were quick to adopt cricket pads for added protection during the 1890s, but for now, Giroux’s brief experiment is the oldest usage of a mask by a goalie that I’m aware of.

Giroux wears the pads (but no mask) while seated second from the left with the Marlboros in 1904. Tommy Phillips is seated second from the right. Giroux followed Phillips to the Kenora Thistles in 1905. They won the Stanley Cup in 1907.

Glowing Pucks From Hockey’s Past

The NHL recently added many “enhanced” analytic stats to its web site More are likely to come. This year, at the recent NHL All-Star Game, the league introduced sensors in the pucks and uniforms that allow for the tracking of speed, positioning, ice time, and other data that – it’s said – will revolutionize the way we watch and understand hockey. The general buzz around all this has all been positive. VERY different from the much-maligned innovation introduced at the All-Star Game back in 1996 … the Fox Trax glow puck!

It’s not quite the same concept, but take a look at this story I recently came across from the Montreal Gazette back in 1941:

Glowing Puck