Of all the positions in all the wide world of sports, one stands alone with the dubious distinction of being the loneliest: that of the ice hockey goalie.
All goalies share the existential dread inherent in the isolation of their position: soccer, lacrosse, water polo, field hockey, even hurling net-minders must bear the often apocalyptic responsibility of being their teams last line of defense. The position is touted as the toughest, and most masculine, even though the objective is to deny penetration into the sacred area they defend.
While other positions are free to roam, goalies are bound by designated boxes a fraction the size of the total playing area. They are granted special privileges in these cordoned off areas (i.e. using their hands or freezing the puck), but once they leave, all privileges are revoked.
A bigger hurdle is that for much of the game goaltenders are reduced to mere spectators. When offensive play dominates, simply maintaining concentration can be as difficult as the position’s physical demands. All too often, it is said, the mind will wander: Did I leave the toaster oven on? Do they really put animal lips in hotdogs? Can the blond in the fourth row possibly be dating the dipshit next to her?
Keepers also bear the brunt for goals that aren’t their fault. A lazy defenseman may be to blame, but the de facto scapegoat will always be the lad between the posts.
What might be worse is their exclusion from celebrating goals scored at the other end. Instead of hugs and high fives, or as in the case of Italian soccer, pulling their clothes off and piling onto one another, the lonely goalie must watch and cheer from a detached distance.
Indeed, being a goaltender in any sport is taxing, but nothing compares to playing the position on ice. Hockey is no doubt the most dangerous of net sports.
Never in the history of water polo has a ball left the playing area and led to dental surgery for an unlucky fan. In the hockey arena, stray pucks have literally taken lives. Even with the most up to date equipment, a frozen projectile to a goalie’s head has resulted in concussions and/or unconsciousness.
Hockey is also strategically more deadly. In soccer, it can take eons for an offense to move the ball 130 yards from one end of the pitch to the other. In a rink 200 feet long, a cross-ice pass can take nano’s. Goalietenders can never afford to check out. Many a soccer goalie has felt sequestered, but his 18 yard box allows him considerable square footage in which to mosey. He might even start play from midfield on a free kick, if need be, whereas a hockey goalie at center ice is trouble in any scenario.
Though an ice hockey goalie can stray from his miniscule box, he does so at his own risk. You will never see a field hockey goalie smeared face-first into the glass, mainly as there is no glass in field hockey, and body checking is illegal. Regardless, a hockey goalie in open ice is a akin to a lowly sea lion amidst the thrash of killer whales.
Second only to medieval jousting horses, hockey goalies wear more equipment than any other athlete. Save his ear protectors, the water polo keeper is essentially naked. Soccer goalies don long sleeves and oversized gloves. In hurling, the only differentiation is a wider bas. The hockey goalie, however, is armored beyond recognizability in 200 plus pounds of cumbersome padding, protectors, glove, blocker, and mask.
The primary reason one discourages their progeny from taking the position is not that it takes three times as long to prepare them for play but more so to avoid hemorrhaging thousands of dollars in equipment costs as your little guy grows from mite (age 3-5) to novice (7-8) to peewee (11-12).
A parent must also account for the psychological toll of the position. Every center has a wingman or two to lean on, and every defenseman his pairing partner. But the goalie always skates alone. After being scored on, a defenseman can skulk to the bench and hide behind the boards, whereas a goalie must “shake it off” and prepare for the almost immediate restart of action.
Goaltenders might be lauded for “standing on their heads” a term used for miraculous saves and wall-like impenetrability, but every great save is trumped by the potential offensive counter attack. Coaches and fans alike would be just as thrilled if their goalie didn’t have to make a single save at all. Games where the offense rules are fine by them, the goalie position be damned.
He is left to look longingly toward his bench, unable to participate in the warm camaraderie or the value stream of professional gossip: Who’s up for player of the week? Who’s about to be sent down to the minors? Which player is tagging which other player’s girlfriend? It all occurs between shifts, and behind the boards, when butts are patted and breaths are caught. By the time the goalie lumbers off the ice and waddles into the locker room, all the really juicy tidbits are old news.
Nay, the goalie must stay between the frozen iron pipes he has dedicated himself to defending. He has only one opportunity for the kind of glory his teammates can easily access, and it is in the long tradition of fighting.
Rare as it is, one of the great treats in all of sports is the sight of two goalies beating the hell out of each other. Leg pads act as battering rams, while arm blockers become pulverizes. Like Transformers on skates, they slam and crash into one another, draining game long stores of adrenaline, and happier then hell to be in open ice.
But return to the crease the must, for duty calls. Once again, the goalie alone is left to ponder his cloistered condition, as perspiration falls from his underappreciated brow, past his sweat blackened pads and onto the ice, where it melds, inevitably and anonymously, into the icy white beneath him.