Net Increase?

When the 1998 movie flop Godzilla was first advertised, billboards blared “Size Does Matter.” With scoring down in college hockey before and since that juncture, the same expression could be used in reference to the hockey net.

Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna has been tracking scoring in his league this season versus 10 years ago. “I think something has to happen,” Bertagna said shortly before the New Year. “We’ve had 20 games where neither team has scored three goals. I went back and looked it up: In the same period of time 10 years ago; that number was eight. In that same period 20 years ago, that number was five.”

With Bertagna’s comments in mind, I thought it would be interesting to talk to Boston University coach Jack Parker and Michigan State coach Rick Comley. Back in 1991, they faced each other in the national championship game, a triple-overtime thriller that resulted in Comley’s Northern Michigan team emerging victorious in an eye-popping 8-7 game.

This futuristic goal design isn't anywhere close to being used in real games, but still ... (photo: courtesy Buffalo Sabres).

This futuristic goal design isn’t anywhere close to being used in real games, but still … (photo: courtesy Buffalo Sabres).

Those 15 goals match the total scored in the last four title games combined — most notably the 1-0 Denver victory in 2004 in which Maine failed to score on a six-on-three advantage over the last two minutes.

This year Parker has seen neither team score more than two goals in over half of his team’s games. Repeatedly, Parker has stated that no position in sports has evolved as dramatically as the hockey goaltender over the last 20 years. No one I spoke to disagrees with that statement. The question is what, if anything, should be done about it.

“I’m sure Jack gave you his mantra about goaltending and how no position has changed so much … and it’s true!” said Bertagna, a former goalie himself. “I’ve coached goalies, and better athletes are being attracted to the position — partly because of the equipment protecting you and partly because there’s more coaching and direction, so you have a better chance of being successful at the position. So I’m seeing better athletes wanting to be goalies.

“The teaching of it has changed. I’ve done this for 34 years, and I’ve had to work harder the last five or six years to keep up on the new techniques and the way it’s taught. In fact, if anything, some kids are getting overly taught because there’s so many goalie coaches around, and they’re listening to private tutors more than they’re listening to the guy than they play for in the winter, which is a problem.”

All the same, Comley is adamantly opposed to any possible plans to increase the size of the goal. “I’m dead set against any change to the net,” he said. “Number one, I’m not sure that that’s going to create a more fan-friendly game. Are people really going to love hockey more because you get one or two more goals a game? And are you going to put another certain percentage of people in your building because you add one or two goals?

“To me the only reason you’d want to it is to make it more fan-friendly, and then, if you do it, then you start to change the history and the scoring and what’s been done before. So there are many potential negative ramifications.”

Comley also believes that the greater emphasis on enforcing the rules has helped offenses considerably — in his league, at least.

“I think the rule changes as we’ve put them in — eliminating the obstruction and the hooking — as long as they continue to be applied, have improved the game dramatically as far as the pace of the game,” Comley said. “The biggest problem in scoring continues to be a lack of skilled players.

“So you might increase the scoring of two or three kids on each team, but my hope is that over a long-term basis, as these rules have been passed down in USA Hockey and in minor-league hockey, that we’ll gradually see an increase in the skill level of the players that are coming up. That might help scoring on a gradual basis over the long haul.”

Parker agrees with Comley on the relative lack of skill in college hockey and likewise bemoans players getting away to play junior “A.” But he still believes that something more dramatic needs to be done to offset the dramatic increases we have with goaltenders in terms of skill, coaching, and size.

“Maybe our league is a little bit tighter than the rest of the leagues, and I don’t think there’s any question that we need more skilled players in our league, and we’re letting guys get away from us to go to junior ‘A,'” Parker said “That type of stuff has decreased the number of skilled players who are here.

“But the skilled players who are here have a hard time scoring goals because it’s a difficult job with the goalies being so good. So I don’t think I’m going to win this argument, but it’s a very logical thing to me. You want more goals scored? Make the nets bigger. Because that guy is the biggest problem. You can make pads smaller, but you can’t make a 6-foot-5 guy 6-foot-1.”

Seeking another coach to break the tie, I spoke to Minnesota coach Don Lucia. If anything, his opinion was somewhere in between those of Parker and Comley. When we first began discussing it, he was opposed to it. But after exchanging more ideas, he seemed to have an open mind toward changes.

“Personally, I’d rather see us continue to scale down goalie equipment,” Lucia said initially. “When you look at footage from 20 years ago, we’ve [made reductions with] the pads but if you look at chest protectors, some of those guys look like the Michelin Man. With chest protectors and even catching gloves, they’re obviously not just for protection, they’re for preventing goals and taking up more space.

“A catching glove, 25 years ago they didn’t have a “cheater” on them. By definition, what is a cheater? It’s to take up more space. So I guess I’m a little more of a traditionalist: I would be against it, but if you’re going to make a move it would almost have to be a move across hockey at every level: here, the NHL level, international, everything.”

Lucia does agree that goaltending has experienced a revolution. “I don’t think that there’s any question that the position is played better,” he said. “I look at those ESPN Classic games from the ’70s or even the early ’80s. There’s a reason that some of those guys were scoring 200 points in the NHL: You look at those goaltenders, and they’re awful versus what goalies look like today.”

In addition to goaltending improvements, though, he believes that the issue is not so much a lack of skill but the fact that the coaching of defense also has improved radically.

“I think that defense is being taught much better with the advent of video,” Lucia said. “I think positional play of players is much better; shot-blocking is much better. So I think it’s not just one element of the game, I think the goalies are better and bigger. They take up more space in the net. I think defensively teams are better and with equipment and face masks on, people aren’t afraid to get in there and block shots. I think there are a lot of reasons why, not just one.”

Counterintuitively, perhaps, Parker describes how the coaching of defense has changed. “Because goals are so hard to come by, you’d think coaches would coach for more offense,” Parker said. “But the reality is that everybody’s coaching for more defense and playing it much more conservatively because if you give up two goals, the years of telling Ricky Meagher, ‘Hey, go and tie it up this shift’ — those days are long gone. So you can’t fall behind two-nothing.”

Even Comley concedes that offense is down. “We’ve shrunk the equipment and taken away hooking and holding, and the ability to play defense we’ve diminished dramatically in the game, and yet goals aren’t climbing very much.”

But what, if anything, should be done about it?

With time on their hands during the NHL lockout, the Buffalo Sabres came up with a funky and futuristic goal design. “At first it looked kind of strange, the one prototype that was floating around a year or two ago,” Bertagna said. “They were concerned about the pegs in the concrete in the ice, so they kept the posts six feet across (at the base) but then they ballooned out and up in a ‘C’ or a reverse ‘C.'”

I showed the design to Northeastern backup goaltender Jake Thaler. “Oh my God,” he said at first glance. In general, no one seemed to like the idea of changing the basic shape of the goal — and not just for the sake of traditionalism.

“I don’t agree with this,” Parker said, looking at the curved posts and crossbar. “This is just keeping the pegs so every rink can be the same, but the leagues that don’t go to this [can still use today’s conventional net]. This is the problem here,” Parker said, pointing to the bottom of the posts. “There was a time when you said, ‘If you want to score goals, shoot the puck along the ice.’ Shoot the puck along the ice now, you never score. So you’ve got to make this wider.”

In general, there was some support for making the net both higher and wider. When I told Lucia about Parker’s quote from last year — “These days, if your team doesn’t have a 92 save percentage, then your team sucks” — he had a good belly laugh.

“If you look at goalie stats back in the ’70s, if you had an 88 or 89 [save percentage], you were pretty good, and then the standard used to be 90 percent,” Lucia said. “Now all of a sudden the top goalies are 93. … It’s harder to win games if you don’t have that. There’s no question that scoring has come down.

“Maybe if you took the net and start the pipes on the outside of the pipes — whatever that width is — another two inches all around the net, that might make a difference and not look too different. We don’t want to get like soccer. I still think that scoring’s what fans want to come see, up and down. But more people are playing three guys back. It’s hard to get an odd-man rush in our game anymore. It becomes just a muck-and-grind game.”

Bertagna noted that the kind of net Lucia describes has already been an area of experimentation. “They’ve also done one that looks like a real net,” Bertagna said. “In fact if somebody didn’t tell you, you’d think it’s the same … but it’s four inches bigger in each direction. When they’ve used it in sort of R&D games, I’m sure the goalies noticed the difference but the people watching didn’t. They weren’t told and didn’t even pick up on it.”

Of course, goalies are not exactly enthusiastic about the prospect, but that may be just the idea. “Being a goalie, I think they’ve done [enough] to manipulate us by changing the pad size and restricting the ability to play the puck behind the net, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it some time in the future,” Thalen said.

However anyone feels about it, there’s no question that such a change couldn’t start with college hockey. We could see a four-on-four overtime and possibly a shootout before too long, but a new size of net would have to be a more universal decision.

“I think they should do something about it, the NHL,” Parker said. “When they do it, we’ll do it. We can’t do it by ourselves.”

So the bottom line reflects no net increase — not for this fiscal year, at least.