What can you learn from this awesome article on . . . hockey goalies?

Photos: GREGG FORWERCK / NHLI / GETTY via The Atlantic

I am not a hockey fan. But when I read Ken Dryden’s new piece in The Atlantic — “Hockey Has a Gigantic-Goalie Problem” — I was captivated. This is not showy writing. It’s just so engaging you can’t stop reading.

Yes, folks, this is 4700 words on the pads and behaviors of hockey goalies, written by a 73-year-old guy who was the Canadiens’ goaltender from the 1970s. (He’s also written books and served in the Canadian parliament.)

Let’s take this article apart

Here’s how it starts:

The problem was right there on the screen: Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, 6 foot 3, 210 pounds, athletic, fit, one of the very best goalies in the NHL, in the handshake line after the Lightning had won an early-round series in last season’s Stanley Cup playoffs. From the side, his belly seeming to hang low in front of him, he looked like Humpty Dumpty.

This story is not about any particular goalie, but about the position itself and how it increasingly dominates the way hockey is played, and not for the right reasons. This story is about goalies and their equipment, and about how they’ve learned to use it. It is a story that has evolved very slowly, almost without change or notice for hockey’s first 100 years, then, since the 1980s, in actions initiated by goalies mostly, and counteractions by NHL regulators, players, and coaches, until today’s state of near-acceptance and resignation. It is not about fewer goals being scored: The total number per game doesn’t change much from year to year. And this season, in these early weeks, scoring is up slightly and save percentages are down, just as they were after other shortened NHL seasons. The less urgent tone of practice offers goalies little preparation for the jamming, bumping scrum of goalmouth action. The real and ongoing story is about how goals are scored in today’s NHL, and how teams have to play to score them.

Never in hockey’s history has a tail so wagged the dog.

If Vasilevskiy is so athletic and and fit, why does his belly seem to hang low in front of him?

It is, as we learn, because his pads are designed to bunch up and hang down in just such a way that they block every available spot into which a puck could go on its way towards the net.

Dryden simply and without ornamentation tells the story of how sticks got lighter and more flexible, teams responded by protecting goalies with pads made of modern materials that also happen to block more of the net, and goalies changed their stances to put more of their bodies in the way of shots. As a result, long shots rarely go in. Instead, players score goals by fielding ricochets off the goalie and participating in frantic scrums in front of the net. Hockey can be elegant game (I’m told), but this is far from elegant.

But how would you tell that story and keep people’s interest? Here’s how:

For Vasilevskiy, who is 6 foot 5 on his skates, almost two and a half feet of his body mass resides above the bar, blocking nothing but useless air. But to bring all of his body below the bar would mean exposing his head to 100-mile-an-hour vulcanized-rubber projectiles. Getting hit in the face with a puck, at least until the advent of much more protective masks in the 1980s, always seemed a bad bargain. . . . But with new masks that protected the head as much as a catching glove does the hand, goalies could bring the rest of their body down to fill more of the net, especially if, instead of positioning themselves in their standard crouch, where one body part folds in front of another to cover space already covered, they extended their legs laterally to the lower corners of the net in what is called the “butterfly” style. . . .

So goalies had to develop a counteraction – one hinted at in Vasilevsky’s profile. Why did his torso pad reach so far forward and hang beneath his belly? Why was it so loose? Think of a balloon. When it’s suddenly constrained from moving in one direction, it expands in another. As Vasilevskiy’s body went down in butterfly position, the bottom of his torso pad hit up against his pants, forcing it forward to offer a pillowy cushion to suck up any rebound from a puck hitting his chest, but also ballooning it upward and outward … toward the top corners. Two wicked problems solved with one natural, unremarkable-looking, nearly invisible adaptation to his equipment.

Once they had the equipment and the strategy, goalies focused on putting all of this into play. Particularly intriguing is to watch them position their body when the action is to one side of their net, near the goal line. On their knees, one leg extended to the bottom far corner, the top of that leg pad filling the five-hole, their upper body crammed up against the post, their shoulders shrugged upward to take away the top corners, all of their body parts coming together so seamlessly. It is like watching an origami master in action, constructing not a paper crane, but a perfect wall. . . .

So for shooters and coaches, that is the strategy. Rush the net with multiple offensive players, multiple defensive players will go with them, multiple arms, legs, and bodies will jostle in front of the goalie . . . Somehow, the shooter’s shot will not make it to the net. So he will try again. Because what else can he do?

The result: This game, one that allows for such speed and grace, one that has so much open ice, is now utterly congested.

Dryden goes on to explain what happened in other games, in a exposition both convincing and fascinating.

Not long ago, basketball had the same problem hockey now faces. It was a game dominated by huge men—most notably Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—who could position themselves near the basket to score, rebound, or discourage any opponent from getting to the hoop. And the closer a player got to that hoop, the better, as a slam dunk or two-footer earned him the same two points as a 30-footer, and with much greater chance of success. The game’s real action, confined mostly to the paint, got predictable, static, and boring. Forty years ago, the NBA introduced the three-point shot. . . .

Only in the past decade has its effect been profound. The key player? Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors. Curry is not a novelty player. He is on the floor most minutes of every game. He is a central player on a team that has won many championships. Curry’s success shows again that when the impossible becomes possible, it quickly becomes the norm, and then, sometimes, it snowballs: The basic approach, the underlying strategy, the way a game is played, is forever changed. . . .

The three-point shot has now become a basic strategy, the way every team plays. A team goes up the floor looking for three-pointers. Two is okay; three is the target. The players position themselves for a three, the ball zinging from corner to corner to corner to find the open man with just enough time to take the shot that has a real chance of going in. If that doesn’t work, and a two-point shot is the only option, the shooter looks to attract contact from his opponent to create the foul that gives him a chance for a “hoop and a harm,” his three points scored a different way. Yet even when a three doesn’t happen, in their preparation for it, offensive players spread out, defensive players follow them, and the 10 players come to inhabit a bigger space. All 10 now have more room, more time. Quickness of feet, hands, and mind now matter more.

Players no longer need to get to the hoop. The action no longer needs to funnel toward the redwood forest of big men that guard it. Only the ball needs to get to the hoop, and in this NBA game, it doesn’t matter whether you are 7 feet tall or 8 feet tall; a ball shot from beyond the 23-foot-9-inch arc will loop over the outstretched arm of even the tallest player.  . . .

This NBA game, played on a much smaller surface than a hockey rink, is now far more open, much less congested.

Dryden also does a thought experiment — what would happen if we reduced the size of the hoop? The result would be everyone crowding under the basket and lots of fouls. It would eliminate the poetry introduced by the three-point shot and turn the NBA into a league of big men doing their version of televised wrestling. (That’s my metaphor, not Dryden’s.) The joy of watching would disappear.

The rest of the article is a convincing discussion of how we’re headed for a world where huge goalies kneel in front of the net while their opponents scramble for pucks that bounce off their pads — a lot like the ugly fantasy NBA scenario that Dryden painted.

And then he reveals his solution:

Maybe there is no foreseeable way to make the goalie smaller. Maybe you have to make the net bigger. Don’t fight using an old, losing narrative. Change the narrative. New golf-club technology made courses too short, so championship courses got longer.  . . .

But the size of a hockey net could change, and the change needn’t be too much. Maybe only six inches or a foot wider, maybe only six inches higher. And only for those in junior and college leagues and above. Just so a goalie’s carefully constructed, seamless wall can’t cover everything. So a goalie has to move, has to play off his goal line, has to go up and down. So he has to open up. So the slivers of open space are a little bigger. So he doesn’t think he can stop everything, and a shooter can think he might score. So an unscreened shot from farther than 20 feet might go in. So more “off the rush” goals might be scored. So players would want, and need, to spread out. So the action doesn’t always funnel and congest. And the rest of the ice surface matters. So all the skills the other players have developed, and will develop, matter. So the game is defined by every player on the ice, not just the goalie. So the dog isn’t wagged by the tail.

Dryden breaks the rule. He uses sentence fragments. And the result is completely convincing.

What you can learn from this

If you can get me to read about hockey goalies for 4700 words, you’re a pretty good writer. But there are no explosions and fistfights in this article. It’s simple, sparse, logical prose. And you can learn from it. For example:

  • No topic is boring. There’s an interesting way to explain it. You just have to find it.
  • Anyone can be a writer. If a hockey goalie can write like this, so can you. (I’m not taking anything away from Dryden’s skill. I just mean, it doesn’t matter where you start from, what matters is how you learn to use words.)
  • Trust your editor. I’m certain this article didn’t emerge fully formed like this. I can’t see the edits, but that’s the point — somebody likely told Dryden how to make it better than it was, without taking the storytelling away from the storyteller.
  • Start with people. This is not an article about 6-foot, 3-inch Andrei Vasilevskiy. Except that it sort of is, with Vasilevskiy standing in for every goalie in every NHL game ever. Every story is a human story, whether it’s about hockey or artificial intelligence or customer experience. Make sure we meet the humans. (And note that we don’t need to know much about Vasilevskiy’s background or parentage or career. That’s not important, so Dryden leaves it out. You don’t need it to understand the story.)
  • Block out the story before writing it. I don’t know how Dryden writes. Maybe he blocked out the story in his head first. Maybe he wrote a shitty first draft or a fat outline. But the story is there: big tall Vasilevskiy and his hanging belly pad, history of hockey and goalies, evolution of pads, how goalies position themselves, the congested game, the analogy of the NBA three-point shot and the lighter soccer ball, the problems with possible solutions, the bigger net. There is a plot to this movie, and Dryden follows it.
  • Use simple declarative sentences and clear descriptions. This prose is sparse and lacking in superlatives. There is not a single exclamation point in the whole thing. But there is plenty of description. Hockey is a visual game — with Dryden’s prose we can see the goalies getting taller, bending down, and positioning those pads to block as much of the goal as possible.
  • Write in flow. I think the thing I like best about this article is impossible to teach. It is how each sentence connects with the next until the whole thing becomes a chain of logic and storytelling. There is only one way to do this. Block things out ahead of time, then write in long sessions. I am betting the first draft came together in two or three writing sessions. You cannot write this way in 15-minute chunks with distractions. If you do, your prose will suffer.

Do this, and your writing will be better. Almost certainly not as good as Dryden’s, but better than it is now.

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  1. The pendulum swings – at one point goalies didn’t wear masks at all, and few of them had all their teeth or many unbroken bones in their face. They were considered cowards if they wanted to wear a mask. Then Jacques Plante got his nose almost torn off by a slapshot from a vengeful opponent, and told his coach (after they stopped the game to sew him up) that he wouldn’t go back out unless he could wear a mask. They had no backup, so the coach had to let him do it.

    Jacques Plante could be an arrogant person, but his story is fascinating, and there’s no doubt he had a huge influence on hockey well beyond his lifetime. If you don’t like to read biographies, read the play “Jacques Plante and the Parkdale Knitting League.” The main plotline is fiction, but the material of Plante’s career is true.