Tall Order

Despite A Growing Trend Toward Bigger Goalies, Smaller Netminders Continue To Steal The Spotlight

Seaking at the 2016 USA Hockey National Hockey Coaches Symposium in St. Louis, long-time NHL goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck  offered a stark assessment of his Hall of Fame career.

"As a goaltender at 5-foot-9, I'm a fossil now," Vanbiesbrouck said. "A goalie at my height may never be drafted again."

Vanbiesbrouck, who owns the mark for the most wins of any U.S.-born goaltender, is referring to the trend of goalies at hockey's highest level getting bigger and bulkier. And while American-born goalies such as 6-foot-7 Ben Bishop and 6-foot-6 Scott Darling make their mark in the NHL, smaller netminders continue to have a place in the crease.

For decades, netminders were on average some of the shorter players on the team. Aside from Vanbiesbrouck, goalies such as Rogie Vachon (5-8), Gump Worsley (5-7) and Glenn "Chico" Resch (5-9) all excelled between the pipes. Even Vanbiesbrouck's former teammate and fellow Hall of Fame goaltender Mike Richter couldn't break the 6-foot-0 plateau.

But in recent years, the wave of taller goaltenders has come in at a rapid pace. During the 1997-98 season, four of the 11 American-born goalies in the NHL stood under 6-foot. This past season, all 16 U.S.-born goalies eclipsed that height.

Vanbiesbrouck, who currently serves as the general manager and director of hockey operations for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the United States Hockey League, sees the change in goaltender size as the biggest change in the position in recent years.

"Most goalies now play from their knees. Everyone uses the butterfly style," he says. "In the past, smaller guys played a stand-up style that wouldn't give up the top part of the net. Now, if you're a small goalie and playing butterfly style, half the net is exposed."

Phil Osaer, USA Hockey ADM manager for goaltending, agrees that this trend can also be traced to leagues putting a limitation on the size of goalie pads.

"At some point in the 1990s, goalies started to find ways to make their equipment bigger to gain more net coverage, and the NHL caught on and rules were put in place, so then teams started to look for bigger bodies to play goalie," Osaer said. "So, the player who once may have been tabbed as a 'big lanky defenseman' became a player who 'looks' like a goalie."

But while taller goaltenders continue to make their way to the collegiate and professional level, there are a number of smaller goaltenders that continue to stand out.

Jeff Lerg is one of those success stories. Growing up in Livonia, Mich., Lerg was always the smallest as a young player and faced plenty of coaches that doubted his ability because of his height.

Despite those doubts from coaches, Lerg played his way to a scholarship at Michigan State University and backstopped the Spartans to the 2007 National Championship.

Since then, Lerg has bounced around a number of professional leagues. He is currently a netminder for the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL.

Lerg says that it's definitely an uphill climb as a smaller goaltender, but he has found success thanks to his quick reflexes and strong reactionary skills to the puck.

"I try to set very high expectations for myself," Lerg says. "As a smaller goaltender, you have to be great every night. I love the challenge."

While Lerg thrives, other smaller goaltenders are rising through the ranks. Tyler Parsons, a 6-foot-0 netminder from Chesterfield, Mich., is one that sticks out. He was the goaltender who stole the show and helped lead the United States to the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship gold medal.

Dylan St. Cyr, a 5-foot-8, Northville, Mich., native, is another undersized goalie who has found success with USA Hockey.

In April, St. Cyr started all seven games for Team USA as it captured gold at the 2017 IIHF Under-18 Men's World Championship.

As St. Cyr continues to move up through the ranks, Vanbiesbrouck has taken notice.

"It was refreshing to see a guy like Dylan pick up the puck so well," Vanbiesbrouck says. "He's kind of like the hope for all young goalies. It's funny, but it's true."

As a young hockey player, St. Cyr says he wasn't always the shortest goaltender around. He grew early and then peaked at 5-foot-8. But he's embraced his height and made the proper adjustments.

"You have to be able to read the play and make yourself bigger while not losing athleticism. It's important to find that balance," says St. Cyr, who is the son of Manon Rhéaume, a longtime Canadian women's national team goaltender who became the first woman to play in an NHL game.

St. Cyr has been able to give back as he has found success, helping other up-and-coming goaltenders who might not have the size of their puck-stopping counterparts.

"I just tell them they have to keep working hard and play to their full ability. They also shouldn't stray away from goaltending just because they're small," St. Cyr says.

"For myself and others, we just have to focus on getting better, proving people wrong and heading on that path."

And while Vanbiesbrouck questions whether he would make it in today's NHL, he still has confidence that smaller goaltenders will continue to make an impact in the game.

"It's definitely possible to be undersized and still be a valuable player to your team," he says. "Goalies continue to maintain their value to the sport."

Issue: 
2017-07

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