By Kelly Lockwood, PhD and Colin Dunne MSc, Faculty of Applied Health Sciences, Brock University
Traditionally, the cowling on a goaltender skate boot has served to protect the foot and hold the blade in position. Consistent with current innovations in players’ skates, the material properties of the goaltenders’ skate boot have evolved from leather to synthetic materials, carbon fiber and resins with reinforced toecaps to improve protection, structure and durability. Stronger, stiffer and more protective boots have eliminated the need for the cowling and as such, the cowling has been replaced by a blade holder that resembles the design of a players’ blade holder.
What is Blade Alignment?
Blade alignment is the positioning of the blade holder and blade on the skate boot. It is common practice at more advanced levels of play and athletic abilities to customize blade alignment of a player’s skate to suit technical styles of play, individual preferences, and specific anatomical configurations, for example if the athlete is knock-kneed or bow-legged. Specific to goaltenders, the concept of alignment has traditionally been handcuffed by the design and fit of the cowling preventing any movement of the blade holder in relationship to the boot. The redesign of the goaltender blade holder provides the opportunity to move the holder medially (towards the inside arch of the foot) or laterally (towards the outside of the foot) and customize alignment.
But how do we decide if alignment matters?
The contribution of equipment to performance starts with an understanding of the movement characteristics of technique and the demands of the game. Goaltenders block shots. The butterfly is the most common save technique; performed approximately 34 ± 6 times per game at the elite level . The butterfly technique is initiated in an upright ready stance position, the goaltender drops to both knees causing leg pads to flare outward and flush with the ice. Following the drop, the goaltender can either recover to their original ready stance position, recover to a new position on their feet, or can slide across the goaltender’s crease while maintaining the dropped butterfly positioning, referred to as the lateral butterfly slide. In today’s game, the butterfly is frequently used due to the effectiveness of the position – the legs cover the bottom of the net while the goaltender’s upper body remains upright with arms free to move in order to simultaneously maximize coverage of the top of the net.
Research supporting the contribution of equipment and/or the customization of equipment setup to a goaltender’s performance is somewhat limited however, there is some evidence to suggest that technique can be improved by manipulating equipment design, fit and function. For example, the influence of the width of leg pads to the butterfly save technique has been examined and results have demonstrated that an athlete can achieve greater hip internal rotation with the use of worked-in 27.9 cm wide pads in comparison to new 27.9 cm wide pads . Furthermore, the effect of different leg pad channel conditions, namely, the housing of the leg in the pad, has demonstrated differences in mean peak butterfly drop velocities measured between 2.82 ± 0.58 m/s and 3.05 ± 0.64m/s  and differences in butterfly width of 0.22 cm . These results suggest that manipulations to the goaltender leg pads can influence function and improve butterfly drop performance.
But what about the location of the blade on the boot? Would alignment enhance the execution of goaltender-specific movement patterns?
Adopting player-like blade holders for goaltenders has presented an opportunity to explore the effect of blade alignment on the execution of goaltender-specific movement patterns, with the goal to enhance technique and ultimately playing performance. The purpose of our research was to investigate the effect of three different blade alignment positions (medial, lateral and neutral) on kinematics and kinetics during the execution of two different goaltender-specific movement patterns; the butterfly drop to recovery and the lateral butterfly slide to recovery. The study initially addressed differences between the cowling versus a player-like holder when both were mounted in a neutral position. This allowed us to suggest that the cowling did not offer any further advantage to the player-like holder when both were mounted in a neutral alignment. We then compared the three blade alignment conditions facilitated by a player-like holders (medial, lateral and neutral) on the kinematics and kinetics of the butterfly save technique.
Research questions are often guided by theoretical concepts or as in this case, biomechanical models. It would seem logical, if you can position the athlete to be ready to drop and apply greater pressure; the initiation of the movement would be quicker and the drop velocity faster. Outcomes revealed that the medial blade alignment positioned the athlete to generate higher peak plantar pressure and drop a faster. The results of the study provided empirical evidence to support our biomechanical understanding of how shifting the blade to the medial aspect of boot would enhance save potential.
How do small tweaks in equipment create a significant impact?
Hockey is a game of seconds – a lot of time and resources are spent training hockey goaltenders to ensure they are physical fit, technically astute and mentally prepared to perform at their highest level or ability. However, previous research has revealed that even small tweaks in equipment can have a significant contribution to performance. If we were to interpret the data in isolation or outside the context of game performance, the differences revealed may seem relatively minimal, or so what? However, when interpreted in the context of the fast-paced sport of hockey and specifically, the execution of save techniques, outcomes may have significant practical applications, specifically the goaltender’s ability to save shots. For example, based on the mean vertical displacement from ready stance to butterfly positioning for the goaltender (0.49m) and mean shot velocities by college level players (30.6m/s) , the goaltender could achieve the butterfly positioning in time for the puck to make contact with them for a shot from: neutral blade alignment – 9.27m (30.41 feet); lateral blade alignment – 7.56m (24.80 feet); medial blade alignment – 7.22 m (23.69 feet). Therefore, in a scenario where the goaltender is using a medial blade alignment, they can perform the butterfly drop into butterfly positioning for a shot from 2.05m (6.72 feet) closer compared to when in a neutral blade alignment. The ability to execute the butterfly drop faster is a major advantage in a hockey game as it provides the goaltender the ability to get into position for a larger percentage of total shot scenarios, especially considering the offensive zone of the rink is only 19.51m (64 feet) long.
Outcomes of this study may not explicitly inform equipment managemers what blade alignment is best suited to ALL goaltenders; there is no one size fits all. However, the research provides some insight and understanding to further explore customization beyond the traditional neutral alignment provided by equipment manufacturers.
Blade alignment has the potential to contribute to goaltending-specific technique and performance benefits.
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About the Authors
Colin Dunne is currently a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences at Brock University. His research focuses on biomechanics and specifically, the contribution of equipment to performance in on-ice sport.
Dr. Kelly Lockwood is a Professor and Applied Sport Researcher in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences at Brock University. Through the disciplines of exercise physiology, biomechanics and engineering, her work explores human and non-human factors that contribute to athletic performance.
Photos courtesy of Kelly Lockwood and Colin Dunne