Two weeks ago we introduced a new feature called Holy Crap, the 1980s Were Freaking Insane, a look back at a decade that saw goals scored at a level never seen before or since. We had some fun with a few of the decade’s stranger success stories, and plenty of longtime fans took the opportunity to reminisce.
But a few newer fans reached out to me with a question: What the hell happened? How did the NHL go from shattering offensive records throughout the ’80s down to the dregs of the dead puck era by the mid-’90s? What changed? That’s actually an interesting question, and the answer ends up being a lot more complicated than you might think.
First, it’s worth remembering that the ideal amount of offense in an NHL game is subjective, and that scoring rates have been going up and down for years. Many would argue that goal scoring was too high in the ’80s, turning the league into a one-sided arcade game lacking anything resembling defense. Lots of fans would prefer something closer to the middle ground we saw in the ’70s or early ’90s. In fact, some would even argue that the current scoring rates are just fine the way they are. (That last group is wrong, but we’ll save that debate for another day.)
So instead of arguing about whether plunging scoring rates were a good thing or a bad thing, let’s focus on why things changed so much in the first place. As it turns out, the list of suspects gets kind of long.
Goaltender equipment got bigger
We’ll lead off with this one, not because it’s the most important but because it’s the explanation that always comes up. It’s certainly true that goaltending equipment evolved considerably during the 1990s. Shoulder pads went from being almost unnoticeable to looking like they’d been borrowed from a linebacker. Leg pads went from lumpy brown sofa cushions to massive pieces that extended well beyond the top of the knee. Trappers started looking like hubcaps, oversize jerseys became the norm, and some goalies even started wearing their hockey pants several sizes too big.
Fans tend to focus on the equipment issue because it’s so easy to see — watch any old footage from the ’70s and ’80s and the difference is striking. But the impact of equipment is probably overstated. It was a factor, but far from the only one.
The goalies themselves got bigger
It wasn’t just the equipment that increased in size throughout the ’90s and beyond; it was the goaltenders themselves. With a handful of exceptions, they’re massive now.
There had been big goalies before — six-time Cup winner Ken Dryden was considered huge at 6-foot-4 — but the league was still home to guys like 5-foot-7 Allan Bester or 5-foot-5 Darren Pang in the ’80s. These days, it’s rare to see a goaltender who stands less than six feet tall, and even Dryden would find himself looking up at guys like Ben Bishop and Pekka Rinne. (To really drive the point home, here’s a recent shot of Pang and Bishop trying on each other’s equipment.)
While it’s true that forwards and defensemen are getting bigger, too, the trend has been much more pronounced for goalies. And that’s because the way the position is played has changed...