Last November, Chicago Blackhawks backup goaltender Scott Darling, a bearlike 27-year-old who stands six feet, six inches tall, offered a simple yet thorny truth to the Chicago Sun-Times: “Fans want to see goals.”
With the average goalie height exceeding six-foot-two, up almost three inches from the 1994–1995 season, and the cage remaining at its standard 48 by 72 inches, the National Hockey League is staring down a progressive scoring drought.
The average number of goals per game during the 1992–1993 season was 7.256; through January 4, the 2015–2016 season had an average of 5.401. As professional hockey scrambles to compete for eyes and ears with the other major sports in most markets, changes are all but inevitable.
A controversial fix took center ice last November when, during a press conference, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock ran the numbers.
“It’s impossible to score,” he said. “All you’ve got to do is a math equation. You go to 1980, when the puck went in the net. You get the average size of the goalies in the NHL and the average size of the net. You keep growing the net bigger, and that would make the game the same. We change the game every year because we don’t want to change the game.”
Former NHL center and current NBC sports analyst Jeremy Roenick agrees that big goalies pose a big scoring problem, but unlike Babcock, he doesn’t want the solution to come off the cage. “I’m a traditionalist,” he says. “I love the history of the game, and I don’t believe that changing the nets or making the ice surface bigger is going to do much more to enhance scoring.”
Roenick may take comfort in knowing the nets won’t be getting any wider—not yet, anyway. “To have that for next season would be a stretch,” says Kay Whitmore, NHL director of hockey operations and goaltender equipment. “It’s something that gets played up after a certain team has trouble scoring. To deflect criticism from his team, the coach says the nets should be bigger, and then it kind of takes on a life of its own.”
There is one thing that the NHL can shrink. Whitmore, a former goalie, announced in March that goalie padding will change next season “to fit the goalies’ body size a little better based on how big they really are.” It wouldn’t be the first time: The league made players’ leg pads shorter for the 2013–2014 season.
Among fans, the general consensus aligns with Roenick’s traditionalism. So what happens if another reduction in pad size fails to boost scores? Wider nets may make hockey more appealing to potential fans, but in the process it would produce a completely different game. Its hard-hitting tightness, especially in the playoff season, would quickly become a thing of the past. Instead of carefully setting up quality scoring chances, players would be free to shoot from all over the ice as soon as they touch the puck. The venerable Stanley Cup would be won merely by the team that shoots the most.
The result? Well, let’s put it in more familiar terms: Would football fans still turn out en masse if the NFL brought the end zone in 20 yards?