Nothing But Butterfly

Dear Editors,

It’s time to refresh our hockey vocabulary. If your article “Against the Butterfly” at times reads like an overwrought conspiracy theory, it is a problem of terms. All good conspiracy theories rely on a manipulation or confusion of terms. Happily, the confusion here can be praised while criticized; your errors are useful. They make a clear and winning point by accident: goaltending language is lagging behind the game. When language lags, it obfuscates, and this cannot be helpful to the imaginations of young goalies everywhere.

The article concludes: “Butterfly goalies believe that there’s nothing else to learn; goaltending has an end and they are it. Certified butterfly goalies go out to teach butterfly goaltending and produce other butterfly goaltenders who are not real goaltenders, but who produce still other butterfly goaltenders who are not goaltenders.”

But there are only butterfly goalies. The hero of your article, Tim Thomas, is a butterfly goalie, though he plays the role expansively, with his own explosive and inventive style. What is his style called? I don’t know, but it’s a worthy question. Naming the subspecies of the butterfly would make them easier to argue about on the ice and in the stands. It would make them easier to teach, to learn, and—for the inspired—to develop further.

A butterfly goalie was first defined in opposition to a stand-up goalie, but stand-up goalies have been extinct since the ’90s, and their disappearance has taken the punch out of the butterfly definition. It’s no longer the exciting and generative term it once was when there was an alternative style. Today it doesn’t mean anything. All pro goalies use the butterfly move when the puck’s shot low or when the play is in tight to the net. Thomas butterflied his way to the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy.

The photograph at the top of “Against the Butterfly” shows Thomas down on the ice with his glovehand outstretched. He’s pulling a puck destined for the top left corner out of the air. It is funny that you write, “Thomas is one of the few goalies on whom going top shelf isn’t a sure-fire goal, because he’s not only playing the angle but staying on his feet.” First of all, going top shelf isn’t a sure-fire goal on any goalie in the NHL, not even in any particular situation, not on prime slot shots, not on breakaways. And you show Thomas off his feet making this save with grace.

Whether goalies stay on their feet or go down in the posture Thomas assumes on your article splash cover, they always imagine they have the top of the net covered. The goaltending style made famous by Francois Allaire and Patrick Roy and kept famous by Roberto Luongo is not an “if-then program based on percentages.” It’s a game of angles. The fundamental idea is that the angle the puck can travel from a shooter’s stick to the back of the net is fully occupied by positioning or is within quick workable reach. If Luongo goes down on his knees, he’s not abandoning the top of the net. If he gets scored on up high, he’s made a mistake. Either his position wasn’t good, his shoulders weren’t square to the puck, or his hand was just too weak and slow, too lame that day.

The only time a so-called butterfly goalie plays a percentage—the only time he gambles—is when there is a screen and he can’t see the puck. Then he hedges and covers the bottom of the net. Part of this bet is that the shooter will not aim high and risk pelting his own teammates, who are providing the screen in front. There are also more gaps, more holes, in the screen down low. It’s a good bet. But that’s all the betting. 

If we preferred watching Thomas this year—if so many other NHL goalies were unspectacular, as you argue—it’s because Thomas was the very best. In the playoffs, he was a genius. In the future, he won’t be a genius all the time. He’ll get pulled when, for some inexplicable reason, routine shots slip through his equipment and land softly in the back of the net. We loved watching him this season because he did what LeBron James in the concurrent NBA playoffs failed so miserably to do—he overcame the existential anxieties all athletes face, and which goalies, as the last line of defense, face with particular pain when playing badly. Thomas focused. Luongo couldn’t focus, and so he invited doubt—his own, and our doubt en masse—and doubt make him porous. It couldn’t have helped that Thomas, his mirror image at the other end, shimmered with a radiant, untiring confidence.

Can what Thomas does be taught? Should he be a model for a new goalie pedagogy, one more free and unorthodox? Yes and no. There is nothing inherently corruptive about the popular Francois Allaire butterfly style. It does not enslave goalies and make them cowards, victims of their learning. This idea is offensive. It assumes students have no minds or imaginations of their own, that they swallow their learning whole, without hope of the new. The same way we learn the fundamentals of writing or fishing for that matter, we learn the rules and inner workings, but not necessarily to believe in and follow them like unthinking things. I give young goalies more credit. They know that champions of sport use rules as points of departure. That’s what the highlight reel is for. The Allaire pedagogy is not The Nothing—devourer of the collective goaltending imagination. There is no such thing as a certified butterfly goaltending instructor. This isn’t Bikram Yoga.

Also, talent matters. Tim Thomas had, in this series, an uncanny ability to recover from the butterfly fast—faster than Luongo, for example, who might stay down longer for efficiency’s sake. Thomas’s legs gather up and he pops off the ice with snap. He has an explosiveness that allows him to experiment and recover back to position. Most mortals are not that fast, and never will be. He might not always be so fast, and then he’ll have to make different choices for the sake of stopping the puck.

If anything, Thomas proves that at base the so-called butterfly style works. He adheres to its fundamentals, whether consciously or not. But he interprets it according to his own strengths. And he dances too. Dominic Hasek danced, but his dance was inimitable and weird (though we all learned to jam our sticks and to do a reverse two-pad slide from him). Maybe this new dance needs a name, or maybe there need to be a couple of names set up in opposition. We can’t call it the butterfly because that’s too general and no longer means anything. Nor can we continue to call new styles unorthodox because that isn’t helpful. Names make new dances easier for people to embrace. Names make dances popular.

—Jesse Ruddock (a writer from Guelph, Ontario, who played starting goal for Harvard from 2000-2003. She grew up playing AAA boys’ hockey, high school boys’ varsity hockey, and trained every christmas break and summer with the great Dave Tataryn.)

Image: Tim Thomas in Game Four of the Stanley Cup Final, June 9, 2011. From ihockeytown.com.

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