LOS ANGELES — In 1981-82, when Wayne Gretzky scored an NHL-record 92 goals, the Vezina Trophy went to Islanders legend Billy Smith.
Smith, a fiery competitor who Gretzky knew all too well, was listed at 5-foot-10, and that was about average height for a goalie in those days. A few, like Mike Liut, were tallish. But many others, like 5-foot-7 Richard Brodeur, whom a teammate once described as “this fat little guy,” were downright short.
In today’s NHL, 5-foot-10 is about the bare minimum for a goalie. Any shorter and he’d better be some sort of spectacular to even get a chance to play in the league.
“It used to be, and I say this in a nice way, the chubby guy was the goaltender because he couldn’t skate,” said Gretzky, “and now the goalies are the best athletes on each team. It’s harder to score. It’s really difficult. That’s the way it is right now.”
Indeed, it’s not just the height of modern-day goalies. It also that they’re more athletic than ever, and their techniques have evolved to the point that many of the goals Gretzky used to score would be routine stops.
The nets, meanwhile, are the same size today as they were when The Great One was piling up scoring records and his Oilers were averaging over five goals per game.
And there’s shot-blocking today. Lots of shot-blocking.
And everyone back-checks.
“The game has changed. Obviously it’s more defensive now,” said Gretzky, who spoke to reporters alongside Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr ahead of tonight’s NHL100 event at Microsoft Theater.
But for the record, Gretzky wouldn’t concede that everything was easier for scorers back in his day.
“They get more power plays now,” he said with a smile. “We used to get one five-on-three every 10 weeks, now we get three a game. That’s pretty nice. And three-on-three in overtime, I like that, too. The three of us would have been pretty good in three-on-three.”
Comparing the eras
1981-82: Billy Smith won the Vezina with a save percentage of .906
2015-16: Braden Holtby won the Vezina with a save percentage of .922
1981-82: 10 players scored 50 or more goals, led by Gretzky’s 92
2015-16: One player scored 50 goals, Alex Ovechkin