Goalie research protects bodies, saves goals

Every goalie, Ryan Frayne included, hates to let a puck by – especially ones through the dreaded five-hole. Perhaps that’s why the fourth-year PhD candidate’s work at Western’s Wolf Orthopaedic Biomechanics Laboratory, at the Fowler Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic, looks to shut the pads on that problem.

Working with Kinesiology professor Jim Dickey, Frayne started his research testing ice hockey goalie equipment and its effects on the body. Goaltenders have high incident rates of femoroacetabular impingement (FAI), a condition where the bones of the hip are abnormally shaped and begin rubbing against each other, causing damage to the joint. Frayne sought to determine a potential cause.

“We primarily focused on the hip kinematics and how they were being affected by the equipment,” Frayne said. “It may be the case the butterfly technique is kind of the No. 1 reason. We wanted to know if the equipment could actually be minimizing that effect or would actually exasperate the chance of getting FAI.”

The butterfly style is a goalie technique used to protect the lower part of the net by dropping to the knees to block attempts to score. The name comes from the resemblance of the spread goal pads and hands to a butterfly’s wings.

During their research, Frayne and his team explored strap setups (the pattern by which the pads are affixed to the legs), as well as how wide and how fast butterflies were in different styles of pads. With a few extra sensors, he collected loads of data and saw an opportunity to break his research into two avenues – the impact equipment had on the body, as well as the impact it had on performance.

The latter focus has since created an industry partnership with Reebok-CCM Hockey, where Frayne’s findings supply performance measures toward the creation of the next generation of goalie pad models. In fact, the new Extreme Flex II goalie pads from Reebok-CCM are designed using Frayne’s research.

“Ice hockey goalie equipment is fairly expensive,” Frayne said. “A lot of companies are always trying to come out with the next best thing. Right now, a really jazzy thing is to try and just cut weight and get pads as light as possible. An easy way to do that is just to remove the leather straps from them as much as possible. They actually account for a good portion of the weight.”

In removing those straps, however, manufacturers then change the way the pad interacts with the goaltender. Frayne had some questions about that: Did removing straps make the pads fall behind in their movements? Does that leave the goaltender exposed to shots?

“We wanted to figure out if we could correlate what straps were most pertinent to performance. In doing so, we found some redundancy in the top straps, particularly, and in the lower straps. We found they really didn’t have much effect on the performance of the goaltenders. Using that information, we then made the decision to remove selected straps, keeping the ones that were pertinent to performance. We cut weight – but did it in an intelligent manner.”

The new strapping resulted in a butterfly drop 6.1 per cent faster than with other goalie pads. To put it in terms of what it means for a goalie – a competitor’s pads remained airborne longer, creating a gap between the pads and the ice the size of more than one-and-a-half pucks high.

“Everything happens so fast in a hockey game. The speed for goaltenders to drop to the ice to stop a puck is sometimes not fast enough, depending on where the shot is coming from,” Frayne said. “But that 6 per cent can actually account for the height of a puck – and then some. If you have a puck right along the ice and you don’t have the stick between your legs, that puck is going in the net, whereas if you had a right pad set up, you could actually seal the ice and stop the puck. It can make a large difference if you’re the goalie, that’s for sure.”

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At a recent London Knights game, Frayne saw a pair of his research-inspired goalie pads used by the visiting team’s goalie.

“I had a smile on my face when I saw what he was wearing,” he said. “I know in the NHL it’s going to be something that’s grandfathered in, since a lot of NHL goalies are set in stone and they like ‘x’ number of straps and that’s fine. They are making millions of dollars for a reason; so they can decide what their strap set up is going to be.”

Frayne admitted goalies are an “interesting breed,” akin to running shoe junkies. They love new equipment; they love new colours; they love new designs.

But they also want to know what it all adds up to for them.

A lot of goalies – and consumers, in general – are becoming information based, he added, wanting to know how equipment will improve their game. Not only are they looking for a specific colour or design, they’re looking for pads that will actually improve their performance.

“For a goalie, all you say to anyone is ‘it feels good.’ As a scientist, I didn’t like just saying that. I wanted a number to explain what we’re seeing and why it felt good,” he said. “We’ve been lucky enough to throw some numbers on that, to give a lot more background. You may feel good, but, by the way, it’s making you faster as well, and these are the numbers.

“I wanted to take it from a qualitative atmosphere to more of a quantitative approach. It’s obvious goaltenders need to have a feel for their equipment. But having those two things work in conjunction can actually improve the information in making the right selection of goalie pads.”

Frayne is now collecting data on power pushes, a move where a goalie in the butterfly position lifts one leg and pushes to the side to protect the net. That research explores how the pads are lifting off the ice as the goalie slides across.

“There is a tendency for that front leg to lift off the ice. As you now, once it’s off the ice, a shot along the ice is vulnerable to going in,” he said.

As technology improves, so will research, said Frayne, not only in his with PhD focus on hip kinematics, but in the equipment being used. To date, there really hasn’t been much quantified research to fuel what’s going on with equipment design and development. While today it’s goalie pads, in the future there is the possibility of looking at skates, gloves, shoulder pads and helmets.

“That’s all going to change very quickly. I think this is going to kind of help Reebok-CCM, and other companies for that matter, to start using quantified evidence to fuel their development, as opposed to just professional player feedback.”