BOCA RATON, Fla. – It’s important for NHL senior director for hockey operations and goaltender equipment Kay Whitmore to understand how the changes he has discussed with goalie gear impact actual gameplay.
So when people in the league office in Toronto get together on the ice for some pickup action, the 49-year-old Whitmore straps on the pads and jumps in goal.
“It’s important to wear the equipment to see how it works or you can say, ‘I can make this smaller’ and then you go out there and go ‘how small is too small? Is it safe?’ But also, ‘Can I still play? Can I move? Can I do my job?'” Whitmore said. “You try to be fair and not try to do crazy rules and do things.”
Whitmore’s job with the NHL is one of the more unique positions in the league. He’s tasked with being somewhat of an interpreter and communicator between the NHL’s goaltenders, the Players’ Association and the league itself as they all try to figure out the best way to manage netminders and equipment. On top of this, Whitmore also works in the NHL’s situation room as the league monitors nightly action.
“It’s almost like a different sport within the sport,” New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow said. “You get a bunch of goalies in the room or former goalies, they can speak at a different level than maybe a player who was a forward or a defenseman.”
At large league gatherings, Whitmore often has to explain the nuances of the position to NHL power brokers. Many of them never played goal and see goaltenders as the issue with why goal scoring is down in the league. At these events, Whitmore needs to try to relay the concerns of the netminders to the NHL and then afterwards explain the league’s questions about goaltenders to the guys who play the position, the PA and manufacturers.
“It’s always an enlightening process when he does it and an enlightening session because he played the position,” Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee said. “He knows the position and works very well with the goaltenders in the league. He does excellent research and has really excellent visuals to look at.”
This season has been both challenging and rewarding for Whitmore. The NHL was supposed to rollout newer streamlined pants before the start of the year, but delays postponed this from happening until Feb. 4.
Whitmore was asked if he was at all sleepless the night before the day all goaltenders were supposed to wear the pants, but said a lot of his stress occurred before the season as the delays began to mount.
“I had more sleepless nights in the summer when I knew there were some things that weren’t quite where they needed to be to get ready for the start of the season and there were questions if things would ship on time and be ready to go,” Whitmore said. “I slept like crap in the summer. The night before the rollout I actually was like ‘you know what? This is finally going to happen.’”
By the time all goaltenders were being forced to wear the pants, several had already been using them full time, so Whitmore was comfortable that the concerns would be minimal.
“I was like ‘I know there’s going to be some calls in the morning with some interesting requests’ because there were a few guys that weren’t super happy about it,” Whitmore said. “The day went and there were a few questions and we had people on site at every game that night and making sure they were in them and got the feedback and pictures sent and then a couple of days were busy and right now hopefully it just becomes the norm. Some guys are now into their second and third pair of new pants and hopefully the cycle keeps going and going.”
One of the biggest concerns about the pants involved safety, and Whitmore tried to put players at ease by telling them they would be protected. Whitmore also took similar questions from general managers and noted that he understood some goaltenders are teams’ most important players and he didn’t want to put them in a position to where their health could be compromised.
“I think that’s why you spend so much time going over all the little details with the manufacturer and with our group and making sure we didn’t miss anything.” Whitmore said. “It’s always going to be a concern because hockey is such a dynamic sport that there could be an injury that has nothing to do with the changes you make, but in the back of your mind if you’re thinking things – sometimes people equate smaller with less safe, but we tried to make the safety exactly the same just in a narrower package and more form fitting.”
Part of Whitmore’s philosophy in his role comes from his own experience. He played 155 NHL games, some of which came in the league’s more offensively happy days and also in the Dead Puck Era.
“As a player I was a ‘take it out of the box and put it on’ and if I didn’t stop something I didn’t put much thought into how my equipment did it,” Whitmore said. “It was me and I made a mistake. There are guys who play today – they don’t think much about their gear. They’ve worn it the same way and they just keep ordering it the same way and keep playing with it. Then there are some other guys who are a little more cerebral about it – how they want it built, how they want it foamed and stuffed and how it fits and you ask a lot of questions because the one thing about doing any of this stuff is you have to really stay current and ask questions and talk and have a relationship with not just the Players’ Association but the goalies themselves.”
The next part of his streamlining process involves chest protectors, which is still a work in progress. Overall it’s unlikely that this will be the last change Whitmore will preside over, and he’s OK with this.
Issues with netminders and the size of their gear have been constant throughout the game and part of Whitmore’s philosophy involves being ahead of the curve to anticipate what will happen next.
“It’s never going to be over,” Whitmore said about questions on goaltending gear. “I think you always just have to keep managing it but you can sit down with the goalies and some of the better ones and they’re not afraid to call you or you just go to morning skate or a practice and sit with them for a while and talk and I think that’s very helpful for me.”
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