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New smell test emerges for goaltenders

Burning rubber becomes more common odor in harder-shot era

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

The smell is unmistakable, reminiscent of standing next to a car doing a burnout. It regularly fills the nose of Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price.

It's the smell of burning rubber, and it has become part of the life of an NHL goalie.

"I smell it all the time," Price said, "especially if you get a shot off the stick or if it grazes your helmet or sometimes even off the corner of your jersey, you can smell it."

The scent has become commonplace for this generation of goalies, mainly because of the increase in the velocity of the shots they face, thanks to the increased strength of players and technologically superior hockey sticks. Few remember the specifics about the first time they smelled it, but the aroma is unforgettable.

"It's the exact same as smelling burning rubber off a tire," said Los Angeles Kings goalie Darcy Kuemper, who remembers his first encounter from his time in junior hockey with Red Deer in the Western Hockey League.

Video: LAK@STL: Kuemper stops Tarasenko on a breakaway

Alex Auld wasn't indoctrinated into the club until after his NHL rookie season in 2001-02.

"I was surprised the first time," said Auld, who played for the Vancouver Canucks at the time. "I can't remember whether it was a coach or another goalie at the time, but they just said, 'Yeah, it's burning rubber,' and compared it to car tires. It made sense."

Auld, who is an analyst for Canucks games on radio, finished his NHL career with the Ottawa Senators in 2011-12, not before he had a puck burn through his jersey.

"[The shot] went off the edge of my shoulder and I could smell the burning rubber," Auld said. "The next day the trainer showed me the hole in the jersey. But it wasn't torn, more like it had melted."

It wasn't always this way. 

Kirk McLean, who played 612 games during a 16-season NHL career that ended in 2001, appeared perplexed by the question and said he doesn't remember ever smelling burnt rubber. Neither does Darren Pang, who played in the NHL from 1984-89.

But St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen knows the smell well. 

"It's distinct," Allen said. "It's tough to say for sure how often, but probably a couple times a week. A lot is off your mask, usually if [the puck] zings off the side on an angle, because it takes a bit of the puck off."

Video: NSH@STL: Allen robs Johansen with huge diving save

Not every goalie smells it as regularly. It takes the right kind of shot hitting the right way to create the smell, which is caused by rubber coming off the puck. Just as car tires leave black marks on asphalt after a burnout, the puck often leaves black marks on the pads, glove and jersey of a goalie.

"If it hits you dead in the face, you didn't smell burning rubber," said Martin Biron, whose 16-season NHL career ended in 2013-14. "If it just grazed you enough, with the rotation of the puck, it was enough to get that smell. Then it's very [pungent] and you have that smell of rubber for a good 5-10 minutes."

Biron said he smelled it "once a week, either in practice or in a game." Price said it is more commonplace than when he arrived in the NHL in 2007.

Pang said the regularity is not just the result of increased velocity, but the willingness of players to elevate those harder shots around the head of a goaltender, something that wasn't common when he played.

"Maybe I am wrong on this, but I watch Jake Allen and Carter Hutton get hit four or five times in the face in practice almost every day," said Pang, a analyst for St. Louis Blues games. "They never do anything about it, they don't have a fit. It's just normal practice now, it seems. Shooters are all taught they have to go high and they feel the goalies are so well-protected."

That wasn't the case when Pang, who's 5-foot-5, played.

"I should have smelled it, because with my low stance and height a lot of shots that were crossbar height or below were buzzing my ears," Pang said. "But if I got one off my head it was generally a mistake and that player came to you right away and said, 'Sorry, are you OK?' And if it happened too much from the same player you had a fit; you had to literally go after the player with one hand on your stick. It was a way different mentality. [New York Islanders goalie] Billy Smith wasn't getting hit in the face by Denis Potvin. [Montreal goalie] Ken Dryden wasn't getting ripped in the noggin by Guy Lafleur. They had way too much respect for their No. 1 goaltender, and they kept the pucks low because they knew the goalies weren't well-protected."

Auld said he thinks it changed, in part, because goalies spend more time on their knees in the butterfly era and, as Pang said, are better protected than before.

"We played with less and less fear every year because of better equipment," Auld said. "I feel like shooters don't care as much anymore because the goalies don't care as much."

Even if the shots are now hard enough to burn rubber.

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