Eight hundred and seventeen goalies have appeared in a National Hockey League game since the 1917-18 season, from George Abbott to Rob Zepp. Many of them have tried to accomplish one of professional sports’ most exhilarating but rare feats. But to date, only seven of them have done it: a goaltender scoring a goal, on their own shot attempt, from the other end of the ice.
There have been 15 goals credited to 12 goalies in NHL history, beginning with Billy Smith of the New York Islanders in Nov. 1979. Seven of them were scored like Smith’s was: The goalie was credited with a goal because they were the last player to touch the puck before an opposing player accidentally put the puck into their own empty net.
The other eight goals, however, were scored when a goaltender shot the puck from around his own crease into the opposing empty net, typically around 180 feet away. It’s a feat of skill that, frankly, goes against the central programming of the position.
“When goalies are growing up and practicing, they’re not trying to score a goal,” said former NHL goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who scored on a shot for the San Jose Sharks in 2002. “Because your primary job is to stop the puck, you know?”
“You have to be strong enough to shoot the puck over everybody’s head and into the net,” he said. “It’s a little bit like a quarterback trying to throw a Hail Mary. You have to get through those windows of players in front of you before [the puck] can end up where you need it to go.”
Some goalies view scoring goals as a science. Others see it as absolute, unrepeatable luck. But those who have scored goals on shots say there are rules and techniques that have to be followed for them to happen. And they all have their theories on why the NHL hasn’t seen more of them.
He shoots, he scores
Then-Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ron Hextall was the first goalie to shoot the puck for a goal, scoring against the Boston Bruins in Dec. 1987. He then became the only goaltender to have done it twice when he scored against the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in April 1989.
“My teammates were always on me to shoot the puck and try to score. The fans in Philadelphia would chant ‘Shoot, shoot!’ whenever I got the puck with an empty net at the other end,” he said.
The NHL wouldn’t see another goalie score on a shot until March 1996, when Chris Osgood of the Detroit Red Wings knocked down a Hartford Whalers’ dump-in and flung it into the empty net for a goal. One year later, on April 17, 1997, Brodeur scored his first goal — and only one on a shot on net — in a playoff win over the Montreal Canadiens. Theodore added his name to the list in Jan. 2001, scoring on the backhand against the Islanders. Nabokov’s goal came just over a year later in March 2002 against the Vancouver Canucks, and Mike Smith of the then-Phoenix Coyotes scored against the Red Wings in Oct. 2013. Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators scored the most recent one in Jan. 2020 against the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I’m not gonna lie, I was like a little kid out there,” said Rinne after scoring. “I always dreamed of scoring a goal. And finally it happened.”
The list of goalies who attempted to score and failed dwarfs the successful attempts. Chris Terreri of the Sharks put a puck off the post less than a week before Osgood’s goal. Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen once shot the puck directly into Calgary Flames forward Sam Bennett‘s face on an attempt. Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson once knocked himself off-balance after tossing his head back in disgust when the puck rolled wide on an attempt.
Marc-Andre Fleury has made multiple attempts and almost scored once on Brodeur — bouncing the puck off the boards while the Devils’ goalie was retrieving his stick, then watching it deflect off of Brodeur’s skate and the post before it slid along the goal line and out.
“I really want to score,” the Vegas Golden Knights goaltender said in 2019. “I just want to be able to celebrate and see how it feels for once.”
Why didn’t it happen before 1987? For one, the position has gradually changed through the years, with goaltenders being permitted more freedom to handle the puck and, in the case of both Hextall and Brodeur, act as a de facto “third defenseman” in their own zone.
“Everyone knew it was evolving. Someone was going to score one, whether it was me or someone else,” said Hextall.
Since Smith was credited with the NHL’s first “goalie goal” in the 1979-80 season, there have been 101 shots on goal credited to goaltenders, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The most that any goalie had in one season was five by Hextall in the 1988-89 season. In 2019-20, Rinne was one of five goalies to be credited with a shot — including, incredibly, David Ayers of the Carolina Hurricanes, the ice-resurfacing machine driver-turned-emergency backup goaltender.
Hextall also had the most shots on goal for a goalie since 1979-80 (13), according to Elias. The active leader is Mike Smith, now with the Edmonton Oilers (six).
Theodore believes that the role of a goalie changed as a goalie’s equipment changed.
“The goalie’s stick was straighter [in the past]. There was no curve. There’s no way you could shoot the puck over the other players. Give a straight stick to Marty Brodeur and he’s not going to raise it off the ice,” he said. “So in the 1980s, you take that out of the equation. The big curves started. Hextall was the first goalie to act as that third defenseman.”
And once Hextall scored on a shot, and everyone saw the mania that accompanied the feat, goalies were inspired to do the same.
The Hextall era
Hextall remembers everything from his groundbreaking goal on Dec. 8, 1987. But mostly, he remembers caring about it a heck of a lot less than everyone else around him.
“The thing I get asked about the most is how exciting it was. The truth is that I wasn’t really into scoring a goal. If it happens, great. But it wasn’t me that was thinking about scoring a goal; it was more my teammates and the fans that encouraged it,” said Hextall, who was recently hired as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Their anticipation was expected. His goal into Boston’s empty net wasn’t all that dissimilar from his normal duties on the Flyers’ penalty kill.
“Part of our system in Philadelphia was that on the penalty kill, if I got the puck, I just shoot it over everyone’s heads. The four [penalty killers] would hold up as best they could, and I just put it over everyone’s heads. Since it was part of our system, inevitably I was going to get a chance,” he said.
We 🖤 goalie goals.
— NHL (@NHL) December 8, 2019
The most memorable aspect of that night for Hextall was the reaction from his teammates. “I remember when it happened and I was thinking it was pretty cool, but the whole team came off the bench. Scotty Mellanby, Rick Tocchet … they were yelling and screaming. It was almost like we won a playoff series. We got a two-minute minor penalty for delay of game because at that time you couldn’t come off the bench to congratulate someone,” he said.
Hextall’s teammates were eventually gifted copies of the game sheet on a plaque to commemorate the moment.
“In all the things in my career, that’s something I’ll never forget. My teammates’ excitement. And it was kind of a meaningless goal, in a sense, in terms of where the game was at. I can’t express how much that meant for me at the time,” he said.
His second goal scored on a registered shot came on April 11, 1989, in a playoff game against the Capitals.
Mike “Doc” Emrick was broadcasting the game, and was a soothsayer. “Keep in mind the Flyers have a two-goal lead and the Flyers are also shorthanded. There may be time for a first for Ron Hextall in the playoffs. The situation would be right,” he said on the air.
No less than five seconds later, Hextall stopped a Capitals’ dump-in from behind his goal and shot the puck down the ice into the abandoned net.
“It was in my mind because we were shorthanded and had a two-goal lead. The game was probably put away, but that would have really put it away. I would have shot down the ice anyway. If I could hit the net, super,” he recalled. “I remember on that goal, you could see [Pelle] Eklund jump in the air when it was almost in the net.”
The name “Ron Hextall” has become synonymous in hockey for two things. First, his aggressive, frequently felonious play in defending his crease, earning an NHL record 569 penalty minutes for a goaltender. Second, he’s considered the father of goalie goals in the NHL. He still chuckles at the mention of the second one. “Quite honestly, there are times when I wonder why people make such a big deal about it,” he said. “But It’s cool that goalies today are hoping to score goals.”
The right time to try for one
In speaking with goaltenders who shot the puck for goals in the NHL, there are a few consensus rules on what to do and what not to do in making an attempt at it. Call them the “Goalie Goal Commandments.”
1. Thou shalt not attempt to score with anything smaller than a two-goal lead. If Hockey Moses came down the mountain with these commandments on stone tablets, this one would be bolded and underlined. All seven goalies who scored on shots did so with a two-goal cushion.
“That’s my rule of thumb,” said Brodeur. “Then it’s automatic that I would try to do it. The players knew it, too. I remember teammates who would drop the puck back to me with a two-goal lead.”
2. Thou shalt understand thy own skill level. Not every skater has the kind of shot that merits running the point on a power play. Likewise, not every goalie has the puckhandling ability to attempt to score at the other end. These are just the facts of hockey life.
“You also have to have the skill to do it. If you look at the goalies that score goalies, they’re phenomenal playing the puck,” said Theodore.
3. Thou shalt try not to cost your team an icing. Even with a two-goal lead, an errant attempt at a goalie goal could mean a faceoff back in the defensive zone and, potentially, a chance for the team that’s trailing to get set up offensively better.
Can a commandment be debated? Hextall once had a debate with then-Flyers general manager Bobby Clarke about shooting the puck down ice for a potential icing. “I told him that I could freeze the puck, and the faceoff will be to my right side; or I could throw the puck down the ice for an icing, and the faceoff will be to my right side — but there’s 10 fewer seconds on the clock if I shoot it down,” he said.
4. Thou shalt not attempt to score unless the coast is clear. There have been enough missed attempts at a goal by NHL goalies that it fills three separate YouTube videos. Some missed attempts are just bad bounces. Others … well, they fall into the category of mental mistakes. Like in 2017, when Martin Jones of the Sharks followed our first Goalie Goal Commandment with his team up 4-1 … but then sent the puck right into Mark Scheifele for a layup Winnipeg Jets goal.
“If the forwards give you that clear lane, and they don’t come straight at me, I always try to take a chance,” said Nabokov, who is now Jones’ goalie coach in San Jose. “It’s my judgement. But it’s gotta be smart. I had some smart ones. I had some not very smart ones.”
5. Thou shalt not attempt to elevate the puck when a 6-foot-9 player is on the other team. “You have to get it high because you have to make sure the defensemen can’t knock it down with their sticks,” said Brodeur. “But if Zdeno Chara was out there, you were out of luck.”
6. Thou shalt not mess up things for your team because you’re looking to score a goal. “You better not mess up. The points are hard to get, so you better be careful,” said Brodeur.
Or as former NHL goalie and current Golden Knights broadcaster Mike McKenna put it: “You don’t want to be that a—— that gives up a goal because you got greedy.”
The Brodeur era
Brodeur holds an impressive collection of NHL records, as the league’s all-time leader in games played (1,266), wins (691), saves (28,928) and shutouts in both the regular season (125) and postseason (24). But where does Brodeur rank his record for all-time leading goal-scorer among NHL goaltenders (three)?
“Not that high,” he said with a laugh. “That’s not one I brag a lot about.”
Maybe he should, because he put in the time to achieve it. Brodeur and his backup goalies would take shots on goal during practice while the coaches were talking with skaters. “That’s where you learn. You try to shoot it off the boards, see how the puck spins. You have to work at these things,” he said.
Brodeur became one of the seven goalies to score on a shot on goal in the 1997 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it was a dream-like scenario for the Montreal native: on Hockey Night in Canada, hosting his childhood heroes the Canadiens in New Jersey in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
The Devils were up 4-2 with about 50 seconds remaining when Montreal defenseman Dave Manson sent the puck behind Brodeur’s net. “It was spinning a little bit, so the only way I could get really good wood on it was for me to get on one knee and make the shot as powerful as I could,” said the goaltender.
He lofted the puck out of the zone and over the heads of all the players, including John MacLean, the franchise’s second-leading scorer of empty-net goals. “I’ve always been surprised that he didn’t try to catch up and score himself,” said Brodeur.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) April 17, 2019
Brodeur’s son and his brother attended the game, and Brodeur could be seen laughing with them through the glass as the arena erupted in celebration of the feat, which Brodeur said nearly happened a second time in that series when the action shifted to Montreal.
“I had another chance and someone hit it with their stick at the red line. I could have had two goals in the series there,” he said. “It’s funny, we lost the next series to the Rangers and I ended up having more goals than Doug Gilmour.”
Brodeur’s second goal came on Feb. 15, 2000, off the stick of Flyers forward Daymond Langkow and with an unofficial assist from teammate Sergei Brylin, who hacked Langkow’s stick with to pry the puck loose.
“The amazing thing about that one, and the thing that’s going to be hard for anyone to repeat, is that it ended up being the game-winning goal,” recalled Brodeur. Indeed, the time on this one was weird: Brodeur scored at 9:43 of the third period, as the Flyers’ net was empty due to a delayed penalty against the Devils. That made it 3-1; Mark Recchi would score to make it 3-2, and the Devils went on to win 4-2, with Brodeur getting credited with the game-winning goal.
His third and final goal came on a “hockey play,” according to the goaltender, against the Hurricanes on March 21, 2013. This goal was odd for two reasons. Brodeur was credited with a power-play goal since the Devils were skating 5-on-4. It also wasn’t technically an empty net goal, as Hurricanes goalie Dan Ellis hadn’t completely left the ice when the puck went in. “Jordan Staal comes in on a breakaway and gets hooked for a penalty. Carolina pulls their goalie. I make the save, I’m out of position, and Staal tries to bank it off of me. I get out of the way and the puck goes all the way through me, hits the boards, goes all the way to the other zone and it goes in.”
Does Brodeur take more pride in scoring on a shot on goal vs. scoring one due to mitigating circumstances for the other team?
“I mean, you want to score yourself, but at the end of the day, goals are goals. Ask a goal-scorer. Pavel Bure had like nine empty-netters when he scored 50 goals. He’s still a 50-goal scorer,” said Brodeur.
And for context, skaters have hit 50 goals 196 times in NHL history. Only seven goalies have ever scored on a shot. It’s an exclusive club.
“For the amount of time that I tried when I played, I only scored one. And I was the best at it!” said Brodeur, with a laugh. “The question is how far and how hard you can shoot it for the puck to go into the net, when it’s the last minute of play with the ice quality like it is. There may be a couple of guys that aren’t comfortable shooting the puck that far.”
The technique behind the scoring attempts
When McKenna saw Hextall score a goal, his own objectives as a young goalie had to be reconsidered.
“My goal in life wasn’t to have shutouts in the NHL. It was to score a goal, as a goaltender,” McKenna said.
McKenna earned his “Hextall moment” playing for the Springfield Junior Blues when he was 17 years old, becoming the first goalie to score in the North American Hockey League. “Thankfully, I shot right-handed as a forward and right-handed as a goalie. So by the time I was like 13, I could launch the puck, when a lot of kids couldn’t. Especially American kids.”
McKenna was born in St. Louis, and noticed something about the handed-ness of U.S.-born goalies.
“This is a detail that’s actually important. A lot of American kids play baseball right-handed, and Americans tend to be right-handed in general. They catch a baseball with their left hand, but they shoot right-handed when they play hockey. Well, when they go to play goalie — because it’s America and because we think baseball first — they catch with their left hand, which means they have to shoot left-handed. So there’s a lot of really s—– American puckhandlers. Whereas the Canadian goalies who are good at handling the puck shoot the same way as a forward and as a goalie.”
When playing the puck, goaltenders grab the stick high with their bulky blocker glove and use the catching glove lower on the stick, applying pressure for better control and strength.
“We don’t have a perfect set of gloves where we can control and aim,” said Nabokov. “The blocker is somewhat similar. You can get the grip on the top of the stick. But on the bottom, when you have a goalie glove, you have that big rounded glove where you can’t get a grip with your bottom hand. That’s where the most trouble starts. You can’t get the perfect aim.”
The revolution in puckhandling came from former Dallas Stars goalie Marty Turco, who invented the “Turco Grip” while playing at the University of Michigan. Instead of the catching glove being used behind the stick for support, Turco flipped his catching glove over to the front side so it gripped the stick from near the top of the stick. The glove is also upside down, providing a new ability to almost sweep the puck. Suddenly, goalies who only thought about playing the puck on their forehand realized they could effectively play it on the backhand, too.
Once you have your hands right, getting air under the puck is the next challenge.
“Getting loft on the puck isn’t easy. Your lower hand essentially is not grabbing the stick. You’re just pressing on the stick with it. And then you have to get the puck in the right spot. Skaters have a greater bandwidth in how they can shoot the puck, but with goalies, it’s very finite. The puck has to be in the right place in order to launch the thing,” said McKenna.
Hextall would practice controlling the puck along the boards, turning his blade over and getting height on the puck. “I would have a coach come out and shoot pucks around so I could grab them. Corralling the puck on the boards on the backhand and then turning [the stick], like on my second goal. It doesn’t come naturally,” he said.
Assuming the goalie has enough power behind the shot, the next challenge is aim.
Brodeur was like a physicist when it came to goalie goals. “When you miss it, you know right away. The way I shot the puck was from the heel to the toe, so when there’s spin on the puck it’s always going to go towards the left side. So when I aim at the net, I aim at the right side of the net because of the spin and the ice and the snow. It’s like curling,” he said.
Hextall agreed that spin is the toughest component. “If you aim at the middle of the net, you’re probably going to miss the net. You have to aim at the far-right post, and if you do that, it’ll probably go in closer to the left post or the middle of the net at best,” he said. “Make no mistake, though: There is some luck involved. It’s like for a player when they get great wood on the puck and they put it exactly where they want to put it, or other times when they’re a little off. As a goalie, if you miss your shot by even a little bit, it’s not going in.”
Theodore was someone who believed it was less about science and more about the luck. “The goalies like Marty Brodeur knew they were going to score goals. They’re so good at playing the puck. But this was the least of my concerns. I couldn’t even imagine scoring a goal, because I wasn’t the best at handling the puck. It wasn’t even on my radar. Everything was just aligned that night,” he said.
McKenna wasn’t surprised to hear that form Theodore: “His goal is by far and away the most unique. That’s unheard of what he did. He just launched it and it happened to go,” said McKenna.
Theodore’s wild goal
On Jan. 2, 2001, Theodore and the Canadiens had a 2-0 lead at the Islanders. The puck was sent behind Theodore’s net in the final seconds of the game, and he sent it back down the ice and into the Islanders’ empty net to become the fourth NHL goalie in history to score on his own shot.
But it’s how he shot it that remains lore for goalies: On his backhand.
Theodore said his technique was inspired by how Curtis Joseph, who is sixth all-time in games played (943), used to handle the puck.
“It’s a backhand, but it’s a little like what CuJo used to do. When I played forward, I would shoot as a lefty. But I’m a righty when I play in nets. When you shoot the proper way, I’d need to shoot as a righty as a goalie. So because I’m stronger as a lefty but have to shoot as a righty because of my goalie gloves, I switch the stick over. So now my stance is like I’m a lefty, but my curve is the other way around,” he said. “It kind of looks like a lefty player shooting on the backhand, but because the curve is the way it is, there’s more of a scooping motion. That’s why I got it so high.”
It’s a skill Theodore developed on the penalty kill in Montreal, where he could be behind his own net and flip the puck so quickly and so high that he’d clear the cage and get it out of the zone.
“It’s more like a shovel. You scoop it up really high but without the same strength and control,” he said. “It helps because your lower hand is your blocker, so you have full hand control. The lower it is, the more control you have on your stick.”
Yet playing the puck like that puts a goalie at a distinct disadvantage when trying to score a goal, because it behaves with the unpredictability of a knuckleball in baseball. Mostly, the puck will roll like a hubcap that fell off a speeding car. “Nine times out of 10, it lands straight up. It never lands flat, because the puck is flipping up in the air,” said Theodore.
This was that 1-in-10 moment, though. “When it hit the ice, it landed flat. I saw it and thought, ‘Is this really going to go in?’ And then it went in,'” he recalled. “I just started jumping up and down. The bench came to me to celebrate. The coach was just laughing. It’s not something you see too often. When I talk to people, I brag that I got a shutout and a goal.”
In the 20 years that followed Theodore’s goal, there have been seven goalies who were credited with goals but just three more who scored on shots: Nabokov, Mike Smith and Rinne.
“I’m not surprised. I started playing before we had all these rules,” said Theodore.
Why haven’t we seen more of them?
In some ways, it has gotten easier for goaltenders to attempt to score goals. The ice is better maintained than it was in Brodeur’s days, with built-up snow that slows the puck down being shoveled more frequently than in the past. Teams are also much more aggressive in leaving their nets empty, pulling goalies earlier than ever before. The average time at which teams have pulled goalies for an extra attacker when down by a goal has shown modest but consistent growth over the last few seasons.
“That gives you lots of time to have a chance at it. It’s funny how it really hasn’t made a big difference,” said Brodeur. “I’m surprised there aren’t more goals now.”
One reason? The rules change that Brodeur inspired.
It’s officially known as “the trapezoid,” but it’s more colloquially known as “The Brodeur Rule.” The Devils goalie was so adept at playing the puck — acting as a “third defenseman” for his team as it perfected the neutral-zone trap defensive stranglehold system — that the NHL felt it needed to restrict where he and other strong puckhandling goalies would be allowed to ply their trade. Beginning in 2005-06, the league drew a trapezoid on the ice that extended seven feet outside of the goal crease. Goalies could play the puck behind their net, but could no longer venture to the corners near the end boards to act like a defenseman, or else it would be a minor penalty.
The NHL figured taking a skill away from its goalies would be a way to create more offense on the forecheck. But by restricting goalie movement, the NHL may have also restricted their ability to try for goals.
“Martin Brodeur could go out to the corner, get the puck and shoot it. Nowadays, you have these two lines behind the net and you’re really restricted as a goalie. If you stop it behind the net, you can’t really move it sideways or else you’ll get a penalty. Guys are really limited in where they can shoot the puck,” said Theodore.
Another rule tweak that impacted goalie goals is the league’s crackdown on obstruction. Forecheckers are getting into the attacking zone more cleanly now without being held up by defensemen, which has caused a shift in the way the puck enters the zone. As Brodeur noted, players are “transporting the puck a lot more into the zone” rather than dumping it into the corner like they did for decades. Combine that with the increased speed of NHL rosters — gone are the days of hulking fourth-liners looking for a brawl, now replaced by fleet-skating scorers — and goalies simply don’t have the time they used to have.
But that doesn’t mean the new generation of goalies won’t try to join the club.
“There are more goalies now that can physically do it than ever before. There’s an emphasis on stickhandling now. It’s something you have to be able to do. You have to be able to make passes now. It’s not a question. You can’t let the puck go around the boards behind the net and watch your defenseman get steamrolled in the corner. You will not play higher-level hockey if you get your defensemen hurt. So by junior hockey, goalies have to at least get out of their net and get comfortable handling the puck,” said McKenna.
Which goalies are ones to watch? Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers, for one. He scored a goal as a Russian minor leaguer in the 2013-14 season. In Feb. 2020, as a first-year NHL player, he made his first attempt at scoring in the NHL.
Shesty was 𝑔𝑜𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑓𝑜𝑟 that goalie goal. 😂 pic.twitter.com/SP4JVABU7s
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) February 1, 2020
“I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get one,” Rangers coach David Quinn said at the time. “He’s one of those goalies that can. He’s got poise and he’s got the ability, physically, to get that puck down the ice.”
Perhaps he has the tools to make it happen. Perhaps he’ll have the science down, or have the necessary good fortune. Perhaps he’ll be the next goaltender to achieve one of the position’s rarest feats in the NHL.
“I don’t know … are they rare?” corrected Hextall, curmudgeonly.
“When I scored the first one, I know it was a novel concept, because there wasn’t one scored before 1987. We’ve had eight goals scored in, what, 33 years? So how rare are they, really?”