Well into the 2012-2013 National Hockey League lockout with no real end in sight, players near and far are looking for ways to stay in “game-ready” shape. Some have gone overseas, while others have jumped into AHL and ECHL lineups here in North America.

Aside from a few select goalies, however, you won’t find NHL netminders defending their crease in a time of war between the NHL and NHLPA. With roster spots being few and far between, they have found other creative ways to stay flexible. But it appears nearly impossible for them to be truly “game-ready” without actually playing or practicing under the usual rigors of the grueling and exhausting NHL.

Some NHL players have even stated that unstructured practices with their NHL teammates just aren’t enough to be ready for a season. Ryane Clowe, who should be cutting up NHL rinks across North America with his San Jose Sharks teammates, is instead practicing with the ECHL’s San Francisco Bulls and filling the role of Assistant Coach on game days.

“When you are practicing with a team you just have a better environment than when you are skating by yourself,” said Clowe of his decision to practice with the Bulls. “We only have a couple of guys in San Jose, so I definitely wanted to stay near a team and keep my conditioning up.”

Obviously Clowe isn’t a goalie, but he makes a good point about practicing with a team.

While some may view goalies as a “one-man island” so to speak, they are far from it. Working well with teammates, creating chemistry in the defensive zone, taking cues from the action in front of, behind, and around them, and other aspects of moving the puck up the ice is integral to the development of a goalie’s situational awareness. But during the lockout, goalies just aren’t getting a chance to hone those aspects of their game.

So while goalies are doing their best to find ways to stay sharp, the worry remains that when the NHL returns, they will have the toughest time.

Some have argued that the 2004-05 lockout is responsible for some netminders losing their starting positions, but with rule changes following the lockout, the introduction of gear-sizing restrictions, and the tempo of the game increasing, it’s hard to tell if the lockout can be held fully responsible for what appeared to be a lackluster start to the 2005-06 season for the goalies.

Regardless, with players from every position finding it hard to stay in shape in these desolate times, the lockout now well over 90 days, it’s refreshing to see goalies hitting the ice, giving fans and teammates alike the chance to see glimpses of the greatness behind their pads.

On Dec. 14, fans cheered and booed as a Jonas Hiller vs. Ryan Miller goalie battle took place in Anaheim to raise funds for the Children’s Hospital of Orange County and the Jr. Ducks PeeWee AAA squad.

While the game was played at half-speed, no contact, and high scoring, the chance to see Miller defend…well, sort of defend…a crease while Hiller did the same on what was termed “home ice,” was met with an impressive crowd and great enthusiasm.

Ultimately, Hiller came out victorious with his teammates, but the event left some players longing for more, and among the hockey enthusiasts at the charity event, an increased tension could be felt.

While everyone understood that this game was meant to be fun, questions were raised as to the current state of the men between the pipes. Were they in shape? Would they be ready for an NHL season? What were they doing in their off time, and how was the lockout truly affecting them?

Not exactly appropriate questions for a charity hockey game, so the basics were asked of the players. Hiller, however, alluded to the fact that he could use some “real” hockey in his life right now.

“I think it’s always cool to get a little scrimmage going, especially right now. Sometimes we skate with quite a few guys but we were finally able to play full ice, four-on-four, and have some people watch,” Hiller said in a not-so-reassuring way. “It was a good atmosphere I thought, but hopefully this [CBA negotiations] isn’t going to take a whole lot longer, and we finally can play real hockey again. But this is better than nothing.”

When a scrimmage is the best practice many NHL goalies seems to be getting right now, those are scary words to hear. Players, fans, and everyone in between will be relieved when the lockout ends, but no matter what, only time will tell if the goalies will have paid the biggest price at the end of it all.

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