Yokozuna in the Crease

Classically Unconventional: Sumo Wrestling Goalies
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Could a sumo wrestler work as an NHL goalie? It's a theory every hockey fan has pondered at least once in their life. It was even brought up by Rob Lowe during an episode of The West Wing. With goalies now wearing so much padding that they cover almost the entirety of airspace in front of the net that the puck could go through, it seems to compute that if you took a truly massive human being, like, for instance, a 400-pound sumo wrestler and put him in those pads, it might -- in theory -- be impossible for the opposing team to score on him.

In most other sports, rulebooks have closed the loopholes that could allow something like this from occurring, though there have been the occasional exceptions. The Oakland A's once signed an Olympic runner specifically to steal bases; Bill Veeck used a little person in a baseball game, who thanks to his miniscule strikezone, actually managed a walk. And given the fact that hockey has no restrictions -- as of yet -- on the size of goalies, a couple of existential questions about the idea come to mind: Where did the idea come from? Has a team ever tried it or even considered it? Would it even work?

It’s difficult to pinpoint the origins of the sumo-goalie hypothesis, since for all we know there was a guy living in Sri Lanka in the 70s who once said, “You know honey, I think a morbidly-obese man would make a great NHL goalkeeper.” But from all appearances, it looks like the idea didn’t enter the public consciousness until the 1990s. By then goalies had gotten large enough, and the padding they were wearing had become thick enough, that the idea of simply filling space in front of the net -- as opposed to having an agile man with almost unfathomable hand-eye coordination trying to stop the puck -- entered the public consciousness.

Meanwhile, the events taking place during breaks of hockey games were getting more and more outlandish, and even included fans dressed as sumo wrestlers competing in mock hockey games. All that, coupled with sumo wrestling’s increased notoriety thanks to regular coverage on ESPN 2, probably melded the idea into something even a non-sports-fan could grasp.

That it’s entirely possible for an NHL GM to fly to Japan, come back with a sumo wrestler, hand him a contract and have him in ice skates today seems less within logical reach for the non-sports fan. That might be why no hockey team in either the minors or the majors has had the gall to give it a try. Another speed bump: the idea of blocking every inch of the goal with human fat, to give opponent a zero percent chance at scoring seems tantalizing (and maybe a little disgusting) but it isn't all that practical. The length of a hockey net is six feet wide, so in order to get a human being to completely cover the net, 400 pounds wouldn't even come close. We'd be talking about a man physically incapable of getting through most doors, well into the 1,000-pound territory.

Thankfully for the inquisitive, that scenario was tested by the sports’ Mythbusters, John Brenkus’s Sports Science -- way back when it was a 30-minute show on Fox Sports Net and not just a segment on SportsCenter. The show pitted NHL player George Parros against a 500-pound sumo wrestler, and Parros had no trouble scoring at will against him. With a sumo who was a complete neophyte to hockey, it showed rather clearly that even an abnormally-large wrestler would be useless in an NHL game. Hockey players are so good at locating creases that unless every inch is covered using proper technique, the concept falls apart.

A more fascinating experiment was conducted by Todd Gallagher, who wrote about the theory in his book Andy Roddick Beat Me With a Frying Pan. Gallagher hired George A. Romero of Night of the Living Dead fame to create a prosthetic fat suit roughly the size of Robert Earl Hughes, an American who was considered the fattest man in the world when he died in 1958. Hughes weighed just over 1,000 pounds. Gallagher convinced a few Washington Capitals players to attempt to score on someone in the fat suit. The guy in the fat suit, who wasn't even able to lift the prosthetic arms, blocked most of their shots by default. But even he couldn't cover all 24 feet of scoring space, and the Caps players were able to score on him in breakaways and up close.

Still, there is potential. Add a few more hundred pounds to that fat suit or maybe even lay him on his side, and it is possible -- if completely impractical -- for a goalie to blanket the net.

Impracticality doesn’t stop at the crease, either. The logistics of hauling a 1,200-pound man onto the ice, getting him onto planes, covering his expenses, etc., would turn anyone off on the idea, not to mention the undependability of a man who could literally drop dead at any moment. Then there's there the limit on padding to NHL goalies, which would force the goalie to take 100-mile per hour slapshots against his flesh on a nightly basis. There’s also a rule limiting the size of a jersey that a goalie can wear, and while that rule doesn’t explicitly forbid a fat man from taking the ice, it would make things unbelievably uncomfortable for him.

That didn’t seem to bother Islanders owner Charles B. Wang, however. As recently as 2006 -- when GM Garth Snow took the job -- Wang  had made it clear that not only did he want to try to use sumo wrestlers, but was sure it would be successful. Thankfully for Islanders fans, Snow nipped this in the bud before it had a chance to develop.

And, ultimately, that’s the biggest reason it'll never happen. No GM wants to make a mockery of the game, or more likely, be known as the guy who made a mockery of the game. While some fans might pack the arena to see the spectacle, purist hockey fans would be repulsed. The media would go crazy. Players would be incensed. It wouldn't even matter though; even if some team managed to get a half-ton man to pass a physical (which is almost impossible, of course), and said man was able to block every single shot, a rule would no doubt pop up preventing such a tactic from recurring. It would be an exercise in futility.

All the same, it makes me wonder if there's still some potential to having a sumo wrestler on ice. If the choice is between a regularly-proportioned, skilled hockey goalie and a sumo wrestler who's never played the game before, the choice is simple. But what if there could be the best of both worlds? What if you could train a sumo wrestler to be a goalie? In 2012, the heaviest goalie in the NHL was Jason Labarbera at 230 pounds. Imagine if you took a player exactly as good as him, but doubled him in size; maybe a 460-pound Labarbera would be the best goalie in the world.

It's food for thought if nothing else.

Illustration courtesy of Matt Dupuis.

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