In the geologic timeline of the NHL’s 100 years, the goalie mask is a somewhat recent artifact. Despite a brief flirtation in 1930, the league did not embrace safety face ware until 1959 and all goaltenders didn’t fully adopt it for more than a decade after that. Yet the mask itself has become an intriguing mix of art individuality and utilitarianism and an iconic symbol of the league itself.
In the latest edition of NHL 100, a weekly series from The Canadian Press, we look at some memorable masks.
AHEAD OF HIS TIME
Clint Benedict, the Montreal Maroons goalie, was the first in the NHL to take action as bigger, players, faster speeds and rising pucks began to take a toll on goalies’ teeth and faces. After a Howie Morenz shot shattered his cheek and nose, he returned to action weeks later, on Feb. 22, 1930, wearing a leather face guard, strapped on by wire, resembling the capital letter I, from forehead to chin. It reportedly obscured his vision so he didn’t stick with it. Lasting change would wait two more decades.
Jacques Plante, the Montreal Canadiens goaltender, was fed up with his face being used for target practice, smashing his nose, cheeks, jaw and skull. Enter Habs fan and Fiberglas salesman Bill Burchmore. In 1959, he cast a mould of Plante’s face to create a simple shield that Plante debuted on Nov. 1, 1959. Within a decade the Fiberglas mask had been adopted by almost all goalies in the NHL. The last one to play sans mask in the NHL was Pittsburgh Penguin Andy Brown in 1974.
THE ART OF THE HEAL
Art follows form. The early Fiberglas masks were like a beckoning white, oval canvas, starting with Boston Bruins goaltender Gerry Cheevers. Cheevers, starting in the mid 1960s, began drawing exaggerated stitches on his mask to mark every shot to his noggin. His second mask was covered in zipper-like scars to become the signature mask of the pure-Fiberglas era.
FACE OF INNOVATION
Ontario’s Greg Harrison, a one-time practice goalie, can lay claim to being the landmark artist and craftsman of hockey masks, his work spanning two eras of face protection. His iconic artwork on goal masks of the 1970s includes a roaring lion for Gilles Gratton, a hissing cobra for Gary Simmons, and a skull for Gary Bromley. When safety forced the Fiberglas masks to retire, Harrison teamed up with goalie Dave Dryden to create the modern-era’s combination cage-mask combo helmet.
THE MODERN MASK
When it became apparent in the late 1970s that the tight-fitting Fiberglas masks made goalies susceptible to eye injuries, the shields were ultimately replaced in the 1980s by the modern combinations of cage and masks. The art evolved, too. Early Fiberglas masks were painted one colour or had team logos. In the decades since, they have become more personalized to the goalies themselves â€” favourite movies, musicians, civic landmarks, and nicknames â€” and illustrated in new techniques like airbrushing, glow in the dark paint, and colours that change with temperature.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press