Equipment used to protect the face and head by a goalie in ice hockey.


Amazingly, goalies didn't always wear masks. In an NHL game on November 1, 1959, goalie Jacques Plante, playing for the Montreal Canadiens, was struck in the face and injured quite badly by a shot by Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers. It was one time too many for Plante, and he refused to return to the ice without his mask, which until then he had been wearing only in practice. Teams then did not travel with backup goalies, so his coach allowed him to wear it, but only reluctantly, because he feared it would obstruct his vision.

Plante had a few forerunners. On January 7, 1930, a shot by Hockey Hall of Famer Howie Morenz of the Montreal Canadiens broke the nose and cheekbone of goaltender Clint Benedict of the Montreal Maroons. Of course, Benedict finished the game, but only after putting on a mask that looked like a boxer's face guard and which was made mostly of leather. Two games later, he decided the mask was more trouble than it was worth and stopped wearing it. Even before that, in 1927, Elizabeth Graham of Queen's University wore a fencing mask for intercollegiate games.

But Plante continued to wear his mask. It was no wonder, since the fifties were the decade in which curved hockey stick blades were becoming popular and bigger and stronger players were honing the slap shots they had recently added to their repertoires. Even so, and even though Plante was working on his fifth Vezina trophy, he faced a lot of criticism because many people felt a goalie who wore a mask was scared.

There was criticism of the design too. What predominantly was in use was a clear facial shield that had been developed by inventor Delbert Louch and distributed to NHL goalies. But these were not used in games because they restricted the goalie's vision; they tended to fog up and reflect light funny. Plante had improved upon the design by enlarging the eye area and molding the mask more to contour his face. By the time he defiantly returned to the game in which he had been assailed by Bathgate shot, his mask was made of fiberglass and was quite resistant.

Soon other goalies were wearing masks. Terry Sawchuk, whose record of most career victories was not broken for thirty years, began wearing one in 1962. His was made by Lefty Wilson, the assistant trainer at the time of the Detroit Red Wings. Wilson would go on to make masks for several other goalies, like Gilles Meloche and Cesare Maniago. Each one had to be custom made, which involved the goalie's wearing a stocking over his head, his having his face slathered with petroleum jelly, and his breathing through straws while the mold was cast.


How could goalies resist an empty canvas? The elaborate artwork on goalie masks that you see today had a fairly innocent beginning. An early pioneer was Gerry Cheevers of the Boston Bruins, whose mask was covered in painted stitches, each one indicating where he would have otherwise been hit with a puck or clipped with a wayward stick. Cheevers has credited the Bruins' trainer at the time, John Forestall, with the idea. And as a practical joke, Doug Favell's teammates on the Philadelphia Flyers painted his mask orange.

Goalie mask artwork was soon used to intimidate the other team. Goaltender Greg Harrison, who played for the University of Toronto, made his own mask from a fiberglass car repair kit. It went so well that he turned his efforts to designing masks for NHL goalies, and each one turned out more impressive than the last. A mask worn by New York Ranger Gilles Gratton during the 1976-77 season depicting a ferocious feline is considered by many to be the all-time definitive work.

Combination Masks

On February 17, 1979, Philadelphia Flyer Bernie Parent suffered a career-ending eye injury when he was clipped by a stick. As a result, Many goalies began gravitating towards the birdcage-style mask and helmet combination that Vladislav Tretiak of the Soviet Union was wearing -- one of the early European influences on the game. But Dave Dryden of the Edmonton Oilers, feeling that it protected the goalie's head more than his face, cut out the face area of one of his Harrison masks, whipped out a soldering gun and covered the hole with wire, creating the prototype for the first hybrid mask and cage combination.

Improvements to the design have made this combination mask very safe. The major flaws of previous designs were that a puck that struck a mask would transfer the force of its impact through the mask to the goalie's face, and that the eye openings were very close to the goalie's eyes, allowing the edge of a puck to come into contact with the eye. Combination masks address these issues. No part of the hard shell of a combination mask touches the goalie's face. Instead the shell that covers his forehead and the top of his head is insulated with foam padding. The 5-inch wide steel grille that protects his eyes is two inches away from them. A chin strap holds the bottom of the shell in place while keeping it away from his chin and mouth. And at the back of his head, a separate backplate is held in place with an elastic harness and is attached to the main shell at the top to provide total protection of his head and face.

This is the type of mask that is mainly used today. Aside from its being considered to be the safest design, and aside from its having influenced the design of catcher's masks in the sport of baseball (which is another story), it once again brings out the artistic side of the goalies. Today's masks might depict beer, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin the Martian, the Statue of Liberty, or the mask artist's sons playing pond hockey.

Canadian Heritage Information Network. "Goaltender's Equipment", Virtual Museum of Canada. April 30, 2002.
Dennis Simone. "History of Masks", Painted Warrior Designs. April 30, 2002.
"Dave Dryden", May 3, 2002.

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