By Phil Hecken (with a glove save and a beut by Teebz)
A couple of weeks ago, I was approached by a reader who asked me about goalie numbers. Being that I’m not really a hockey guy, I forwarded that request to Hockey Wing President Teebz, suggesting to the reader that Teebz could probably answer the questions off the top of his head. Sure enough, he did, and I suggested we should put together a piece on that for Uni Watch. Unfortunately for me, by that time, Teebz had already turned it into a fantastic story for his own blog. Undeterred, I approached Teebz to assist me with something even more interesting than the goalie number: the goalie mask. There’s quite a history behind this invention-out-of-necessity. Below, we’ll examine it’s origins and humble beginnings, taking it from its roots to the beginning of its modern form (which I expect we will explore further at another time). Before we begin, a quick word from Teebz.
When Phil and I originally discussed this idea, I had grandiose visions of a complete history of the goaltender’s mask from its humble starts to the various paint jobs seen today. However, when I really began investigating the mask, it became apparent that it has evolved more than any other piece of equipment in hockey. And, for those of you who think this is just a hockey article, there is information about how hockey intertwined with baseball and fencing. Who knew these sports were related?
When one considers dangerous professions, several come to mind: policeman, fireman, tight-rope walker, trapeze performer. But rarely do we consider hockey goaltenders as a dangerous profession. With the modifications in equipment and advancements in technology, today’s goaltenders are more like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man than “masked men”. But it’s that very piece of equipment that has changed the way the game has played, and how the goalie mask got started is an interesting look at the history of the sport.
The first recorded instance of a mask being worn in a hockey game by a goaltender came in the late-1920s. There is some debate as to who was first, but we’ll start with the first instance as recorded by the Hockey Hall of Fame. The Hall features an unidentified North American goaltender protecting the net in Switzerland wearing a baseball catcher’s mask. However, there is a photo from 1927 of Elizabeth Graham donning a fencer’s mask in a game for Queen’s University. As to which was first, there is no certainty, but the late-1920s was definitely the first era to have goalies were primitive masks.
The catcher’s mask used in Switzerland was similar to the first mask introduced in baseball by Fred Thayer. Thayer was the player-manager for Harvard’s Baseball Club in the 1870s, and couldn’t find anyone to play catcher for his team. Players weren’t too keen on catching foul balls in the face as they crouched behind home plate. Thayer went about designing a mask for catcher with strong metal bars spaced far apart for better vision than a fencing mask. The finished mask was debuted in spring of 1877, and the first mask was sold in 1878 for $3.
The first mask seen in the NHL was worn by Montreal Maroons goaltender Clint Benedict in 1930. Benedict dropped to make a save on Montreal Canadiens’ star Howie Morenz when he was struck in the face, knocking him unconscious. He awoke in the Montreal hospital with a badly broken nose and a shattered cheekbone. Six weeks later, on February 22, Benedict returned with a mask to protect his still-healing face. It was made of leather supported by wire, and protected the forehead, nose, and mouth, but not the eyes. The nosepiece obstructed Benedict’s view, and he ditched the mask several days later after the first game. Unfortunately, Benedict’s career ended on March 4, 1930 when he was hit in the throat by Howie Morenz. His injury forced him to hang up the skates for good.
The next major mask innovations came about because of another piece of face equipment – eyeglasses. Japanese goaltender Teiji Honma wore his historical cage at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany to protect his eyeglasses. The mask has been modified to protect the frames of his glasses. Ironically, Roy Musgrove wore a half-mask used for field lacrosse while playing for the Wembley Lions of the British National Hockey League in 1936 – coached by none other than Clint Benedict! Musgrove donned the half-mask to protect his glasses while he tended to the twine.
The NHL, though, didn’t see another mask worn until a gentleman named Delbert Louch from St. Mary’s. Ontario sent all six goaltenders a clear, plastic, full-face shield in 1954 that was a precursor to visors seen in the NHL. There were complaints of it fogging up, causing glare, and being too warm for goalies to wear, but it was endorsed by Detroit goalie Terry Sawchuk and Toronto goalie Johnny Bower. However, it was never worn in a game.
November 1, 1958 changed the way fans saw the game forever. Andy Bathgate, who just had his number retired by the New York Rangers, fired a high backhand on net that caught Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender Jacques Plante in the face. The resulting cut on Plante’s face sent him to the trainer’s room, causing a 45 minutes delay in the game. When he returned from getting stitched up, his face was dramatically different – he was wearing a mask!
Bill Burchmore had witnessed Plante getting hit in the forehead with a puck, resulting in a 45 minute delay in the game while he was being stitched up. While at work the next day, Burchmore was looking at a fibreglass mannequin head when he realized the he could design a contoured, lightweight fibreglass mask that would fit the goalie’s face like a protective second skin. Burchmore gave Plante his idea, and Plante was persuaded by his trainers to give it a try. A mold was taken of Plante’s face by putting a woman’s stocking over his head, covering his face with Vaseline, and allowing him to breath through a straws stuck in both nostrils while his head was covered with plaster. Burchmore layered sheets of fibreglass cloth saturated with polyester resin on top of the mold. The result was the flesh-toned 0.125 in (52 mm) thick mask that weighed only 14 oz (397 g).
Despite Toe Blake’s resistance to allowing Plante on the ice with the mask after he recovered from his injury, Plante donned the mask for the rest of the season. Burchmore finally built up the courage to write to Plante with his molded fibreglass mask idea in the spring of 1959, and convinced Plante to have his face covered in fibreglass. Plante began wearing his new formed mask at the start of the 1959-60 season, and showed a renewed courage in standing up to blasts.
Burchmore’s mask wasn’t three months old when he came up with a new mask design. This new design was made of fibreglass yarn instead of sheets of fibreglass. This allowed for better ventilation as the yarn could be fashioned into “bars” much like the baseball catchers’ masks of yesteryear. The first design that Burchmore gave to Plante resembled that of a twisted pretzel, and the “pretzel mask” was born. Due to the design of the bars, however, this mask weighed a tiny 10.3 oz. The pretzel mask, with its improved ventilation and light weight, was worn by NHL stars such as Cesar Maniago and Charlie Hodge into the 1960s.
Detroit Red Wings trainer, Ross “Lefty” Wilson, came up with another design in the early-1960s after Terry Sawchuk went down with another facial injury, infuriating Red Wings’ GM Jack Adams. Wilson’s primitive mask design was accepted by the Leatherface-looking Sawchuk, and he donned it permanently by October, 1962. Wilson began making masks for a large number of goalies throughout the NHL who wore them in games and practices, charging a mere $35 for his creations.
Roy Weatherbee advanced the pretzel mask again by furthering the protectiveness of the mask by studying the tensile properties of fibreglass, and his improved design was worn by a large number of older goaltenders as we entered the 1967 Expansion age. However, a large number of the up-and-coming netminders were already wearing the next mask design at this time.
In 1962, a young netminder named Neil Higgins was complaining to his father, Ernie Higgins, about the store-bought mask he was wearing while at Boston College. It didn’t fit properly, but it was all the younger Higgins could wear. Ernie Higgins went about designing a new mask for his son, and, after five years, had perfected his design and mask-making technique.
After the design that Neil Higgins was wearing made it into the Boston Gardens’ home team dressing room, Ernie Higgins was invited to meet with Ernie Johnston and Gerry Cheevers about his design. Cheevers wasn’t fond of the flat Wilson mask as he found it to slide around on his face while he played. Higgins recognized the need for a more curved mask to hug the face, and went about getting a mask ready for Cheevers that wouldn’t move. In 1968, Cheevers debuted a model that had a few recognizable Higgins traits: the ventilation slits across the forehead formed a T-shape, and the cheek ventilation holes were triangular for maximum ventilation.
By 1969, Higgins was a full-time mask maker, retiring from his first profession of plumbing. He continued to tinker with his design, adding the back plate to secure the mask tightly to the head, and extending the sides to protect more of the goaltender’s head and face. In the mid-1970s, the helmets worn by Doug Favell and Gary Smith were essentially the precursor to the masks seen today. As an aside, Higgins work in masks led him to designing prosthetic devices and casts for injured athletes and accident victims, most notably for the leg of Boston Red Sox slugger Ken Harrelson.
Jacques Plante returned to the mask scene in 1970 when he founded a company called Fibrosport in Magog, Quebec. Fibrosport made masks of fibreglass and an epoxy resin that featured ridges to deflect pucks away from the face, preventing the full impact of the puck from being absorbed by the goalie’s face. The price for a Fibrosport mask ranged from $12 to $150, and was worn by a large majority of goaltenders until 1979 when masks changed significantly.
Mask designers got a huge shock from the Summit Series in 1972 when the Canadian NHL All-Stars squared off against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). It was here that everyone first witnessed the peculiar “birdcage” mask worn by Vladislav Tretiak. Tretiak’s mask allowed for good ventilation and an excellent field of vision, resulting in better play compared to his Canadian counterparts. This new cage would be the next major piece in the evolution of the mask. The “birdcage”-style of facial protection wouldn’t make it to the NHL, though, until 1976.
Greg Harrison and Michel Lefebvre added to the Fibrosport design by extending the chin downward to cover the throat. Harrison added a hinge to his throat protection for better movement, but the large extension downward was cumbersome for goaltenders who needed to be able to look from shoulder-to-shoulder.
In 1976, New York Rangers’ goaltender Gilles Gratton donned a helmet with a cage, looking a lot like Tretiak’s mask seen four years earlier. It wasn’t long before Buffalo Sabres’ goaltender Don Edwards followed suit, and the “birdcage” began to catch on as the mask of choice. Fibreglass masks appeared to be heading the way of the dodo.
Additionally, 1977 saw Buffalo’s Gerry Desjardins suffered a horrific injury when a puck caught the eyehole in his fibreglass mask, putting his vision in serious jeopardy. It caused him to retire prematurely, and, in 1978, the Canadian Standards Association banned the use of fibreglass masks for minor hockey. Bernie Parent’s eye injury the following year forced a large number of goaltenders to abandon their fibreglass masks for the birdcage design.
In 1979, the fibreglass mask was nearly dead. However, change was already on the way. Veteran goaltender Dave Dryden and designer Greg Harrison met in 1977. Dryden was convinced that the cage was the safest facial protection for goalies, but wanted the tight fit to the head that the fibreglass mask provided. Harrison mocked up a design that incorporated both the cage and the tight fit. What was born was the “hybrid mask”. Phil Myre was the first to adopt the hybrid, wearing it for the Philadelphia Flyers in 1981.
The hybrid mask is what is worn by the majority of goaltenders today (Chris Osgood not included). It is secured by a back plate to allow for movement of the head, and features a large cage for good ventilation and vision. The chin protection helps to protect the throat, and it provides the most protection while being lightweight.
Clearly, the innovation and evolution of the goalie mask is a large story. 70 years of changes saw the mask evolve from baseball catchers’ masks and fencing masks to intricately-designed pieces of artwork.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Japanese baseball expert Jeremy Brahm sends along a picture of the pennant from the first Japan Series in 1950 … also from Jeremy: this Yokohama Bay Stars’ jersey, interesting because of their putting a notch on their sleeves (Jeremy also suggests calling this a “Hama-notch” and adding it to the ever-expanding “Glossary of Uni Watch terms” … Daren Stoltzfus writes that “As Sports Director for the student television network, I have been on the floor filming the games and observing Wayne Chism’s sock flair throughout the season. Last night against Mississippi State he took it to a new level. It appears he has taken two shooting sleeves with the padded elbows and used them as socks.” … Johnny Okray notes that the Brewers All-Star RF, Corey Hart is sporting a new tattoo on his right forearm … Reader Kenneth Guckenberger passes along this nugget about a Denver team who got new unis, and yes, it’s a “throwback look” … A bit of serendipity at Spring Training, as Andrew Tucker notes that Brew Crew skip Ken Macha was sporting stirrups … Todd Fisher points out that someone at Yoplait must read Uni Watch … Dan Cichalski from MLB.com reports that Luis Castillo is rocking the “Pedro Porthole” … Interesting little site found by Tom Adjemian which is a cool way to take a look at the myriad signs that litter our roadways. Also, Tom is “pretty sure that website is responsible for the seizure I just had…let it be said, though, that it was a fashionable seizure.” … Aaron Steele weighed in with this: “This didn’t actually happen, but LaRussa was close to using Orioles pitchers to pitch against their own team. Too bad it didn’t happen no? uni choice would have been nice to see.” … Aaron also notes that only in spring training do you get to see the Cardinals with their gray away uni’s and home red hats … Dan Merker notes that not one, but two Royals prospects are in camp with stirrups and double-earflapped helmets. He’s not sure who they are, but notes it’s a “good sign nonetheless.” Agreed … Good Lord: Matt Harris found out why Jeets is wearing the “real” cap and not the BP one: it’s got a giant patch on it! (you can read more here and here) … Chuck Allen read Paul’s Latest ESPN column and sent along this photo of Alex Rodruguez he took during Seattle Mariners’ July 18, 1998 Turn Ahead The Clock promotion. You can read all about it here … We wouldn’t want to reopen the Apostrophe Catastrophe debate again would we? Gabe Kleinfeld found this little article from The Washington Post in which the author feels the apostrophe gets no love …
Reprinted from yesterday’s comments: James Huening brought to our attention the sad passing of Norm Van Lier, the AP ran this story shortly after the news broke … Following up on yesterday’s “Lance a lot” piece, Mark Fightmaster has provided us with all of the new Livestrong helmets, and he likes the look actually … Jeff Landset thought we’d find this thread interesting, which contains outtakes from a commercial for FSN and the Angels … Richie Rich from Home Run Derby sends us this “throwback” news story of the time Michael Jordan tried to play baseball … also from the last night’s comments: Michael Jordan wearing #35 with the Scottsdale Scorpions … shockingly, Teebz has found 5 reasons why the NHL is better than the NBA … also from Teebz: here’s Ryan Whitney in his shiny new Ducks uni … Trevor Williams points out one of spring training’s unique uni-matchups — not only is it “color on color,” but it’s blue on blue … Pittsburgh UW correspondent Doug Keklak checks in with the following: “Saw this story linked to the PA Helmet project page. Don’t recall seeing it referenced in UW but they give UW and Paul a shout out.” … also from Doug: From the White Sox cards blog — Zisk was traded from the Pirates, (love the pillbox sans the “P” — airbrushed logos all around due to licensing issues no doubt) … and this: Awesome old-uni footage here in celebration of Edmonton being award the 2010 Grey Cup (thanks, Douggie) … Reprinted from last night’s comments: looks like the Angels may have added a patch but only Vlad is wearing it.
This and That: When you make $27 million per season and are no longer on the ‘juice,’ sometimes you need a little help applying your own eyeblack … well, that didn’t last long … congratulations philly fans, you earned it (but it will look better next year in
Citi Taxpayer Field) … you just gotta see Ronnie Paulino’s levitating ball trick in person … not all teams wear those ridiculous BP jerseys and caps — now THIS is a classic look … that’s gonna leave a mark … still strange to see him bend it like that for A.C. Milan … when did they let the refs play soccer? … MLBers aren’t the only ones who had their portraits taken recently … spring is in the air — that means it is time to get used to softball guy again … How’s your wife and my kids? … I has a trophy — it matches my logo … Tropical Storms’ goalie Cam Ward celebrates an OT victory … Welcome back, Marty … Vector on the bucket, wordmark on the breezers and a fist to the face … “Enjoy your trip to Hartford…you suck!” … Baseball players are getting smaller — either that or their unis are getting bigger … More new women’s soccer league jerseys are released … and can a Brasilian star save the WPS?