50 Years and Going Strong
Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the goalie mask. One would think it would be much older since variations of the game have been around for 3000 years or so. Apparently having teeth knocked out of one’s mouth to dance about on the ground like Chiclets was all in good fun. I am old enough to remember a time when NHL goalies chose whether or not to wear masks. Goalies were thereby thrust into 2 camps; smart goalies and dumb (toothless) goalies.
One of the last holdouts in the NHL that I can remember was a goalie named Gump Worsley who once was knocked unconscious by a Bobby Hull slap shot. Awakening in his hospital room he was reported to have said “Good thing the puck hit me flat”. Yeah good thing. I remember watching ole’ Gump on the tele back in the day. What a great nickname! He played goalie without a mask up until his retirement in 1974. The reason Gump was glad the puck hit him flat is because pucks that come into contact while spinning flat, behave like axe blades, cutting with blunt force. Not a pretty picture (See Terry Sawchuck's mug in a few paragraphs). In the 60's the "mask/no mask" debate raged. Wearing a mask was seen as unmanly and those who chose to wear one were criticized for putting their own health before the good of the team. It was argued that a mask restricts the goalie's range of vision and turns him into a padded titty-baby.
We owe the first goalie mask to Jaques Plante, who designed it out of fiberglass. It is pictured at the top of this entry. Jacques was hesitant to test it out in a real game and in fact, his coach refused to allow him to use it until one day when he too was hit in the face and took a bunch of stitches. At that point Jacques refused to go back into the game without his mask and Toe Blake the coach acquiesced. This was a courageous act. Plante took allot of heat for what was considered a less than manly act of self-preservation.
My first goalie mask was nothing but a catcher’s mask with a couple of extra bars welded on near the eyes. This was apparently before the invention of lawyers. While I used a cage mask as a kid I dreamed of the day I could become a man and wear a real fiber glass mask like my hero Gerry Cheevers. I loved how Cheevers would stand down at the end of the ice, nonchalantly leaning on his goalie stick, a stance I instantly adopted as my own.
Cheever's painted a new stitch on his mask each time he was hit to remind himself of what his face would look like were he not to wear a mask.
In 1974 Bernie Parent was leading the Philadelphia Flyers to the first of their 2 Stanley Cups and that was it. I had to have the same mask as Bernie Parent. I remember finding a knockoff in a catalog and sending away for it. It cost 45 dollars. The season was almost over before it came, but there in the box was the shiny, molded, hard-as-rock mask. “Hard as rock” was right. The thing had no give and playing (as we did) in temperatures in excess of 10 below didn’t help. Every time I took a puck to the face it was like being slapped with a frozen wiffle ball bat. Still, the team started to call me "Bernie" and I would have worn the mask to bed if my mom had let me. In High School, the Laired painted it green with an excellent gold star-burst between the eyes. I was known as “that goalie with the green and gold Bernie Parent mask”. Such recognition I had never known before.
When the newer half fiberglass/half cage masks came out in the 90s, I tried one for a while but I could never get used to the bars going across the front of my face. My brain literally had a tough time deciding whether to look over the cross bar or under and it made for a terrible experiment. Those masks are commonplace now. Instead I found using a Dominik Hasek-style cage mask much better. At least the bars were parallel and this helped. This is the kind of mask I used in college.
Finally toward the end of my career, I just didn’t give a rip anymore and I went with a plain Defenseman's full-face shield. This was in a a "no-slapshot" league and I figured that the lawyers certainly wouldn’t let a defenseman wear a shield that could be permeated by a slapshot. Still I am the only goalie that I know of who ever wore one of these behind the pipes. It was probably reckless, but hey, we're talking goalies here.
In all of the years I played I can only remember being hit really hard maybe 5 times. This seems strange since it seemed like Terry Sawchuck got laid out every other game. Terry finally wore a mask but ironically died at a young age when he got in a fight and fell into a barbecue pit, suffering internal injuries. A much more common risk were sticks and sometimes skates. I am sure if I did not wear a mask I would have been blinded long ago with the tip of sombody’s errant (or not so errant) stick.
Modern masks have taken off as an art form. I won’t go into all the amazing variations but here is a site, and a book that shows some of the more interesting ones.
I still have this crazy dream. It is the first game of the Stanley Cup finals and the Flyers are playing the Red Wings. Suddenly the goalie for the Flyers is cut down by a wicked slapshot. He is unable to continue and mysteriously, the backup goalie is nowhere to be seen. The coach is beside himself and appeals to the crowed-"Is there a goalie in the house?". A spotlight shines down upon me in the nose-bleed seats. "I'm a goalie" I shout. I grab my knockoff Bernie Parant mask and head down the stairs. I stop 75 shots that night on the way to a shutout. The Flyers go on to win the cup with me signed to a 7 game contract. Then I wake up and it's time for work.
So here’s to the hockey mask with all of it's imagery, mystery and creativity. Without it, we’d have much poorer Halloween movies and much richer dentists.