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NHL 100: The masks be­hind the game

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - DEAN BEN­NETT

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.


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 sales­per­son 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.


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.


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.


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 — favourite movies, mu­si­cians, civic land­marks, and nick­names — and il­lus­trated in new tech­niques like air­brush­ing, glow in the dark paint, and colours that change with tem­per­a­ture.


Jac­ques Plante is shown in pho­tos with­out a mask and with two of the masks he wore in his ca­reer. The photo at right is 1960, the other two pho­tos are from 1969.

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