On Jan. 7, 1930, a shot from the stick of Montreal Canadiens great Howie Morenz struck the nose and the cheekbone of Clint Benedict, the goalie for the cross-town rival Montreal Maroons. The shot prompted Benedict to don a makeshift mask based on the face guards worn by football players and sparring partners in boxing. Benedict found that the large protective nose piece impaired his vision, so after two games he gave it up.
Benedict's experiment is not generally accepted as the first goalie mask in history. That came nearly 30 years later, on Nov. 1, 1959, after the New York Rangers’ Andy Bathgate hit Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante in the face with a shot. Plante had to leave the game to get stitched up. He returned wearing a mask he had made himself and had been wearing in practices.
Plante and his Canadiens won the game, but the future Hall of Famer was ridiculed as a coward for wearing a mask. His response: "If you jump from an airplane without a parachute, is that considered an act of bravery?" In the time between Benedict's experiment and the debut of Plante’s mask, Benedict would discover a mask worn by an unheralded young Canadian that actually was effective in protecting a goalie’s face.
When Benedict's playing career ended, around 1934, he turned to coaching and managing a team in the British Ice Hockey League named the Wembley Lions. There, he encountered a young goalie from Winnipeg named Roy Mosgrove who had to wear glasses all the time. In Winnipeg and later in England, Mosgrove wore a wire cage mask like that used by baseball catchers. It would take decades for goalies and the tinkerers to see the wisdom of Roy Mosgrove and merge the wire cage with the fiberglass mask of Jacques Plante.
Plante had a knack for defying convention. When he set out in the late 1950s to develop the first mask used in the NHL since Benedict's failed experiment in 1930, Plante set himself at odds with the game’s management and its culture. But by then he had absorbed enough stitches and facial fractures to justify his bold act.
At the time, a clear plastic shield-style protector was being made by Delbert Louch in St. Mary's, Ontario. Samples were given to the likes of Gump Worsley, Terry Sawchuk and Plante for use in practice. They complained about fogging and light reflection. Attempts were made to eliminate the shortcomings but the shield never caught on. Plante took the Louch shield and cut out the eye area to eliminate fogging and contoured the mask to his face to eliminate reflection. He practiced wearing the mask but never used it in a game because it lacked protection around the forehead, nose and eyes.
Plante's first fiberglass mask, the one he would wear after the Bathgate shot, was stronger than his modified Louch model. It was a solid piece of fiberglass with cutouts for the nose and eyes. He later replaced it with a "pretzel"-style fiberglass model, which was the inspiration for the mask Ken Dryden wore at Cornell University and during his first few years with the Canadiens, in the early 1970s.
The most popular mask in the 1960s was the "Sawchuck" style, so called because it was the mask worn by the Detroit Red Wings’ Terry Sawchuck, one of the first goalies after Plante to wear one. Sawchuck began using his in regular season games in 1962. Sawchuck's mask and similar ones worn by Ceasar Maniago, Roy Edwards, Gilles Meloche and other professionals were handcrafted by Wings assistant trainer Lefty Wilson. Wilson produced them from five sheets of fiberglass and charged about $35 apiece for them.
A mold of the goalie’s head was required to fashion a custom mask, something not all goalies were willing to submit to. It involved pulling a women’s stocking over his head, covering his face with Vaseline and breathing through straws stuck up his nostrils so he wouldn't suffocate.
Other than Wilson, custom masks were largely the product of plumbers, dentists and other inspired craftsmen working in garage shops. An exception was Dave Dryden, a pro goaltender who made his own.
Starting in the early 1970s, the old Sawchuk style was beginning to be replaced by masks that offered greater protection to the sides and top of the head. At the time, the neck remained vulnerable even with the best of masks. One solution was a hinged guard that hung from the mask and swung forward so a goalie could look down without the mask hitting his chest. It didn’t catch on then. Similar clear plastic neck guards are employed by many of today's goalies.
For some goalies, a plain white fiberglass mask didn’t cut it. Gerry Cheevers drew stitches on his mask wherever he was struck by a puck or stick. One Halloween night, Doug Favell's Philadelphia Flyers teammates painted his mask orange as a prank.
The first artistic mask, one with a full paint job and color scheme, was probably that of Glenn "Chico" Resch of the New York Islanders. In 1976, Resch allowed a friend of the Islanders’ trainer who was an art student to use his mask as a canvas. She painted both the mask and the back plate that was attached to it with straps.
Soon, the handiwork of a young man named Greg Harrison, who had played goalie for the University of Toronto and at the senior amateur level in Barrie, Ontario, became the rage among NHL netminders. He produced some of the most imaginative and ornate designs ever. One, portraying a feline nightmare, was inspired by the astrological sign, Leo, of New York Rangers goalie Gilles Gratton. He wore it for one season, 1976-77.
In February, 1977, a puck struck the eye of Gerry Desjardins, a goalie with the Buffalo Sabres, causing severe hemorrhaging. This helped launch the movement to the "bird-cage" style made popular in Europe by USSR goalie Vladislav Tretiak during the 1972 Canada-Russia “Summit Series.”
The next year, the Canadian Standards Association declared molded masks unsafe and began certifying only cage-style masks. The shift to helmet and cage was accelerated after the Flyers’ Bernie Parent suffered a career-ending eye injury when he was struck with an errant stick in 1979.
Not everyone switched to a helmet and cage. Dave Dryden, for one, felt the cage protected the head more than the face. He cut the face out of one of Greg Harrison’s masks and with some wire and a soldering gun created the first prototype hybrid mask-cage combination. Dryden’s creation evolved into the sophisticated composite masks seen in arenas today. In addition to providing unprecedented protection, the modern mask has opened the door to a new wave of self-expression in the form of slick artwork. Modern composites can cost as much as $1,500.
Harrison's masks are still considered by some to be the elite of masks. But other popular models and styles are produced by Michele Leferbve, Don Malerba, Don Strauss, Gary Warwick and Ed Cubberly. Even major companies like Itech Sports have turned to mask makers, like Jerry Wright, to fashion custom models under their logos.
The artwork on masks these days is so innovative and eye catching that companies such as Pinnacle Brand, which produces sports trading cards, offers a set of goalie mask cards every year and Tattoo Distributing sells models of pro masks. Who knows what the future holds for goalie masks. Could the next stop be an art museum?
Source: A Breed Apart, The History of Goaltending