A Brief History of the Goalie Mask

Below is a great article about a major reason for why many, including myself, first wanted to be a goalie: to wear the mask.

 

Copyright © Gary Smith 2005

 

It’s been roughly forty five years since Jacques Plante introduced the first fully functional goalie mask to the world of hockey.  This mask was formed from an exact mould of Plante’s face and fit the contours of Plante’s face like a second skin. The eye holes conformed to Plante’s cheekbones and eye brow ridge, the mouth openings was a long rectangle that ran from underneath the nose, the nostril area, to the bottom lip. The mask was constructed of fiberglass cloth and polyester resin, 1/ 8th of an inch thick.

 

The mask was designed mainly to minimize facial cuts from pucks, sticks and skate blades; essentially to give the goalie the confidence to dive into a scramble face first, eyes open. There were two major design drawbacks. One; the eye was still exposed and two it was considered hot and many goalies disliked the claustrophobic feeling of the face mask.

 

In 1960 Plante experimented with the next design innovation, a style mask now known as the “pretzel mask”.  This style mask was constructed using a type of fiberglass yarn material that actually formed fiberglass bars that contoured the face. The pretzel mask offered a little more air circulation and was cooler on the goalies face.

 

The decade of the1960’s started with the hockey world being skeptical of the goalie mask however by the end of the decade it (the mask) was an entrenched piece of equipment for goalies. Different styles of masks that were easily mass produced were available to amateurs and minor hockey associations. These were either clear shields that often fogged up and wire cages the impeded vision. The custom moulded fiberglass mask was the best option at the time and interestingly it was  often the trainers of teams that were called upon to start making the masks form the goalies.  Lefty Wilson, the trainer for the Detroit Red Wings set the standard for making light weight masks that were immediately recognizable. 

 

Lefty Wilson made his first mask in 1963 for the legend Terry Sawchuk. It was crude and simple in terms of design but it served it’s purpose as Sawchuk credited the mask for extending his career. What Wilson’s masks lacked in protection they made up for in style. His masks had large eye openings and the slits he cut for the mouth and ventilation gave the goalie a stolid android like look. In the 60’s, goalies were mostly concerned about blind spots. Wilson’s masks accommodated them with oversized circular eye openings and the mask was rather thin and only covered the immediate face area.

 In the mid 1960’s Ernie Higgins, a plumber from the Boston area started making masks for his son. Word spread, and it wasn’t long before Bruins goalies Eddie Johnston and Gerry Cheevers were wearing Higgins masks. Higgins also had a unique “look” to his masks, two triangle shaped slits in the cheeks and “T” formation of holes on the forehead, but his early work was fairly similar to Lefty Wilsons in that it simply covered the immediate facial area, with large eye openings. Higgins was an innovator and constantly thought of design improvements to increase safety. He was the first mask maker to extend the mask past the ears and past the forehead after Eddie Johnston suffered a concussion. He also started to pad his masks in the crucial impact areas (forehead, and cheek bones). Ernie Higgins eventually made a “full head” mask that offered complete protection from under the chin to the top of the head.

 

Jacques Plante was also instrumental in improving the design of the fiberglass face mask. In the 1970 NHL playoffs Plante was facing Boston Bruins when a deflected slap shot struck him in the head. While recovering in the hospital Plante thought of how he could improve the impact resistance of the mask without compromising weight and visibility.  He consulted with engineers and after some experimentation came up with a mask that was truly unique. The mask design incorporated ridges so the puck would glance off the head and disperse the energy of the impact. One complete ridge ran from the top of the forehead down the bridge of the nose down past the chin. The forehead had a ridge that ran along the eye brow and another that angled up at about 45 degrees. The eye openings were small and rather than cut large ventilation openings and mouth slits, this new mask only had 3/8th inch holes. The mask was much lighter than any other as it was made with lightweight epoxy resins which were cutting edge technology in 1970.

 

Aside from the improved design the mask had a “look” like no other. Plante’s Fibrosport Company was soon mass producing this mask design for all goalies though professionals were still getting their “Plante” masks custom fit. Jim Homuth of Ottawa, Canada also started to experiment with mask design in 1970 after seeing Plante get hit in the face. Homuth also consulted with engineers at the National Research Centre in Canada and he came up with a similar design as Plante’s. 

 

By the early 70’s a few goalies like Gerry Cheevers and Doug Favell were painting or decorating their masks. And this new trend set the stage for Greg Harrison. In 1974 Greg Harrison made his first NHL mask for Jim Rutherford of the Penguins; painted powder Blue. Harrison went on to become the most innovative and influential mask designer of all time. Harrison combined his skills as an artist and designer with his knowledge of goaltending to define the decade of the 70’s for goaltenders. Harrison borrowed and improved upon the previous design innovations of Plante, Higgins and Roy Weatherbee a master mask maker (pretzel design) who taught Harrison the tensile strength properties of fiberglass. Harrison often combined the design concepts of many different styles of mask, for example the Bannerman style mask. Harrison’s mask making abilities were second to none but it was his art work that set him apart from other mask makers. By the late 70’s Harrison designs were worn by 80% of NHL goalies.

 

It was by the late 70’s that fiberglass facemasks were being banned by minor hockey associations across Canada and The United States as they were deemed less safe than a helmet and cage. The Helmet and cage had been gaining wider acceptance in North America since the 1972 Summit Series saw the brilliant Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak wearing this style of mask. Helmet and cage masks were accepted in Europe but in the 70’s they were considered “amateurish” and less stylish by North American goalies. The biggest flaw of the Helmet and cage was that it was bulky, often helmets shifted in the goalies head and the helmet was not well designed to absorb a direct impact of the puck. And in terms of style, goalies found that there was very individuality expressed with the mass produced, standard helmet and cage. Tony Esposito attached a wire cage on his mask and wore this prototype to the modern combination mask towards the end of his career.

 

Greg Harrison then worked with Dave Dryden to design the first “combo” mask. A combination of the safety elements of the helmet and cage with fit and impact resistance of the fiberglass mask. This is the style of mask worn by most goalies today and of course these masks allow for the incredible art work featured on the masks of the 21stcentury. The materials used as well have become more advanced; most combination masks are made with a Kevlar and carbon fibre composite, which makes for and extremely light weight, impact resistant mask.

 

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