Western Civilization has a number of sports to participate in, and to watch. I myself am a hockey fan. I know others who enjoy a game of paintball, or enjoy heading out to the ball diamond for a game of baseball. All these sports are team sports, yet at least one member(more in paintball) wears a mask. They are all for protective reasons, yet to tell these people they are “just a mask” is an insult. These masks are used to personalise the user, a way of telling others about their personality. Wearing a mask in sport is just as important for identity as wearing one at Halloween(though you don’t get many one hundred kilometre per hour projectiles thrown at you!) I will be talking about the history of the mask in hockey, baseball and paintball. I will also discuss other sports where identifiable headgear is used.
Ask any hockey fan who wore the first goalie mask in he NHL, and ninety nine percent will tell you “Jacques Plante”. While Mr. Plante was the first goalie to wear a mask professionally for more than one game, it was another gent who wore one for protection for one game. Does Clint Benedict count if it was only one game some would ask? For purposes here(and if you want to stump your friends trivia wise), we will start with Mr. Graham, as he was technically the first professionally to wear one, but even then the lines are blurred as we shall see.
Let us be clear, we are speaking of professional hockey. Amateurs had been donning the mask for several years before Mr. Benedict. Professional goalies, however, went mask less in the ranks. The entry of the mask into professional sports began on January 7, 1930. Clint was hit in the face with an errant puck from Howie Morenz of the Montreal Canadiens. He was knocked unconscious, his nose broken and his cheekbone smashed. When he returned to the ice, Clint wore a mask that was used for boxing sparring and as football faceguard. The mask covered the nose, mouth and forehead, but left the eyes unprotected. It was made of leather and wire. The nosepiece was large, and obstructed Clint’s view. It obstructed so much; he took it off after the game and didn’t wear one again. Different sources suggest between one and five games was the amount of times he wore the mask.
Other goalies had worn masks, though most wore variation of a baseball catcher’s mask. Photos have been snapped of non NHL goaltenders wearing masks. There is a photo of an anonymous goaltender wearing a catcher’s type mask in an international game against Switzerland. During the 1936 Olympics, Japan’s Teiji Honma was photographed wearing a similar mask. There is even a suggestion, on a University level, that one Elizabeth Graham wore the first goalie mask in 1927. She had been hit in the teeth before and wore the mask as protection. So we can see a bit of blurring on who wore the first mask in hockey. While Mr. Benedict wore a mask more out of necessity, Mr. Plante’s mask was one of choice.
In the 1950’s, masks were coming into some prominence, but goalies tried them in practice. Plante during this time toyed with the idea of wearing a mask. The mask was made and Plante is said to have loved it, and wore it in practice, but wouldn’t be permitted wear it during the game.
Some may wonder; why did it take so long for the mask to become a staple of hockey? The era of the NHL, from the early 20th century to the 50’s, was a different one. The owners and managers felt that masks inhibited visibility. There was also the whole “toughness” concept; to hide behind a mask was considered to be cowardly. Also, until a rule change, goalies were not allowed to drop to their knees, so perhaps it was felt as well there was less chance of getting hit with the puck.
Things changed for NHL goaltenders on November 1, 1957. In a game between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens, Ranger Andy Bathgate flung a backhand that opened a large cut on Plante’s nose. Plante went to the dressing room to be tended to. The game halted while this went on (remember, there were no backup goaltenders). While being tended, Plante felt this was the last straw for him. He refused to go back out without wearing the mask he had been wearing in practice. He got into a heated confrontation with coach Toe Blake over it. Blake, not wanting to lose the talented goalie, relented. Plante went and retrieved the mask. TIf there was any hindrance to Plante, it didn’t show. Montreal would score three goals to New York’s one, winning the game. Having the facial protection meant for confidence for Plante, possibly making bigger saves without worrying about his face.
The full fibreglass masks tended to be rather plain white or off white for a long period of time, until a simple magic marker and would add a new dimension to goalie masks. The history goes to one Gerry Cheevers of the Boston Bruins. The Higgins masks were white, apparently Higgins liked the colour, and he felt it represented purity. Cheevers didn’t like the white. Cheevers was known for disliking practice, so one day, after taking a shot “that wouldn’t have hurt a canary”; Cheevers slumped to the ice, being helped off by staff. In the back he kicked up his feet and relaxed. The stories vary, but essentially he was caught by his coach, Harry Sinden, and told to get back on the ice. When he returned, a “stitch” mark was on his mask, made at Cheever’s request by the equipment handler John Forisstall. The rest, they say, is history. Cheevers teammates and fans loved it, and Cheevers would add a stitch every time he was hit. The mask, now on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame, shows a mask full of “stitch” marks, making it one of the most recognizable in hockey.
Jim Rutherford is credited with the first mask design as opposed to straight colour, though not at his choice. His distinctive "red wings" over his eyes were allegedly painted as a prank by one of the equipment handlers. He accepted it and he had his mask painted the team colours where he played.. Goalies would continue forward painting their masks, from leopard faces, to crowns, to flames, the full mask offering a canvas for the goalies. It was this expression that led to the next change in masks.
One of the difficulties of the fibreglass mask was the eye holes. Goalies had trouble seeing, and would often enlarge the eyeholes to see better. The road to the “cage” effectively began with 1977 with Gerry Dejardins of the Buffalo Sabres. A puck clipped the eye of Gerry during a game, entering the hole and damaging his eye, effectively ending his career. Other goaltenders took note and were bothered by the injury. In 1978, the Canadian Standards association banned Fibreglass masks in minor hockey. A career ending injury to Bernie Parent in 1979 sealed the end of fibreglass.
Goaltenders slowly went to the cage mask design. Buffalo management demanded the cage for its goaltenders, and by the late eighties most goalies were wearing the helmet and cage design. The fibreglass mask would no longer see the ice surface-at least not in that form; fibreglass still had a role to play with goaltender equipment. Dave Dryden, brother of Hockey Hall Of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden, is credited with the combination mask and cage of modern day. After Dejardin’s injury, he went to a cage, however he had a complaint. The helmet didn’t fit him well, and he didn’t feel comfortable. He wanted the snug feel of the fibreglass mask. Putting his creativity to use, he cut out the eye and nose section of a fibreglass mask, and screwed a cage which he cut from a helmet onto the front. He took the mock-up to Greg Harrison, who saw exactly what he wanted, adding a more comfortable back plate to hold the mask to his head. It took a while for the mask to catch on, but by the mid eighties goalies were wearing the new “combo” mask, and mask makers once again were free to use the mask as a canvas. The mask hasn’t changed too much in the past thirty years since its advent. The material has changed from fibreglass to composite materials that include Kevlar. As have masks evolved, so have the artwork. From simple straight colours to anything from sharks to celebrities now get painted on the modern goalie mask. The modern goalie masks are truly works of art.