Hockey sweaters are undoubtedly pieces of art. They are colourful, unique, and evocative. If jerseys are like paintings, goalie masks are more like tattoos – one of a kind, handmade. Pieces of art that you have to be a little bit crazy to wear.
Goalies are a notoriously eccentric bunch, and it takes a unique breed to attempt to stop a slapshot bare-faced. This of course was the way that goalies operated up until 1959, when Jacques Plante donned a homemade fibreglass mask (against his coach Toe Blake’s wishes) after taking a puck to the face off of the stick of Andy Bathgate – and returned to the ice. Plante faced ridicule for the rest of his career; whenever he let in a goal it was was blamed on his vision being impaired by the mask.
“I thought I proved myself in the 1960 playoffs when we won eight straight and I scored three shutouts. But every time I’m beaten by what looks to be an easy shot to the fans, they say I couldn’t see the puck because of the mask”
– Jacques Plante (Hockey News, March 10, 1962)
Plante’s legacy lives on today with the goalie mask being a mandatory piece of equipment for the modern netminder. Beyond that, the mask didn’t seem to hinder Plante’s play, as he backstopped the Habs to a Stanley Cup that season. He went on to win his fifth consecutive Vezina Trophy that year, and added two more in 1961 and 1968 – with his homemade mask on. He won the Hart Trophy for league MVP with a mask on in 1961 as well.
Plante definitely paved the way for goalies in terms of safety, but his sense of style was lacking. It wasn’t until Gerry Cheevers started painting stitches on his mask in the 1960’s that masks became canvasses for art as well.
As the story goes, Cheevers took a shot off the mask during practice. Although unfazed, he used it as an excuse to throw the towel in for the day and retreated to the dressing room. Whilst enjoying a beer and a cigarette, he was discovered by coach Harry Sinden who ordered him back to practice. The bruins trainer, John Forristal painted a row of stitches on at the mask as a joke, which was popular with Cheevers’ Bruins teammates, and each subsequent time a pick hit Cheevers in the mask another set of stitches was added.
Only a handful of goaltenders adopted masks in the 1960s. Notably Tony Esposito, who broke into the league in 1968, was the first goaltender to wear a mask his entire career. The mask didn’t hold him back either as he won the Calder Trophy in his rookie season, and three Vezina trophies throughout his career.
Cheevers talks about masks changing the way goalies played the game – allowing them the confidence to drop to their knees without worrying about a puck deflecting into their face, or throwing your entire body in front of the puck to make a desperation save. In a way the mask paved the way for the acrobatic goaltending that we know and love in the modern game.
By 1974, there wasn’t a goalie in the league that didn’t wear a mask. And following Cheevers’ lead, many netminders began to decorate their masks. In art terms, for goalie masks in the NHL, the 1970s was the renaissance. Masks were blank canvasses for goalies to express themselves, intimidate opponents, or spread team spirit. They truly are unique pieces of art, and perhaps the purest intersection of sport and art that the world has ever seen.
Here is a look at my top goalie masks by decade. Part one with be the 1970s and the 1980s. Part two will take us from the 90's up to the present.
1970s: Giles Gratton
This mask is all about intimidation. If you put yourself in the skates of a player on a breakaway, looking up to shoot and seeing that the goaltender is part man, part beast is could definitely be a bit jarring. Anything for a mental edge – advantage Gratton. As for the artwork, not only is the lion portrayed as fierce, it seems quite lifelike. Even though the viewer cognitively knows that it is just a hockey mask, the ferocity of a snarling lion baring its teeth absolutely comes through. And maybe Gratton did somehow take on that lion’s strength, and his eyes peek through the mask where the lion’s eyes should be, making himself and the predator one and the same.
1980s: Murray Bannerman
This mask was brilliant, lightyears ahead in terms of the artwork featured. Bannerman’s mask does two very interesting things that have actually become quite modern conventions in the goalie mask. The first is turning his mask into the head of the team’s mascot (see Andy Moog’s Bruins mask, or Brian Hayward’s with the Sharks). You can see the markings on the hair and face of the Blackhawks crest featured prominently on Bannerman’s mask. Secondly Bannerman appears to be the first goalie to employ a “mask on a mask” idea, as the hair peeks out from behind a painted white “mask” on Bannerman’s mask. All of this makes for a very meta mask treatment that in retrospect is actually modern beyond its years.
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