The early masks did just that for players like Jacques Plante, the first to wear a mask full-time, and younger goaltenders like Gerry Cheevers decided to follow suit and put on a mask for protection. But it was Cheevers who started the trend of giving the plain white mask some flair by deciding to skip a Boston Bruins practice after getting hit in the mask during a drill in the late 1960s.
Cheevers, who always looked for an excuse to cut practice short, went to the dressing room, where coach Harry Sinden found him in pretty good shape and ordered him back to the ice. At that moment, goaltenders' masks became more than just protection. They began to reflect someone's personality, although Cheevers' mask was more a creation of Bruins trainer John Forristall.
"Mine was a joke, really," said Cheevers of his mask's design, which featured black stitches painted onto a white surface to show where he might have been cut if he wasn’t wearing a mask. "We used to wear all-plain, white masks, and I was trying to get out of practice one day and I fainted like I was hurt. The puck came up and hit me in the mask, but I would have been cut had I not been wearing a mask that day.
"The coach says you got to get back on the ice. So I figured the only thing I could do was paint a great big stitch mark on my mask and it turned out to be somewhat funny or comical, so we decided to keep track of all the stitches that might have happened. (Sinden) came in to see how I was, he saw I was in pretty good health so he told me to get back out there, so we had to put the stitches on to make it look good."
Cheevers' mask design might have been a joke concocted by the goaltender and the team's trainer to get out of a practice, but Cheevers contends the mask made him a different, more daring goaltender, which might have helped him in becoming an NHL regular in 1967 and ultimately a Hall of Famer.
"You play different with the mask," he said. "I don't think you would have had them (the stitches) if you didn't have the mask on. You play a lot lower and you are not as afraid as much with the mask on.
"You are apt to get hit with the mask on, obviously. There was a lot of whacks on the mask. I think it is very tough for a goaltender to get through a game without getting a high stick or a puck or having something that hit your mask. You play a different game with a mask on."
"The coach says you got to get back on the ice. So I figured the only thing I could do was paint a great big stitch mark on my mask and it turned out to be somewhat funny or comical, so we decided to keep track of all the stitches that might have happened."
-- Gerry Cheevers
"There are estimates of what might have happened if I didn't have the mask on," Cheevers said of the number of stitches painted onto his game and practice masks. "John Forristall (did the estimates). It was only one game mask, but a lot of practice masks."
Those practice masks all had the same Forristall design, and eventually Cleveland Crusaders trainers chipped in with their handy work.
"They (the game and practice masks) were all practically the same," said Cheevers. "That was (Forristall's) job. (My job) was wearing the mask. I only had one game mask and maybe nine or 10 practice masks over the years, but all the stitches were basically the same, in the same spot in the mask. I will tell you one thing -- if you didn't have the mask on and those pucks went in the same place, you would have a Boris Karloff-type face."
When Cheevers took off the mask for good in 1980, he reflected on how his career was changed by one piece of equipment, but not how his inside joke with Forristall would be expanded by others who followed him, like John Davidson, who wore a Lone Ranger design on his mask in the late 1970s.
Cheevers was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1985. The stitches mask, which started as a joke, also is in the Hockey Fall of Fame.