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Evolution of the goalie mask

NHL goaltending equipment has come a long way

by Alison Lukan @AlisonL / BlueJackets.com

When the fastest shot at this year's NHL All-Star Skills Competition clocks in at a whopping 102.8 mph, it's almost impossible to imagine a goaltender turning away any form of protection.

And while a goalie's mask is just one piece of the equipment puzzle for the player in net, it's also a unique expression of the player's personality and often an admired work of art.

But that's certainly not how they started out.

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When Elizabeth Graham played in net for Queen's University in 1927 and wanted to guard her teeth, so she donned a fencing mask. In 1930, Montreal Maroons' player Clint Benedict played a few games in an all-leather mask to protect his face. 

A goalie mask that covered the entire face appeared on Japan's Teiji Honma at the 1936 Winter Olympics, but it wasn't until 1959, 42 years into the NHL's existence, that a league netminder wore a mask on-ice.

In a game between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens, Habs goaltender Jacques Plante took a puck to the face and demanded protection before returning to the net. He was chided by fans and coach alike for his fiberglass face covering, but the team went on an 18-game winning streak and shortly thereafter, a trend was born.

While protection was the impetus of goalie mask popularity, by the 1970's, innovation and creativity driven by the goaltenders themselves was taking over.

Gerry Cheevers of the Boston Bruins initiated the practice of goalie mask art when he asked his trainer to start adding stich marks to his mask any time a puck or stick hit him in the face.

Habs' Ken Dryden had his brother Dave build what was the beginnings of what we know of today's hockey masks when he cut the cage shape out of fiberglass.

Phil Esposito added a cage over the mask itself to provide additional eye protection as well as a piece of fiberglass to give coverage to the back of the head.

Nowadays, you're only likely to see masks with these face hugging styles in a museum or a horror movie. But for a period of time, many goaltenders like John Davidson, Blue Jackets president of hockey operations, wore them, and, like Cheevers, applied art of their own.

It wouldn't take long for a new concept to take hold. Russia's famed Vladislav Tretiak, popularized the helmet / cage combination, or "birdcage," that had a metal wire mask attached to a hockey helmet.

But as the game evolved, goaltenders looked to have more protection and now mostly wear a fiberglass/cage combination helmet that better absorbs impact. As Sergei Bobrovsky will tell you, helmets have evolved in his career to provide better protection while weighing less.

With a larger surface area to play with on today's hybrid style masks, goaltenders can let their imagination run wild with how they want to express themselves when it comes to design.

Video: Sergei Bobrovsky Gets a New Look

Bobrovsky likes to "keep it simple." He explains that art concepts start with the goaltender who will work with a designer to combine all of the ideas onto the surface area with which he can work.

Popular themes goalies will explore invoke images of their team's hometown, a player's home country, hobbies, family members or an animal or team mascot. All to tell a story that is uniquely the goaltender's own.

One thing is for sure, while team jerseys will always unify players into one identity, a goaltender's mask will tell you a lot about who he is as a man, and keep him safe at the same time.

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