It’s hard to believe now, but less than 50 years ago none of the NHL’s goaltenders wore a mask. Not only that, but teams carried one netminder in those days and he was expected to play all 70 games on his team’s schedule. Good sense and technology have come a long way since then, and the goalie mask is a prime example of both.
On Nov 1, 1959, New York Rangers forward Andy Bathgate lifted a backhand shot through a screen that caught Montreal goaltender Jacques Plante on the face. It opened a wound that required seven stitches to close. Plante donned a crude plastic mask he had occasionally worn in practice, but never before in a game. Montreal coach Toe Blake was opposed to the idea, but Plante, his face swollen and scarred, refused to return to the ice without the face protector. Blake relented, and the slow wheels of history began to churn.
Some 30 years before Plante, the Montreal Maroons’ Clint Benedict had taken a Howie Morenz shot off his nose and cheekbone. Benedict had a mask fashioned from leather that resembled a mask worn when sparring in the boxing ring. But Benedict was then in the final season of his 13-year Hall of Fame career. Set in his ways, he discarded the mask after just two games, claiming it interfered with his vision.
Glen Hanlon is known mainly for having surrendered Wayne Gretzky’s first NHL goal. But he was also the last NHL netminder who was not bound by the league’s mandatory facemask rule. Hanlon entered the NHL in 1977-78, four seasons after Andy Brown left the NHL for the World Hockey Association. Brown, who played in the WHA through 1976-77, was the last netminder to play with a bare face. Although he frequently wore a mask in practice, he also claimed it impaired his vision too much to wear in actual games.
Ironically, Brown’s career ended prematurely because of a spine injury. A noted race car enthusiast, Brown owned and raced cars during his playing days. His hobby may have made tending goal without a mask seem easier to him than it did to his lodge brothers.
Hanlon’s first mask proved to be insufficient to the rigors of the game. It didn’t even last through his first pro training camp.
“When I turned pro I had that flesh mask and I got hit,” recalls Hanlon, speaking of the face-fitting fiberglass models that were in vogue in those days. “It was in training camp for [Tulsa of] the Central Hockey League and it just split me wide open. That was in ’77. [Russian goaltender Vladislav] Tretiak was here in ’72, and [Buffalo’s] Donnie Edwards had worn that [same style] mask. So it made sense for me to switch.”
Hanlon switched to the combination helmet and cage style mask still worn by Detroit’s Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood and Boston’s Tim Thomas.
“We had to go all over the place to find a replacement,” Hanlon remembers. “JOFA was the only company that would have a screen that was compatible for that helmet. I wore that forever, until the very end. The shots were so hard and the ones that hit me on the forehead started ringing me a bit. I switched over to the combination just out of sheer advancement in protection. I still have my mask that I wore in my first year pro and I look at it and say, ‘You’ve got to be out of your mind.’ Never mind playing without one. It was unbelievable.”
Those who didn’t opt for the helmet-style mask in Hanlon’s day wore the face-fitting model with varying degrees of protection around the rest of the head. The procedure for making one of those masks was arduous. The mask-maker would pull a nylon stocking over the goalie’s head, apply a coat of Vaseline, some fiberglass and some plaster. The goaltender would breathe through straws inserted in his nostrils. With the mold made, the mask craftsmen could then complete the product.
“My dad went through the same thing with the first mask he ever had made,” says Caps goaltender Brent Johnson. Johnson’s father (Bob Johnson) played goal in the NHL and WHA in the 1970s. “My grandfather, his dad, made it for him. He had to do the whole thing with the straws in the nose and he said it was just hellacious. Just awful.
“I’ve never gone through that; I’ve never done that. Olie [Kolzig] and I were talking and he said he went through that with one of his composites that they made on one of his masks. With me, they just took my measurements of my head and my face and it ended up working perfect.”
Kolzig himself hasn’t had to endure the process in the last decade.
“I did it three times with three different mask-builders, and haven’t had to do it in the last 10 years,” says Kolzig. “He has my mold there now, and it’s a permanent so unless I’ve gotten fatter or skinnier in my face, there’s no need to do it again. Johnny’s mask isn’t molded to his face. They add the padding to the inside. With mine, it is purely custom.”
Boston’s Gerry Cheevers was the first to add adornments to his white plaster and fiberglass mask. Each time he took a shot to the melon, Cheevers drew stitches on the mask to show where the shot would have opened him up had he been playing bare faced. Some of Doug Favell’s Philadelphia teammates spray-painted his mask orange on the eve of a Halloween game, and Chico Resch of the New York Islanders had the first full “artistic” paint job, circa 1976.
Since then, masks have improved and evolved into a technological art form of elaborate protection and individual expression. Today’s goaltenders can take a hard shot off the helmet and stay in the game without getting stitched up. The modern netminder certainly gets his bell rung from time to time, but it would seem that the greatest hazard to his occupation these days is the skater coming at him full bore, cutting his legs from beneath him. These infractions aren’t always penalized either, far from it. The subtle hook to the midsection draws far more consternation from the league’s referees.
When Johnson joined the Capitals off waivers from Vancouver in Oct., 2005 he had to wear his old Phoenix gear until he could get new equipment that matched Washington’s color scheme. The mask was the final piece in his new ensemble. Even though his 2005-06 headgear was less than a year old, Johnson recently replaced it with a newer model.
“It’s a new season and I wanted to do something different,” says Johnson. “I am done with that one, and I want to see if something else is cooler or a different design works or looks better. I am really impressed with it and I think the guy did a great job.”
Even after all the masks he has worn as a pro, Johnson still favors the first.
“I get a new one every season,” he says. “I ended up liking the first one that they made for me the best. It was a very basic design but it looked great.”
Kolzig replaces his mask every other year, but does get it touched up in between.
“If the fiberglass is peeling off just from wear and tear, or a couple bad nights and the mask gets thrown across the room,” he says. His dented and splintered locker room stall shows the scars of those “couple bad nights.”
“Obviously you need to get it refurbished every year just from the foam and sweat and hair. Just imagine what was growing in there. You get it refurbished every year, and I probably get a new one every two years. I have two, just in case. I have a back-up.”
The one constant thread in the design of all Johnson’s masks is the Led Zeppelin motif. Johnson is an avid music buff, and Zeppelin is his favorite band.
“It’s been on every mask I’ve ever had,” he says. “They’re my favorite band. It’s just one of the things that signifies [me]. [Springfield’s Sean] Burke has Jimmy Page, Clapton and Hendrix. [Philadelphia’s Robert] Esche has some country singer on his.”
If it sounds like Johnson is disrespecting country music, he’s not. He is actually warming up to it a bit.
“I have a diverse selection of music,” says the personable netminder. “I don’t get too much into hip-hop, but I have started to find some country that I like. It’s really strange. I don’t know if it’s because my fiancée likes it or whatever. Led Zeppelin is my favorite band. Then there is a three-way tie between the Beatles, Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins. Those were from when I was 15, 16 years old and starting to listen to music with my buddies.”
None of the others have managed to bump Zeppelin off Johnson’s mask yet, however. Last year’s model included another nifty pop culture reference, a picture of the evilly grinning Jack Nicholson from the film “The Shining,” uttering the classic line, “Here’s Johnny!”
The other recurring theme in Johnson’s mask is the No. 12 painted on the back, a tribute to his late grandfather, Sid Abel. Hockey Hall of Famer Abel was the pivot in the Detroit Red Wings’ famed “Production Line” that also featured fellow Hall of Famers Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Abel wore sweater No. 12 throughout his NHL career.
Kolzig still has the masks he wore during the 1998 Stanley Cup finals and during his 1999-00 Vezina Trophy winning season. Johnson’s father has most of his son’s old masks, but the one Brent wore while with Phoenix has vanished. The elder Johnson has some of his own old facemasks, too. Those are becoming more like museum pieces with each passing year.
“He has the old fiberglass ones, right against the skin,” says Brent Johnson in awe. “Just crazy. One has just like a little cage right in the eyes. I don’t even understand how they went out there and faced shots the way they did.”
Even those who “went out there and faced the shots the way they did” don’t always understand it.
“It’s not like they couldn’t shoot in those days,” notes Hanlon. “Doug Wilson and [Al] MacInnis and [Guy] Lafleur. They could wire pucks. It’s not like it wasn’t hurting you when it was hitting you in the head. I remember I got one in the side of the head and it was one of the first times that I had that molded combination that they wear now. It hit me in the side of the head and I hardly even felt it. I could hear it ringing in my ears.
“On the old ones, it would split your ear and head open. It wouldn’t kill you, but it would split you open. I was a little late in getting that one; guys had been wearing them for a while.”
Late maybe, but not too late. Hanlon’s still got a pretty good head on his shoulders.