Skip to main content

Artistic License

From Jacques Plante to Gerry Cheevers to Jim Rutherford to Henrik Lundqvist, a goalie's mask serves as a form of protection and self-expression

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com

The Art of the Goalie Mask

Goalie masks offer a canvas for art, self-expression

Dallas Starts goaltender Ben Bishop & New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist discuss the artistic process behind designing their goalie masks

  • 01:00 •

The artistic trajectory of the ice hockey goal mask started with famed Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante inventing the medium, even if he didn't intend for masks to become a form of self-expression in today's NHL.

Painting on a canvas first popularized among Venetian painters during the 16th century Italian Renaissance. The canvases were made from tightly woven hemp. The artists liked a canvas because it dried efficiently in the humidity of Venice. Previously used frescos (wet-plaster walls/ceilings long to dry) or wood panels (warped by moisture) created problems. Hemp was in high supply, too, since it was also widely used to make sails. 

Plante is hockey's renaissance goalie.

On the ice, he won six Stanley Cups with the Canadiens between 1953 and 1963, including five straight times. He won the NHL's Vezina Trophy as best goaltender a league-record seven times. He retired in 1965, only to return to play for then-expansion team St. Louis Blues for the inaugural 1968-69, sharing the load with another Hall of Famer, Glenn Hall. In 1973, Plante went rogue to join the fledgling World Hockey Association for the Quebec Nordiques (now the Colorado Avalanche). The next season he put on the goalie pads one more time to play his last professional season with the Edmonton Oilers. 

Plante went rogue in a much more impactful way during the prime of his career and life, which ended at 57 years old in 1986, dying of stomach cancer. The hockey world mourned this innovator who was the first NHL goalie to wear a custom-made mask in a regular-season games during the 1959-60 season. He experimented with many versions and materials for both mask and helmet--the latter a hugely important element of protecting today's goalies. 

Plante routinely used his mask beginning in 1956 while recovering from a sinusitis operation. His legendary coach, Toe Blake, did not allow Plante to wear the mask in games for fear of impeding vision with games on the line. A broken nose changed that in early November 1959 when New York forward Andy Bathgate's caught Plante flush, requiring stitches in the dressing room during a stoppage of the game. When Plante returned to the ice, he donned his practice mask. Blake was furious but he had no other goaltender to insert into the game. Plante refused to play maskless and the two negotiated that Plante would stop wearing the mask when the cut healed. 

But the Canadiens went on an 18-game winning streak; Blake was reluctant to change anything, including Plante continuing to wear his mask. When Montreal finally lost, Blake insisted it was time to ditch the mask. Plante relented and next game he and his Canadiens lost 3-0 to Detroit. Plante put the mask back on, never to play without one again. He worked on new versions of the fiberglass mask he innovated, endured criticism and doubts about his courage, but didn't deter from protecting his face and head. 

The next phase of goalie masks as a form of art and self-expression was inspired by Boston goalie Gerry Cheevers. Until a Bruins practice in the late 1960s, all goalies who wore a mask-there were still plenty who did not-donned plain white or off-white fiberglass models. At practice, Cheevers took a hard shot to face, heading to the trainer's room for quick exam. Or so it seemed. 

When coach Harry Sinden checked on his goaltender, he discovered Cheevers drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. Not amused, Sinden order Cheevers back out to practice. For fun, team trainer John "Frosty" Forristall, drew 10 stitch marks to estimate what it would take to repair the cut if Cheevers had not been wearing the mask. From there out, any time Cheevers took a shot or stick to the face, Cheevers or Forristall would draw more stitches. Cheevers claimed the mask saved him from receiving at least 150 medical stitches. 

For his part, Sinden put up with Cheevers black-markered stitching due to bonafide talent in the net. Cheevers helped Boston win Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972, gaining him Hockey Hall of Fame induction in 1985. Cheevers became the first goalie to decorate a mask as a personal statement of sorts.

The widespread painting of masks started in earnest during the early 1970s. Cheevers was an inspiration. While youth hockey goalies were following suit with homespun paint jobs, NHL goalies were asking their custom mask makers (fiberglass formed to individual faces) to use colors beyond the usual white. Jim Rutherford, the Hall of Fame general manager and long-time mentor to NHL Seattle GM Ron Francis, played goal in his playing days. When he was traded from Pittsburgh to Detroit during the 1973-74 season, the Red Wings asked him to meet the team in Toronto for an away game versus the Maple Leafs. 

Rutherford asked his mask maker, Toronto-based Greg Harrison, to meet him at the airport. Upset with the trade, Rutherford asked Harrison to simply paint white over the Pittsburgh team color, then-light blue. He didn't want any red designating Detroit. Harrison, a bit of legend and in high demand back then, freelanced the mask a bit, painting bright red wings over each eye hole. He delivered the mask just in time for Rutherford to take the ice for the morning skate before that night's game. Grumpily, Rutherford wore the mask and won the game. He kept the wings.  

"There was nothing I could do about it," Rutherford told NHL.com "[I was] playing that night. It was the talk of the broadcast, so I just kept wearing it." The mask is now on exhibit at the Hall of Fame as one of the historic painted and popular goalie masks. Rutherford says fans still stop him to tell the Pittsburgh GM they still recall the mask design.

Fast-forward to modern day. All NHL goalies opt for a custom paint jobs for their masks, including Dallas' Ben Bishop and Nashville's Pekka Rinne, starters for the outdoor 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic earlier this month. Many of them contract the services of Dave Gunnarsson, a Swedish artist who started doing work for the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist even before the Swedish goalie started his NHL 15 years ago. Gunnarsson's website, www.daveart.com, is filled with examples. 

Lundqvist says the goalie mask is "a way as a goalie to express yourself." Lundqvist asks Gunnarsson to make four to five masks for each season. Aligning with other pieces of art, the Rangers veteran always auctions two or three masks for charity. Bishop plans to do the same with a Winter Classic mask. 

"Dave and I have worked together for 18 years," says Lundqvist. "He knows me and how I think … he gets the design ready [each offseason]. He started painting for all Swedish goalies but now I think he paints for pretty much every NHL team."

View More

The NHL has updated its Privacy Policy effective January 16, 2020. We encourage you to review it carefully.

The NHL uses cookies, web beacons, and other similar technologies. By using NHL websites or other online services, you consent to the practices described in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service, including our Cookie Policy.