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Once vilified, masks now are tools of the trade

by John McGourty
Why do goalies wear masks?

Consider …

* Lorne "Gump" Worsley once took a Bobby Hull slap shot that ricocheted off his forehead into the upper deck.

* Jacques Plante suffered a fractured skull, two fractured cheekbones, a broken jaw and four broken noses.

* Don Simmons suffered 15 broken noses, had an eye knocked out of its socket and was a candidate for a tracheotomy after getting hit in the throat during a game. Thankfully, he resumed breathing before being rushed to the hospital.

* Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup winners Bill Durnan and Gerry McNeil quit the NHL long before their skills eroded.

* Eddie Johnston had his nose broken in three-straight games.

* Terry Sawchuk suffered at least two nervous breakdowns and 600 facial stitches.

* Toronto goalie Frank "Ulcers" McCool earned his nickname.

What did these men have in common? They played goaltender in the NHL before it was fashionable to wear a mask. Clearly, the goaltender union needed some help and Montreal Maroons goalie Clint Benedict got the mask movement rolling after taking a Dit Clapper shot to the head in the 1929-30 season. Benedict then was knocked cold by a Howie Morenz shot a few weeks later. He returned wearing a mask -- made of leather and reinforced with wire -- but discarded it after a few games. Morenz then hit him in the throat and ended his career.

In a sense, Benedict and all goalies who have succeeded him were victims of Benedict's cleverness. Goalies were not allowed to drop to the ice before 1918 but Benedict had a way of "accidentally falling." Finally, NHL President Frank Calder permitted goalies to leave their feet to make saves. That created another problem: Goalies faces were now exposed to more shots than when they stood tall in net.

Nowadays, NHL goalies stand for the anthem and then drop, butterfly, lunge, flip and roll and do whatever it takes for 60 minutes to stop pucks. It was the introduction of the goalie mask that allows them to do that.

So, why did earlier NHL team officials frown on the wearing of masks? They claimed it limited the goalie's vision and they also inferred mask wearers lacked the courage to play the position.

Plante's response to that was, "If you jump out of plane without a parachute, does that prove you're brave?"

"Our first job as goaltenders was to stay alive and then stop the puck," said Simmons, a Stanley Cup winner with the 1962 Toronto Maple Leafs and the second modern-day goalie to wear a mask full time. "The owners frowned on it. They wanted that macho thing. They liked it when a guy came out with his nose hanging down his face.

"I got a bad knock on my eye and it broke my cheekbone and dropped my eye out its of socket. They fixed that. I had 15 broken noses and lots and lots of cuts. Fortunately, I never lost teeth. I got hit everywhere but in my teeth.

"Putting on a mask was just sensible, common sense. If I can protect my face, I can play more games and help my team. That was my thinking. I didn't think much during games about getting hit. My mind was occupied with the play. But I'd think about it after the game. I'd think about the one that whizzed by my ear and hit the bar. Bobby Hull shot one of his slap shots over my shoulder that busted through the netting and they didn't count it. Bobby argued, he was furious. How hard was that shot?"

The early days

The first modern-day goalie to wear a mask was Plante, but he had to fight Montreal Canadiens coach Toe Blake to do it. An Andy Bathgate shot on Nov. 1, 1959, sent Plante to the dressing room for stitches and he returned wearing a mask. Blake was angry, but those were the days of one goalie per team. He insisted Plante take it off, but the Canadiens won that game and 17 more consecutive games.

Blake finally got Plante to remove the mask and the Canadiens lost. The mask was then back for good.

Hockey fan Bill Burchmore, a sales and marketing representative for Fiberglass Canada Ltd., had contacted Plante after seeing him injured in a 1958 game. He made a plaster of Paris mold of Plante's face and covered it with fiberglass cloth, resin and gypsum. It was one-eighth of an inch thick. Plante wore it in practices but never in a game until the Bathgate shot.

Burchmore continued to experiment and designed a mask of fiberglass bars molded to the face that dropped the mask weight from 14 oz. to 10 oz. They became known as "pretzels" and most NHL goalies in the 1960s wore them.

Meanwhile, goalie-mask makers began springing up around Canada. University of Alberta goaltender Gerry Schultz made one for himself and soon fielded requests from other Western goaltenders. Years later, Grant Fuhr would wear a Schultz mask. Plante also went into the mask-making business, selling the popular Fibrosport mask in the 1970s.

Detroit Red Wings trainer Ross "Lefty" Wilson was ordered by General Manager Jack Adams to craft a mask for goalie Terry Sawchuk. Made from five sheets of fiberglass, it had larger eye holes and a strong bridge over the nose. However, Sawchuk took a shot below the eye that fractured the mask and cut his cheekbone.

Wilson's masks became very popular and the team allowed him to make masks for other NHL goalies, including Gerry Cheevers and Cesare Maniago. Detroit goalies Jim Rutherford, Roger Crozier and Roy Edwards also wore Wilson masks.

Roy Weatherbee made a pretzel mask that was lighter and stronger for goalies Bernie Parent, Doug Favell, Jacques Caron and Dunc Wilson while Norwood, Mass., plumber Ernie Higgins designed the form-fitting, triangular-ventilated mask that became the most popular in the NHL in the 1970s. This was the mask that Cheevers decorated with his famous stitches. Fellow Bruins goalie Ed Johnston also wore a Higgins' mask. Ed Giacomin, Gary "Suitcase" Smith, Gerry Desjardins, Gilles Gilbert, Rogie Vachon, and Favell all wore Higgins' masks, which were the first to cover the temple. Later, Higgins added padding, back plates and throat bibs. That was after Johnston was injured by a Bobby Orr slap shot in practice on Halloween at the Detroit Olympia.

"I got hit in the head early in the season in Detroit and when I got off the plane in Boston, I didn't know where I was so they took me to Massachusetts General Hospital," Johnston said. "I was in a coma for six weeks and didn't get out of the hospital until just before Christmas. There was a clot in my brain and my doctor worked to dissolve it. Before he got there, they were going to drill and go inside to remove it. It would have ended my career.

"Glenn Hall came to see me in the hospital and I don't remember that, but after he saw me, Glenn put a mask on and wore it for the rest of his career. My injury was on the side of my head so my coach, Milt Schmidt, told Ernie Higgins he had to make a mask that went all the way around my head. Ernie put straws up my nose so I could breathe when he molded the mask and something over my head so the mask wouldn't stick to my skin. He did a nice job."

Evolution continues

Ottawa fireman Jim Homuth, a goalie, developed a harder fiberglass mask with no flat spots, insuring that pucks would deflect off the mask instead of the mask taking the full impact. Gary Smith was the first to wear a Homuth mask, but Ken Dryden, Phil Myre, Desjardins, Dan Bouchard, Billy Smith, Michel Plasse and Gilles Gratton followed.

Dave Dryden made his own mask in 1962 while playing senior hockey for the Galt Hornets. He wore that mask while playing four years later for the Chicago Blackhawks. Seth Martin, who would later play with Plante and Glenn Hall on the St. Louis Blues, made his own mask after taking a shot in the mouth in 1960. He led the Trail Smoke Eaters to the 1961 World Championship in his first season wearing a mask. He then began making masks for European goalies.

Meanwhile, Montreal mask maker Michel Lefebvre designed masks with extended chins to protect the goalie's throat. Michel Dion, Richard Sevigny and Bunny Laroque wore his masks.

The fiberglass masks offered inadequate eye protection and it was simply good fortune that no NHL goalie suffered an eye injury while wearing one, until Desjardin was hurt in 1977, ending his career. Canada banned fiberglass masks in youth hockey, undermining the economics of the industry. NHL goalies switched to the helmet-and-cage style popular in Europe.

Dryden, by then playing for Edmonton, didn't like that loose-fitting protection and designed his own helmet with attached mask and took it to Greg Harrison, who perfected the design. It came to be known as "the combo" as was the direct predecessor of the masks worn today by most goalies. Myre, Meloche and Chico Resch were the first to wear them.

"It was the first mask that I didn't make myself, but I designed it," Dryden said. "It was so complicated so I took it to Greg Harrison and said ‘This is what I want, can you make it?’ He did a great job and I was the first to wear it.

"The reason for a new design was that we had been taught to believe that you have to see the puck perfectly. That's why we went into fiberglass, it was the least invasive at seeing the puck. I was playing in the WHA and we had a lot of European goalies, good goalies, who wore the helmet and cage and that got me thinking that the cage didn't bother them. I put one on and couldn't get used to it because the whole thing sat on top of my head.

"You anchor the fiberglass mask on the front of your face. I wanted something with the protection of the cage that was anchored to the face and it fell into place really easily. I was used to making my own masks so I stood in front of the mirror with materials and a puck and soon realized it would work.

"Had it just been fiberglass, I would have made it myself, but when I knew it needed wire components, I needed help. I used to go to Cooper Sports every summer and work with them and Greg was working with them, too. So, I went to him and he did a great job. He's an artist and very talented."

The combo really took off after Patrick Roy led the Canadiens to the 1986 Stanley Cup while wearing one designed by Lefebvre. Grant Fuhr then started wearing one made by Harrison.

Jerry Wright spent nearly two decades making goalie masks for amateurs, never cracking the pro ranks, but he developed a combo mask in 1989 that was the first combo mask approved by Canadian youth-hockey officials. ITECH signed him to make their goalie masks and ITECHs became the world's most popular brand.
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