From that point forward the mask was here to stay, evolving from the original “Jason-style” Halloween mask to the helmet/cage combination, and finally to today’s fiberglass/Kevlar headwear. Andy Brown, who had a brief stint with the Penguins from 1973-74, is the last player to patrol a crease minus facial protection.
Prior to donning the mask during a live contest, Plante began wearing the mask during practices. Befitting the mentality of an era often referred to as “old-time hockey,” Plante was originally discouraged from bringing his creation to the actual games.
“When Plante first started wearing it they thought he was getting a little gun-shy, that’s why he put the mask on,” former Penguins head coach and Boston Bruins goaltender Eddie Johnston said. “It really wasn’t. That was always the stigma with it, if you were putting the mask on then you were shying away and pulling up. That really wasn’t the case.”
When Plante finally stood up to his coach, Toe Blake, and refused to reenter the game without the mask, he had officially changed the course of hockey history forever.
Johnston later followed Plante and put on a mask of his own after he spent six-to-eight weeks in a coma after being struck by a Bobby Orr slap shot during warmups one night in Detroit. When he was finally able to return to action in March, the Bruins’ team doctor insisted, “I don’t want him playing unless he puts a mask on.”
“It was really stupidity not putting them on in the first place because I ended up with five or six broken noses and broke a lot of bones for no reason,” Johnston said.
The original mask debuted by Plante was fiberglass and molded to fit the outline of your face. There were three holes – two to give a sightline and one for the mouth to breathe through. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but it did the job.
“The early masks, if you got hit, you still got cut,” said Johnston. “The mask wasn’t that cushioned – it was pretty close to your face. It did save you a lot of broken bones and that type of thing.”
“That was a tough mask to wear because it was so tight to your nose that every time you took a shot it felt like you broke your nose,” said Gilles Meloche, the Penguins goaltending coach and a netminder for five teams, including the Penguins.
“I did miss some days where you just swelled. In Montreal, I got hit between the eyes by (Yvan) Cournoyer and I couldn’t practice for two days because there was no way I could wear that mask.”
Another problem with the “Halloween” mask was how drastically it changed the goaltender’s ability to track the puck. Meloche, who said he played two years of Junior B without one, felt his concentration was better sans the mask because if you lost where the rubber was for even a second, you were liable to take a shot to the forehead.
Johnston talked how the early masks forced goaltenders to adjust how they played low shots at their feet because they now couldn’t pick those pucks up as easily.
“You had to bend down,” Johnston said. “Usually you just looked quick. You had to take the extra step or two. That was what caused most of the problems – pucks at your feet.
“It took a while in practice. What you would do in practice was keep pucks close to your feet and you worked on it until you were able to get it.”
As time moved on, the mask evolved to become friendlier for goalies.
During the latter part of the 1970s, some netminders began wearing masks which contained a helmet on the top of the head with an attached cage not pressed up against the face. These masks were better because a goaltender did not feel as much of the sting when they took a shot to the head, and the accompanying cage made picking the puck up easier from all angles.
Meloche said these masks were a definite improvement, but still had their problems. He talked how the cage portion was not as strong as it is today, so the occasional shot would still bend the bars inwards and cut your face.
“We used to get hit in mask and the cage would bend,” Meloche said. “Goalies were worried that the bar would break and would cut you around the eye.
“By the end of the year the masks were cracked and had weak spots everywhere.”
Eventually over the past 15 years or so, these masks have made way for the fiberglass/Kevlar version now worn by most goaltenders.
The current model is “perfectly designed” according to Johnston. They feature double padding compared to previous models, have bars around the cage constructed so sturdily Meloche said the worse-case scenario is a “one-eighth inch bend” and offer a relaxed fit.
Another benefit of today’s mask is how it allows goalies to continue a tradition of applying personal artwork, something Johnston’s former teammate in Boston, Gary Cheevers, began. Cheevers would paint 10 stitches on his mask each time he took a shot there.
Meloche was actually one of the first netminders to have a creative design with his colorful red, white and blue tribute to the state of Ohio when he played for the Cleveland Barons. That mask made the Hockey Hall of Fame.
These days, goaltenders either continue to apply artwork pertaining to their current employer, or they have their own signature theme which can be easily transferred when they switch teams, such as current Penguins backstop Brent Johnson
“Ever since I came into the league I have done a Led Zeppelin theme because they are my favorite band,” Johnson said. “I listen to them before every game. It’s one of those things I like.
“A goalie gets to add a little bit of his personality to their uniform, which is really cool. You are the only guy on the team who can express yourself in a different way out there.”
Johnson, whose father, Bob, tended goal for the Penguins from 1974-75, has long been a fan of the different designs.
“I loved Pelle Lindberg’s mask with the ‘Flyer’ (logo) on either side,” Johnson said. “It was the long, fiberglass (mask). It was awesome. There was (Dan Bouchard) in Calgary who had an awesome one with flames on it. There have been so many good ones.”
As much as he enjoys and appreciates wearing a mask, Johnson spoke about what it might be like to experience life in the crease without one.
“I’ve often dreamt about playing without a mask. I think it would be awesome unless you got hit. I think it would be fantastic because you would be free and able to see everything. As long as the players weren’t allowed to raise their stick above the crossbar it would be awesome.”
Thanks to Jacques Plante’s decision 50 years earlier, stopping pucks without a mask gets to remain a dream and not reality for Johnson and his fellow puck stoppers.