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Happy Birthday: The NHL Goalie Mask Turns 48

by Joe Sager / Pittsburgh Penguins

PensTV Behind The Mask  

Goaltenders all over the world can credit their good looks to Jacques Plante.

After all, the legendary Canadiens goaltender became the first netminder to wear a mask in an NHL game – 48 years ago on Nov. 1, 1959.

The top of Marc-Andre Fleury's mask features a penguin breaking through ice blocks.

“Thank God he came up with something,” Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “I don’t know how they did it, taking pucks to the face and everything. I am happy to be playing in these days and not back in the 1950s. You had to be really crazy then.”

The NHL is in its 90th season. Yet, it’s hard to believe its goaltenders have worn masks for nearly half of the league’s history.

“That number on the back of our sweater was the number of our IQ, because the only smart guy was Jacques Plante,” said Penguins Senior Advisor/Hockey Operations Eddie Johnston. “He got hit in practice a couple times, so he put the mask on. He just decided to protect himself from getting any broken bones. That was a smart move.”

Johnston should know – he spent 16 years as an NHL goaltender and didn’t wear a mask for his entire career.

“The first time Plante wore it, you thought he was either scared or something was the matter with him. He was smart, though,” Johnston said. “He was actually the innovator of it. But, at the beginning, I don’t think their coaching staff was pleased with it, from what I heard. Once he was able to prove it didn’t bother him from stopping pucks, it was fine – he was one of the all-time greats.”

The side of Marc-Andre Fleury's mask features ice blocks.

Johnston made his NHL debut in the 1962-63 season. He completed a highly successful career with Boston, Toronto, St. Louis and Chicago and earned two Stanley Cup rings with the Bruins. He was the last NHL goaltender to play every minute of a season when he played all 70 games for Boston in 1963-64.

However, that career was nearly cut short by a puck to the head.

“I played without a mask until I got hurt. I got hurt really bad in 1969-70. I got hurt at the end of October and I was in the hospital a couple of months in a coma,” Johnston said. “Glenn Hall came to see me in the hospital, and I don’t even remember that, but he put the mask on that night. He said he didn’t want to be in the same position I was in. I was in a coma for six weeks.

The top of Dany Sabourin's mask shows a penguin fishing.

“I have to give Plante a lot of credit because he started something I thought was really important,” he continued. “If I would have had a mask on at that particular time I got hurt, that kind of injury wouldn’t have occurred.”

Since Plante first introduced his goalie mask, the technology has advanced substantially. No longer does a mere piece of plastic separate a goalie’s face from a slapshot. The masks of today are made of super-strong materials and custom-molded to a player’s face.

“I think the masks have definitely become lighter even in the past couple years,” Fleury said. “I know they make a mold of your face and so it’s perfect fitting all around. I am sure they will get even lighter. I think that’s something they can still work on. And, maybe better materials so there are not concussions.

“Even now, if I get a slap-shot in the face, it still rings the bell a little bit. I couldn’t even imagine what shots would do if you had nothing on your head.”

Johnston wishes that technology was available during his playing career.

“I could still play now with these new masks,” he said with a laugh. “Thank God they did that – especially with the way they shoot the puck now and the traffic you get in front of the net. It’s not like it was before when you could take guys out in front of the net and help the goalkeeper to see the puck. It’s really a miracle nobody was ever killed.”

The side of Dany Sabourin's mask features a picture of his daughter.

Penguins goaltenders Dany Sabourin and Fleury discuss the designs on their mask:

Fleury: “I liked Stephane Fiset when he played for the Nordiques. He had ice blocks on his mask, so that’s what I wanted on mine to make it look like an igloo with snow blocks all around. There’s a mean penguin coming out of it on the top and my number on the bottom. On the back, I have Fleur d’ Lis with the initials E.F.G.T. Those are for my four grandparents who passed away: Estelle, Francois, Gaston and Therese.”

Sabourin: “I changed it up a little bit this year. The last few years, I had the old-fashioned masked goalie mask painted on my mask. It worked pretty well and I was pretty superstitious. I did pretty well with that, but I wanted to change it up and personalize it a little bit. I put my daughter (Coralie) on one side and I always have my mother’s initials C.S. with an angel on my mask. This year, I put it on the chin. I have a penguin on top of the mask fishing with a rod because I like to fish during the summer. I thought that was pretty cool. On the other side, he put the Mellon Arena with some buildings in the background at night. I am pretty happy with my mask this year. I think it’s pretty cool. On the back, is just the Penguins logo with my nickname Sabou. I have had some good feedback on it.

"I just wanted to change it up a little bit. I think I am going to stick with this one for a while.”


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