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Weird, Scary, Cool. The Evolution of the Goalie Mask In Hockey to Become A Style Symbol

You have to be incredibly courageous to take on the role of a hockey goalie and put yourself in the path of the puck, crushing the bone day after day.
Harry Siuu
By: Harry Siuu

At the same time, goalkeepers receive special attention from the audience and especially broadcast cameras, who like to savor their signature masks up close. However, goalkeepers did not have such an advantage until the second half of the 20th century. Before that, they stepped onto the rink without any semblance of protection for their skull and face, seriously risking their well-being in every game. Today, we with 22BET go back to the beginning to look at the storied history of the iconic goalie mask — from its first iteration in hockey to the modern design trends.  

We all know how brutal and cruel hockey is and how much danger awaits players on the ice. Even when athletes are not involved in brawls, no one is safe from trouble that presents health consequences. And the ice isn’t exactly the ideal place you want to be falling on. 

Modern equipment has stepped in to minimize the risks that hockey players face, ranging from fractured fingers to severe concussions. However, protective equipment in hockey wasn’t always the norm. 

The Basics of Safe Hockey

Hockey in its more or less modern form and with certain rules originated in Canada in the second half of the 19th century. It would be several decades before it later spread to other countries. Since the first officially recorded hockey game in Montreal in 1875, daredevils have been taking to the ice to chase the puck. 

In the first decades of hockey, players did not even try to protect themselves from contact or falls. In the 1880s, they began to use shin guards, which already existed in other sports like cricket. At the beginning of the 20th century, hockey players advanced to the protection of the back and shoulders and, at the same time, brought in knee pads made of leather.

In the 1930s, the game saw the introduction of modernized equipment. Some players started using reinforced gloves and even shoehorns in their gloves to avoid breaking their toes. Others started using custom elbow pads.

Around the same time, for the first time in NHL history, a player in a helmet appeared on the ice. Eddie Shore was prompted to do this by a collision with an opponent named Ace Bailey, who had a concussion and was forced to end his career.

To be clear, all of the above-mentioned advances in the evolution of hockey equipment were not a general trend or standard. There were no rules that made it mandatory for players to wear protection, and it was everyone's personal choice to use it. Thousands of athletes regularly sustained injuries of various scales on the ice, but only a few learned from other people's mistakes.

It was only in the second half of the 20th century that equipment began to be massively introduced into the game, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that a combination of "armor" that could be trusted during ice battles took shape. However, it wasn’t until 1979 that the helmet became mandatory. At the same time, certain individuals, taking advantage of loopholes in the laws, continued to play without them for decades. For example, Craig McTavish spent his career helmet-less until 1997.

From Halloween Fiberglass to Modern “Bird Cages.”

Goalkeepers as the main targets on the ice were thought about, of course, a little earlier because of the risk they faced. Face protection became mandatory on March 31, 1973. Until that moment, goalkeepers were using their faces to prevent the pucks from going into goal and they gave little thought to the consequences. Players could use protection in training, but going into games in this form didn’t sit well with the audiences: the fans considered it a sign of a lack of masculinity.

By the 1930s, we had the first nonconformists who were ready to turn a blind eye to the roar from the stands. Japanese goalkeeper Teiji Honma, for example, wore a baseball catcher mask. Clint Benedict of the Montreal Maroons came up with a leather outfit that he wore after an injury but ended up throwing it away due to inconvenience (he soon retired after another injury).

Eventually, the first goalkeeper to wear face protection full-time was Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens. On November 1, 1959, the puck cut the player's nose and cheek right during the game - the injury was quickly patched up, but Jacques continued the game in a brutal training mask made of fiberglass, which covered the entire face, leaving slits for the eyes and nose.

Although the coach and the stands were indignant, the player decided to turn a blind eye to all this and continue to think about his safety. Over time, the public, which called Jacques a coward, calmed down. But not because of a sudden bout of consciousness - it's just that Plant, wearing his trademark mask, went unbeaten 18 games in a row, which made the mask a kind of talisman in the eyes of the goalkeeper himself and everyone around him.

Soon after, fiberglass products became extremely popular among NHL players. They looked, of course, as stylish as possible, albeit slightly creepy, in the spirit of Halloween accessories. It is in such classic hockey paraphernalia that Casey Jones from "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and maniac Jason from the horror "Friday the 13th" flaunt on the screens. By the 1970s, almost all NHL hockey players wore similar masks, and the design was improved several times and supplemented with a lining for greater comfort and safety.

A little later, goalkeepers began experimenting with an eclectic defensive format that combined a standard skater's hockey helmet with a wire grill. This significantly increased the viewing angle and, at the same time, protected the face from stray pucks. Mass production of these accessories was not yet available, so some players made their masks in artisanal conditions.

In the 1980s, there was finally a version of goalkeeper protection that was as close to modern as possible. Because of its specific shape, the mask was nicknamed the "birdcage." It still consisted of a grill that protected the face while providing the wearer with perfect visibility and comfortable breathing room. This iteration of the equipment was designed to absorb the impact and distribute kinetic energy to the rest of the helmet, which covered almost the entire skull except the back of the head.

In the years that followed, there were no major changes, and the manufacturers only refined the last vital details, such as the reinforced forehead and chin area. The foam and rubber inside further helped absorb the shock. In addition, neck protection appeared since previously its absence cost the career of more than one goalkeeper. Additionally, kevlar joined fiberglass in the lineup, which provided increased safety for the players, at least in theory.

However, the goalkeepers did not find perfect protection in the form of masks. At times, heroic moves bend and break them, and pucks less often but still injure the faces of goalkeepers. On the other hand, modern helmets have become a field for hockey self-expression and sometimes real art objects.

Goalkeeper Mask as a Contemporary Art

There is one simple hockey law: "A goalkeeper is an inviolable figure." People who risk themselves in this sport are extremely appreciated. Therefore, goalkeepers are allowed to paint their masks in any way they want (of course, without radical experiments and obscenities). Perhaps it's a kind of apology for those terrible decades when goalkeepers played without protection. One way or another, outfield players can't indulge at the same level.

Goalkeepers decorated masks to their taste in the second half of the twentieth century, as soon as the followers of Jacques Plante's fiberglass chic got to the cherished accessory.

The first-ever mask with a pattern on it captivated the author with its creativity. It all started when Jerry Chivers, a goalie who couldn't stand practice, tried to feign an injury. When the plan failed, the goalkeeper decided to extinguish the coach's rage with humor - he drew a "stitch" of a sewn wound on the mask. That was just the beginning because Jerry "seamed" almost the entire mask for the rest of his career, marking every contact it made with the puck.

Another hero of the Fiberglass era, Gary Bromley, became an absolute star outside of hockey after playing wearing a skull mask. It seems that such work should have stopped the opponents at their gates. However, a kind of irony can be found in the print: the knocked-out teeth on the mask look like memories of the days when almost every match of any goalkeeper was held like this.

More modern versions of masks, of course, do not give much room for creativity because the visible area of the canvas is more complex in shape: you need to use all the available surfaces around the grill, which are not easy to fold into a single pattern.

One of the most striking designs of the "birdcage" was the Curtis Joseph version, which put the head of a dog with an open mouth on the helmet. This was a reference to Stephen King's novel Cujo, in which a rabid pet dog terrorizes the sleepy American countryside, and the player's nickname (an acronym of the first letters of the first and last names), although in general, such a pattern with a roaring animal has appeared on the helmets of hockey players more than once, both before and after Curtis.

In an instant, the past and present of goalkeeping hockey protection were locked into one sparkling design by Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens, who printed his mask with the legendary Jacques Plante. Of course, this idea looks peculiar, but the legacy of the great savior of goalkeepers has not been forgotten - and this is good.

Finally, a modern goalkeeper mask can be good without a print; you just need to get a little creative with the color palette. This is how the "luxury" design named after Jonas Hiller was born. The matte black coating with a golden grill and other details speaks of the goalkeeper's taste even more than other players' ironic and catchy graffiti.

It seems that modern goalkeepers spend more time looking for fresh ideas for their masks than training. We are sure that in the future, there will be more than one reason to remember the glorious history of hockey helmets against the background of the new fashionable goalkeepers of the future.

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Harry Siuu
Written by: Harry Siuu
a specialized football specialist with over ten years' experience as a football journalist who works for Betimate.com.

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