On Nov. 1, 1959, when Jacques Plante defied coach Toe Blake and donned a mask during a game against the New York Rangers, the pioneering goalie could not have foreseen the avalanche he had triggered. After Plante was sliced below his nose on a shot by Andy Bathgate, bled profusely and was stitched up in the dressing room, it’s likely the only thing he envisioned was saving his own vision. And his skull, orbital bone, jaw, sinus cavities and teeth.
But in the decades following Plante’s dramatic decision, the goalie mask has evolved into the most prolific innovation in all of sport. Hear me out. It’s a bold statement considering the advances and novel concepts great minds have conjured. Breakaway basketball rims, Tommy John surgery, interchangeable cleats, vulcanized rubber tennis balls, titanium golf clubs, video replay, headsets in football helmets, the Fosbury Flop – iceberg meet tip. There is a plethora of important advancements that have been transformative in sports that are more popular than hockey.
But none have spawned the variety of touchpoints Plante’s piece of facial protection has. It’s unrivaled. Here’s the checklist:
Protection. The original intent of the mask remains its most important feature. It’s impossible to fathom today’s game without it.
Accessibility. There is no empirical evidence to prove the mask opened the position to more candidates, but it has. We know, anecdotally, some players shied away from tending goal due to the inherent head-injury risks. Denis Brodeur, Martin’s late father and one-time rising goalie, said he quit the game due to the anxiety he suffered from playing bare-faced. He wasn’t alone, never mind those who didn’t even consider the occupation for fear of fractures. No-mask goalies were a rare breed, men of extreme courage who sometimes paid a heavy price – mentally and/or physically – due to their chosen field.
Pop culture. Jason Voorhees accelerated the growth of a cottage industry with his goalie-mask-wearing mayhem in the Friday the 13th films. The Bernie Parent-styled, plain-faced mask became a symbol of the macabre, a staple Halloween costume, an icon of darkness. It took on a very prominent life of its own. Masks have been a quintessential wardrobe piece for a variety of other popular characters, from Denis Lemieux in Slap Shot to the black-rimmed-glasses-through-the-mask- wearing Garth in Wayne’s World.
Expression. NHL players have taken heat for lacking individuality, for being conformists. The mask steps outside the milquetoast zone. Beginning in the 1970s with the iconic cages of stitch-faced Gerry Cheevers and roaring tiger of Gilles Gratton, to the present-day pieces of art, goalies have infused color into the game with their war paint. We’ve devoted three pages of this issue (pgs. 16-18) to ranking this season’s best. And on pg. 13, in the O-Meter, we take a playful glimpse at masks over eras.
In 2008, we thought so much of the appeal of the mask we published an entire 172-page commemorative magazine on it. It turned out to be one of our best sellers. Let’s see a collector’s edition on the tennis ball match that.