Masks have been saving hockey goalies for 50 years

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By Fred Bowen
Thursday, October 29, 2009

This Sunday is a very important anniversary in professional hockey. On November 1, 1959, a goalie wore a face mask in a National Hockey League game for the first time.

Believe it or not, 50 years ago NHL goalies did not wear anything on their face when trying to stop blistering slap shots. But when Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens, who won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender seven times, got hit in the face with a shot in a game against the New York Rangers, he decided enough was enough.

Plante had used a mask in practice, but the Canadiens coach, Toe Blake, would not let him use it in games. Blake was afraid the mask might cut down on Plante's ability to see the puck. But Plante told Blake he would not go back onto the ice without his mask. Since the Canadiens did not have a backup goalie, Blake had to agree or forfeit the game.

Some players and coaches thought Plante was a sissy to wear a mask. Remember, in those days, none of the players wore helmets. But the Canadiens and their masked goalie won several games in a row. Soon Plante and other goalies were wearing masks for every game.

The early masks were made of fiberglass that covered the goalie's face like a second skin. You can see some of them at The masks were simple, but at least they protected the goalie's face somewhat from flying pucks and sticks.

Gerry Cheevers, a goalie who played for several professional teams, including the Boston Bruins, during the 1960s and '70s, had a clever way of reminding himself why he wore his mask. Cheevers painted a black stitch on his white mask every time a puck hit him in the face. Soon, Cheevers's mask was covered with painted stitches.

Now NHL goalies decorate their masks with all sorts of colorful artwork. Unlike in the National Football League, where players are not allowed to have anything different on their uniforms, NHL goalies are allowed to have any artwork they want as long as it is in good taste. Some of the airbrush designs can cost up to $1,000.

Goalies wear tributes to family members, former coaches or classic rock bands such as Kiss and Led Zeppelin. They have pirates, penguins, dinosaurs and even Dr. Seuss's Grinch on their masks.

When Capitals goalie José Theodore came to Washington, he changed the artwork on his mask from gargoyles to pictures of such Washington landmarks as the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

So thanks to Jacques Plante, goalie masks help keep players safe. And are part of the fun of playing hockey.

Fred Bowen writes KidsPost's sports opinion column and is the author of sports novels for kids. His two newest books, "Touchdown Trouble" and "Soccer Team Upset," were published in August.

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