Varsity Letter

In hockey, the goalie's mask has something to say

By Preston Williams
Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fifty years ago this month, Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens became the first goaltender in NHL history to wear a full-face protective mask in a game.

In honor of the anniversary, Varsity checked in with Washington area high school goalies to see whether they consider their masks just another piece of equipment or whether they develop a sentimental attachment to their dome-covering gear, which is built to last up to several years.

But the first question that bears asking is: Hockey existed for decades without goalies protecting their heads? Why didn't someone think of this sooner?

"They're crazy for doing that," said Forest Park sophomore Eugene Rose, an honorable mention All-Met goalie last season, about playing mask-less. "I'm serious. I would never do that. If there wasn't a mask in hockey, I probably wouldn't be playing."

"It's like my baby, you know?" said Langley senior Brett Hatfield, a 2009 honorable mention All-Met who lovingly airs out his mask in his garage. "My mask is, like, molded to my head. The straps are perfect. If I put on somebody else's mask, it wouldn't fit or feel right at all. It would feel weird to move in it or look through it."

Suffice to say that goalies today give a grateful doff of the mask to the late Plante, an eccentric (even by goalie standards) who risked ridicule and emasculation by donning protective gear after taking a puck to the face from point-blank range in a game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 1, 1959.

Fittingly, Plante donned his mask the day after Halloween. No NHL goalie has gone mask-less since 1974.

These days, masks not only protect the face and noggin, they also stand as declarations of individuality, with goalies at all levels displaying their personalities with custom-decorated gear. Some paint jobs cost hundreds of dollars. The idea is not only to save your own head but also to turn somebody else's with an impressive design.

Take Gonzaga senior Donnie Walter. A few years ago, he sent his mask to a company in Canada for customizing (some auto body painters do it, too). His mask pays homage to Gonzaga and to his club team, the Northern Virginia Ice Dogs.

"I like that it's part of my personality," Walter said. "I wish I could repaint it, because there are things now I'd like to have on it that I didn't before that are meaningful to me. I look at them as something where you can delve into somebody's personal life or at least what they want to show the public or aren't afraid of exposing."

Masks present a rare opportunity to personalize a uniform in a team sport. NFL players get fined for the most minute of uniform infractions, and the only avenue for self-expression for many athletes, particularly in high school, is a certain style of haircut, a tattoo or some other personal effect that does not violate uniform standards.

"I should have packed it," Walter lamented of the mask that he considers a canvas. "Every little inch of it can have its own story. Rather than going with something that looks cool, I could go with things that are meaningful. The possibilities are endless."

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