Friday, 27 February 2009

Superheroes AKA Masked Men

A couple of weeks ago, Uni Watch Blog bench coach Phil Hecken was approached by a reader who asked about goalie numbers. Being that he's not really as committed to hockey as I am, he forwarded that request to me, suggesting to the reader that I could probably answer the questions off the top of my head. Sure enough, I did, and he suggested we should put together a piece on that for Uni Watch. Unfortunately, I had already turned it into an entry for Hockey Blog In Canada. Undeterred, however, Phil approached me to assist him with something even more interesting than the goalie number: the goalie mask. There’s quite a history behind this invention-out-of-necessity. Below, we’ll examine it’s origins and humble beginnings, taking it from its roots to the beginning of its modern form (which I expect we will explore further at another time). Before we begin, a quick aside from yours truly.

When we originally discussed this idea, I had grandiose visions of a complete history of the goaltender’s mask from its humble starts to the various paint jobs seen today. However, when I really began investigating the mask, it became apparent that it has evolved more than any other piece of equipment in hockey. And, for those of you who think this is just a hockey article, there is information about how hockey intertwined with baseball and fencing. Who knew these sports were related? Anyway, onward!

When one considers dangerous professions, several come to mind: policeman, fireman, tight-rope walker, trapeze performer. But rarely do we consider hockey goaltenders as a dangerous profession. With the modifications in equipment and advancements in technology, today’s goaltenders are more like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man than "masked men". But it’s that very piece of equipment that has changed the way the game has played, and how the goalie mask got started is an interesting look at the history of the sport.

The first recorded instance of a mask being worn in a hockey game by a goaltender came in the late-1920s. There is some debate as to who was first, but we’ll start with the first instance as recorded by the Hockey Hall of Fame. The Hall features an unidentified North American goaltender protecting the net in Switzerland wearing a baseball catcher’s mask. However, there is a photo from 1927 of Elizabeth Graham donning a fencer’s mask in a game for Queen’s University. As to which was first, there is no certainty, but the late-1920s was definitely the first era to have goalies were primitive masks.

The catcher’s mask used in Switzerland was similar to the first mask introduced in baseball by Fred Thayer. Thayer was the player-manager for Harvard’s Baseball Club in the 1870s, and couldn’t find anyone to play catcher for his team. Players weren’t too keen on catching foul balls in the face as they crouched behind home plate. Thayer went about designing a mask for catcher with strong metal bars spaced far apart for better vision than a fencing mask. The finished mask was debuted in spring of 1877, and the first mask was sold in 1878 for $3.

The first mask seen in the NHL was worn by Montreal Maroons goaltender Clint Benedict in 1930. Benedict dropped to make a save on Montreal Canadiens’ star Howie Morenz when he was struck in the face, knocking him unconscious. He awoke in the Montreal hospital with a badly broken nose and a shattered cheekbone. Six weeks later, on February 22, Benedict returned with a mask to protect his still-healing face. It was made of leather supported by wire, and protected the forehead, nose, and mouth, but not the eyes. The nosepiece obstructed Benedict’s view, and he ditched the mask several days later after the first game. Unfortunately, Benedict’s career ended on March 4, 1930 when he was hit in the throat by Howie Morenz. His injury forced him to hang up the skates for good.

The next major mask innovations came about because of another piece of face equipment – eyeglasses. Japanese goaltender Teiji Honma wore his historic cage at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany to protect his eyeglasses. The mask has been modified to protect the frames of his glasses. Ironically, Roy Musgrove wore a half-mask used for field lacrosse while playing for the Wembley Lions of the British National Hockey League in 1936 – coached by none other than Clint Benedict! Musgrove donned the half-mask to protect his glasses while he tended to the twine.

The NHL, though, didn’t see another mask worn until a gentleman named Delbert Louch from St. Mary’s. Ontario sent all six goaltenders a clear, plastic, full-face shield in 1954 that was a precursor to visors seen in the NHL. There were complaints of it fogging up, causing glare, and being too warm for goalies to wear, but it was endorsed by Detroit goalie Terry Sawchuk and Toronto goalie Johnny Bower. However, it was never worn in a game.

November 1, 1959 changed the way fans saw the game forever. Andy Bathgate, who just had his number retired by the New York Rangers, fired a high backhand on net that caught Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender Jacques Plante in the face. The resulting cut on Plante’s face sent him to the trainer’s room, causing a 45 minutes delay in the game. When he returned from getting stitched up, his face was dramatically different – he was wearing a mask!

Bill Burchmore had witnessed Plante getting hit in the forehead with a puck, resulting in a 45 minute delay in the game while he was being stitched up. While at work the next day, Burchmore was looking at a fibreglass mannequin head when he realized the he could design a contoured, lightweight fibreglass mask that would fit the goalie’s face like a protective second skin. Burchmore gave Plante his idea, and Plante was persuaded by his trainers to give it a try. A mold was taken of Plante’s face by putting a woman’s stocking over his head, covering his face with Vaseline, and allowing him to breath through a straws stuck in both nostrils while his head was covered with plaster. Burchmore layered sheets of fibreglass cloth saturated with polyester resin on top of the mold. The result was the flesh-toned 0.125 in (52 mm) thick mask that weighed only 14 oz (397 g).

Despite Toe Blake’s resistance to allowing Plante on the ice with the mask after he recovered from his injury, Plante donned the mask for the rest of the season. Burchmore finally built up the courage to write to Plante with his molded fibreglass mask idea in the spring of 1959, and convinced Plante to have his face covered in fibreglass. Plante began wearing his new formed mask at the start of the 1959-60 season, and showed a renewed courage in standing up to blasts.

Burchmore’s mask wasn’t three months old when he came up with a new mask design. This new design was made of fibreglass yarn instead of sheets of fibreglass. This allowed for better ventilation as the yarn could be fashioned into "bars" much like the baseball catchers’ masks of yesteryear. The first design that Burchmore gave to Plante resembled that of a twisted pretzel, and the "pretzel mask" was born. Due to the design of the bars, however, this mask weighed a tiny 10.3 oz. The pretzel mask, with its improved ventilation and light weight, was worn by NHL stars such as Cesar Maniago and Charlie Hodge into the 1960s.

Detroit Red Wings trainer, Ross "Lefty" Wilson, came up with another design in the early-1960s after Terry Sawchuk went down with another facial injury, infuriating Red Wings’ GM Jack Adams. Wilson’s primitive mask design was accepted by the Leatherface-looking Sawchuk, and he donned it permanently by October, 1962. Wilson began making masks for a large number of goalies throughout the NHL who wore them in games and practices, charging a mere $35 for his creations.

Roy Weatherbee advanced the pretzel mask again by furthering the protectiveness of the mask by studying the tensile properties of fibreglass, and his improved design was worn by a large number of older goaltenders as we entered the 1967 Expansion age. However, a large number of the up-and-coming netminders were already wearing the next mask design at this time.

In 1968, a young netminder named Neil Higgins was complaining to his father, Ernie Higgins, about the store-bought mask he was wearing while at Boston College. It didn’t fit properly, but it was all the younger Higgins could wear. Ernie Higgins went about designing a new mask for his son, and, after five years, had perfected his design and mask-making technique. **Thank you Janet-Marie for the timeline correction!**

After the design that Neil Higgins was wearing made it into the Boston Gardens’ home team dressing room, Ernie Higgins was invited to meet with Eddie Johnston and Gerry Cheevers about his design. Cheevers wasn’t fond of the flat Wilson mask as he found it to slide around on his face while he played. Higgins recognized the need for a more curved mask to hug the face, and went about getting a mask ready for Cheevers that wouldn’t move. In 1968, Cheevers debuted a model that had a few recognizable Higgins' traits: the ventilation slits across the forehead formed a T-shape, and the cheek ventilation holes were triangular for maximum ventilation.

By 1969, Higgins was a full-time mask maker, retiring from his first profession of plumbing. He continued to tinker with his design, adding the back plate to secure the mask tightly to the head, and extending the sides to protect more of the goaltender’s head and face. In the mid-1970s, the helmets worn by Doug Favell and Gary Smith were essentially the precursor to the masks seen today. As an aside, Higgins' work in masks led him to designing prosthetic devices and casts for injured athletes and accident victims, most notably for the leg of Boston Red Sox slugger Ken Harrelson.

Jacques Plante returned to the mask scene in 1970 when he founded a company called Fibrosport in Magog, Quebec. Fibrosport made masks of fibreglass and an epoxy resin that featured ridges to deflect pucks away from the face, preventing the full impact of the puck from being absorbed by the goalie’s face. The price for a Fibrosport mask ranged from $12 to $150, and was worn by a large majority of goaltenders until 1979 when masks changed significantly.

Mask designers got a huge shock from the Summit Series in 1972 when the Canadian NHL All-Stars squared off against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). It was here that everyone first witnessed the peculiar "birdcage" mask worn by Vladislav Tretiak. Tretiak’s mask allowed for good ventilation and an excellent field of vision, resulting in better play compared to his Canadian counterparts. This new cage would be the next major piece in the evolution of the mask. The "birdcage"-style of facial protection wouldn’t make it to the NHL, though, until 1976.

Greg Harrison and Michel Lefebvre added to the Fibrosport design by extending the chin downward to cover the throat. Harrison added a hinge to his throat protection for better movement, but the large extension downward was cumbersome for goaltenders who needed to be able to look from shoulder-to-shoulder.

In 1976, New York Rangers’ goaltender Gilles Gratton donned a helmet with a cage, looking a lot like Tretiak’s mask seen four years earlier. It wasn’t long before Buffalo Sabres’ goaltender Don Edwards followed suit, and the "birdcage" began to catch on as the mask of choice. Fibreglass masks appeared to be heading the way of the dodo.

Additionally, 1977 saw Buffalo’s Gerry Desjardins suffered a horrific injury when a puck caught the eyehole in his fibreglass mask, putting his vision in serious jeopardy. It caused him to retire prematurely, and, in 1978, the Canadian Standards Association banned the use of fibreglass masks for minor hockey. Bernie Parent’s eye injury the following year forced a large number of goaltenders to abandon their fibreglass masks for the birdcage design.

In 1979, the fibreglass mask was nearly dead. However, change was already on the way. Veteran goaltender Dave Dryden and designer Greg Harrison met in 1977. Dryden was convinced that the cage was the safest facial protection for goalies, but wanted the tight fit to the head that the fibreglass mask provided. Harrison mocked up a design that incorporated both the cage and the tight fit. What was born was the "hybrid mask". Phil Myre was the first to adopt the hybrid, wearing it for the Philadelphia Flyers in 1981.

The hybrid mask is what is worn by the majority of goaltenders today (Chris Osgood not included). It is secured by a back plate to allow for movement of the head, and features a large cage for good ventilation and vision. The chin protection helps to protect the throat, and it provides the most protection while being lightweight.

Clearly, the innovation and evolution of the goalie mask is a large story. 70 years of changes saw the mask evolve from baseball catchers’ masks and fencing masks to intricately-designed pieces of artwork.

As a post-script to this, the Hedberg mask seen above is his new design, entitled "Indiana Moose" in keeping with his helmet's Moose theme.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


JTH said...

Great stuff as usual, Teebz.

As was pointed out in the UW comments, it's interesting how things have come full circle and now catchers are using what are essentially goalies' masks.


Teebz said...

Totally agree.

I guess it says something about how far the innovations and technology has gone when baseball turns to hockey for protection.

Thanks, JTH!

Unknown said...

Correction to the Neil Higgins timeline. Neil was not at Boston College in 1962 but playing youth hockey. He graduated from Norwood High School in 1968 and entered Boston College that September.