"My face is my mask."
- Gump Worsley
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most historic events in the game of hockey. On the night of November 1st, 1959, Montreal Canadiens great Jacques Plante took a slapshot (fired by New York Rangers star, Andy Bathgate) to the face, breaking his nose and cut for several stitches. Before returning to the game, Plante insisted that coach Toe Blake allow him to try out something he'd been tinkering and experimenting with in practices for the past two and a half years - a protective mask. Plante was known as one of goaltending's greatest innovators even before this as he was always looking for ways to improve his performance. Blake didn't like it but Plante declared he wouldn't go back in the net without the mask. Blake didn't have anyone else he could play so he gave in. The Habs won 3-1.
The original terms that Blake and Plante agreed to over the mask was that Plante would take it off after his face was fully healed. Blake continued to grumble about the mask but ever since Plante put it on, the Canadiens continued to win, going for an amazing streak of 18 straight games without a loss.
On March 8, 1960, Blake insisted that Plante take the mask off. Plante acquiesced and the Canadiens lost 3-0. From that point on, Plante always played with a mask. Others would soon follow.
By 1974, goalies everywhere in professional hockey were masked men. Besides serving as another form of protection, the masks also served the purpose of allowing goalies to express themselves creatively. And it's been that way ever since. The art of decorating goalie masks has become a business in itself and players at every level - from beer league to pro, are sporting custom masks. I encourage you to browse the internet to see just how many cool designs are out there.
But this list will count only those masks that were worn by goalies playing at the highest level - the NHL (and possibly WHA) as these are the most well-known masks that have captured imaginations for generations now and inspired designs to this day. No very modern masks make the cut for the simple reason that it was the early masks of the seventies and eighties that look the most badass. What they may have lacked in facial protection and peripheral vision they more than made up for in style.
5. Gilles Meloche - Cleveland Barons
Meloche's career is the type that you always feel for - a consistently good goalie who always had to play for consistently weak teams. It's interesting to consider just what he might have accomplished had he not had to suit up for the Oakland/California Golden Seals, Chicago Black Hawks (who were actually pretty good but they had Tony O so they sent Meloche packing), Cleveland Barons, Minnesota North Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins. The North Stars teams he was on in the early eighties were pretty good too but his time spent in other places, particularly California and Cleveland, helped ensure he would pick up plenty of losses. With 351, he's currently third on the all-time list.
But one good thing came from his time as a Cleveland Baron - he got a cool mask. The Barons's uniforms weren't much to look at (what was in the seventies?) but Meloche's mask was one of the most colourful and dynamic of its era.
4. Gary Bromley - Vancouver Canucks
Basically a second-stringer throughout his career, Bromley nonetheless can take his place in goalie history by virtue of his awesome mask. He played parts of six seasons in the NHL but spent more time in the WHA, AHL and Central League (he did win the Calder Cup with the AHL's Cincinnatti Swords in 1973). By the time he arrived in Vancouver in 1978 he was fairly well-traveled.
His play as a Canuck never wowed anyone but in 1980 he donned a mask based on the nickname given him by his teammates, "Bones" (at 5'10, 149 pounds he was a pretty skinny guy). He usually had to explain this to people who asked about the mask because they were befuddled that such a quiet and calm individual was sporting such a sinister and audacious mask. In those days the only other mask with such a detailed paint job was Gilles Gratton's "lion" design and everyone knew that guy was a nutjob. [see my other goalie list for more info on Gratoony the Loony]
3. Ken Dryden - Montreal Canadiens
Unlike most of the other guys on this list, Dryden's career certainly wasn't defined by his mask. In fact, as a guy that didn't even play eight full seasons in the league, one could argue his career was as good as a goalie's can possibly be. Yours to consider: after playing just 6 games in the 70/71 season as a callup, he almost single-handedly defeated the heavily favoured Boston Bruins in the playoffs to help the Habs win the Stanley Cup. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy for his efforts. He was still eligible as a rookie the following season so he won the Calder Trophy. Over the rest of his career he would win the Vezina Trophy five times as well as five more Stanley Cups. He sat out the 73/74 season to study law, recorded at least 30 wins in every season and was one of the two goalies for Canada at the famous 1972 Summit Series against the Russians. There are books written about this guy so go read one.
Now to the mask. While the previous two I've mentioned made this list for their amazing detail and flashiness, I really love Dryden's mask (which he started wearing after his return from his stint at McGill University) for its sweet simplicity. Painted by artist Carl Lamb, the mask feautured a bullseye type design of the Canadiens's bleu, blanc et rouge and was sometimes referred to as the "target mask." Beautiful.
2. Dan Bouchard - Atlanta/Calgary Flames
It's pretty much simplicity the rest of the way for me. This mask is probably my very favourite when all is said and done and it's very popular among hockey fans and mask afficianados everywhere.
Bouchard's reasons for switching from a plain white mask to a painted one were actually somewhat scientific. During practices a girl in the employ of the Flames would mark down the number of shots taken on Bouchard that were above and below his knees. Bouchard would switch between wearing a white mask to one covered with red tape and the results eventually showed that shooters were going high more often when the taped mask was being used. Bouchard felt more comfortable handling higher shots and decided that a coloured mask was the way to go. He started using it in the 76/77 season.
After leaving the Flames, Bouchard would play for the Nordiques and then one final season with the Winnipeg Jets. By that time he was using a plain white helmet and cage ala Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood but the memory of his coloured mask endures to this day. People often visit him at his restaurant to bring him their own masks painted in that style for him to sign.
1. Gerry Cheevers - Boston Bruins
Wihout a doubt, this is the ultimate mask. Cheevers was no slouch in net and ranks among the greatest Bruins goalies of all time. He backstopped their two Cups in the early seventies and continues to hold the all-time record for longest unbeaten streak by an NHL goaltender (32 games in 71/72). And like a few other great players (Mark Messier and Brett Hull both come to mind), Cheevers wasn't a big fan of practice. In fact, he admits that he was always looking for ways to get out of it. This is what led to the mask.
During the infamous practice, Cheevers took a shot to the mask. It wasn't a hard shot by any stretch and he wasn't hurt in the slightest. He still went down like a ton of bricks. Trainer John (Frosty) Forristall hopped the boards and went to Cheevers, helping him off the ice and into the dressing room. Moments later coach Harry Sinden charged in, yelling at Cheevers to get back on the ice. Sinden was more than familiar with Cheevers's stance on practice and told him that shot couldn't have broken a pane of glass.
Defeated, Cheevers started putting his gear back on. While he was doing this Forristall took out a black magic marker and drew ten stitches on the mask in the place where the puck had hit. What had started as a joking form of protest grew into a tradition as Cheevers added more and more stitches for every subsequent time his mask took a hit. No symbolism was really intended but it's there clear as day anyway - without the mask on, a goalie's face would become a roadmap of stitches and scars. And there's no denying that it just looks awesome. Even with all the elaborate and striking designs that have been painted on masks in the years since, Cheevers's mask remains the most recognized and celebrated design in hockey history.
During his time with the Bruins, goaltender Steve Shields wore a modern era mask with Cheevers's mask painted over it - a mask on a mask. Cheevers still has the original in his possession but donated another he'd used to the Hockey Hall of Fame where it can be viewed along with so many other famous pieces of hockey history.