Lorne. J Worsley had a face that NHL players knew very well. Having been given the nickname “Gump” because of his resemblance to comic strip character Andy Gump, Worsley’s face, as an NHL goaltender, remained un-masked for his entire playing career from 1952 to 1974, save for the final six games of his career. Asked at the time about why he chose to go without a mask, he steadfastly told reporters, “My face is my mask.”
Gump’s resistance aside, the NHL ice hockey goaltender mask has undergone rapid evolution from the initial, pretzel like frame, to the modern, form fitting and highly specialized part of a netminder’s protection. Dave Dryden, former NHL goaltender and brother of legendary Montreal Canadien goalie Ken, noted that “the past 50 years have seen the goalie mask evolve from being an object of scorn to being the most individualized and most protective piece of equipment in a goalie’s armor.” His comment was given as endorsement for the book Saving Face: The Art and History of the Goalie Mask, a wonderful read that chronicles goaltender’s masks from the late 50s to the present.
Jacques Plante, six time Stanley Cup winner with the Montreal Canadiens, is considered one of the most important innovators in hockey. Most notably, Plante was the first NHL goaltender to regularly wear a mask. Plante developed and tested many versions of the goalie mask, including the forerunner of today’s mask and helmet combination. His decision to don the mask came as a result of taking some hard rubber to the face; little would he know that his injury would result in masks becoming not only an essential member of a goalie’s defense, but an artistic expression as well.
The facial mask with those two little eye holes is no longer used by NHL goaltenders, but this type of mask has moved into a different type of notoriety. Of course this reference is to Jason from the Friday the 13th horror films. That off white mask with the black eye sockets has been terrifying generations of kids, and probably will continue to as sequels keep getting spit out with eye rolling regularity.
Because of the available surface area that masks provide, NHL goalies have always found it fashionable to give their mask their own distinctive decorations. Gerry Cheevers, who tended net for the Boston Bruins in the 60s and 70s, was one of the first to “decorate” his mask. Per Cheevers’ Wikipedia entry: “Cheevers’ iconic stitch-pattern goaltender mask came after a puck hit him in the face during practice. Cheevers, never one to miss an opportunity to skip out of practice, went to the dressing room. Bruins coach Harry Sinden followed him to the dressing room, where he found Cheevers enjoying a beer and smoking a cigarette. Sinden told Cheevers, who wasn’t injured, to get back on the ice. In jest, John Forestall, the team trainer, painted a stitch mark on his mask. Ever after, any time he was similarly struck, he would have a new stitch-mark painted on. The mask became one of the most recognized of the era, and the original mask is now on the wall of his grandson’s bedroom.”
Other notable early masks include Ranger Gilles Graton’s very realistic, roaring lion mask, complete with painted whiskers and striking fangs, Ken Dryden’s very recognizable red, white, and blue design, John Garret’s Whaler mask with the giant “W”, and the red and orange flames on the mask of Flyer Bernie Parent.
Almost every goaltender now sends away his mask for a custom paint job. “It’s unique in sports to be able to express yourself,” said goalie Chris Mason when he was playing for Nashville, whose painted mask paid tribute at the time to the city and to his family. “Part of the reason I love being a goalie is that you can have some form of personal expression on your mask.”
Dallas Star’s goaltender Marty Turco sports a gargoyle over his face. According to an ESPN interview, the gargoyle represents a gatekeeper to Turco, the net protector. The “gargoyle stands over the top” of the crease, guarding it. Some goalies have artwork that depicts their nickname or team theme. Blackhawk goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, when he played for Tampa Bay, had a wall painted on. He was known as the “Bulin Wall.” “Beware of the Bear” is theme on the mask Boston Bruin goalie Tim Thomas, and Atlanta Thrasher Johan Hedberg’s mask salutes his “Moose” nickname. The eagle on Ed Belfour’s mask reflected his “Eddie the Eagle” moniker.
Other masks have more of a personal or inspirational message. The back of Buffalo Sabre Ryan Miller’s helmet includes a tribute to his cousin, Matt Schoals, who died of complications from a bone marrow transplant after battling leukemia. New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro decided to salute the military on his mask because his dad is a veteran and he plays in Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Said DiPietro, “With a dad who served in Vietnam it seemed like the perfect concept.”
Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Dany Sabourin has a similar, personalized theme design. His mask has drawn attention because it has a lifelike picture of his daughter, Coralie, but the painted initials “CS” are equally meaningful to him. The initials are a salute to his mother, Cecile, who died of cancer when he was playing junior hockey nine hours away from home. He said his mother never revealed the severity of her illness to him because she didn’t want him to worry.
Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr once had a “Knights of the Roundtable” mask designed for him while he was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Three days after delivery of the mask, he was traded to Buffalo. Today, the knight of the roundtable mask sits on Fuhr’s mantle, never worn in a game.
There are a few rules that the NHL mandates regarding a goalie’s choice of artwork. No advertising, nothing in poor taste, and nothing that could be considered politically incorrect. Former Senator goalie, Ray Emery, never known as a conformer, once had a mural of Mike Tyson painted on his mask. Because of Tyson’s troubled past, the Senators asked Emery to pick another representation for his mask. He decided to go with former Canadian boxer George Chuvalo.
No matter what image or logo a netminder may choose to depict, a goaltender’s mask is equal parts protection and artistic expression.