The hockey goaltender's mask today is an essential part of every goaltender's equipment. It helps protect his face from injury due to the many hazards the sport of ice hockey has. The mask itself has stood the test of time and has evolved along with the sport itself. It is hard to imagine an age in the wonderful sport of ice hockey where masks didn't exist. However, 50 years ago most goaltenders did not wear masks for a multitude of reasons. It was viewed as cowardly to wear a mask and the human nature to refuse change had a role as well. Injuries requiring surgeries, stiches, retirement, and sometimes on occasion even death were common.
The absence of the mask during the time period before the 1950's had a drastic effect on goaltending style of play. Most goalies played a stand-up position and avoided putting their faces low to the ice as to avoid higher risk of injury. It is commonly thought that the great goaltender and hockey innovator, Jacques Plante was responsible for the first goalie mask. This is an incorrect assumption. Although Plante was the first goalie to wear the mask on a consistent basis, he was certainly not the first goaltender to experiment with the idea of the mask.
The earliest recorded instince of the use of a protective mask in the sport of ice hockey by a goaltender was by Elizabeth Graham who wore a fiberglass fencing mask when she played for Queenstown University in February 1927. It only protected her teeth and she only wore the mask for one game.
Three years later in 1930, Montreal Maroons goaltender Clint Benedict would be the first goalie to wear a protective mask in an NHL game. It was a crudely made leather mask that protected his nose and cheek bones but left the rest of his face heavily exposed. He wore this mask for only one game. Benedict's mask is pictured below.
In the 1936 Olympics, Japanese goaltender Teiji Honma would become the first goaltender to don a facemask in an Olympic game, which he wore for two games. The mask was made from leather and had a bird style cage attached to it and looked strikingly similar to a baseball catcher's mask. Honma wore the mask to protect his eye glasses. His mask is pictured below.
Fast forward to 1959 and the great Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jacques Plante's infamous mask. Jacques Plante had previously played using the his fiberglass mask earlier during practices. However, then Montreal coach Toe Blake forbid him from using it during actual games. This all changed on November 1st, 1959 after Plante took a slap shot to the face from the New York Rangers' Andy Bathgate. After receiving multiple stiches, Plante refused to go back on the ice unless he could wear his mask. Seeing as how NHL teams were not required to keep backup goaltenders on hand at the time, Coach Toe Blake had no choice but to relent. The Canadiens won the game against the Rangers and Montreal went on an unbeaten streak of 18 games. The mask was here to stay.
After Plante introduced the fiberglass mask to the NHL community, the idea was slow to catch on. Goaltenders still had this thought that if they decided to wear a mask they would be considered a coward. Much of the 1960's saw a few goaltenders wear masks but most largely decided not to. Goaltenders such as Terry Sawchuk decided to wear one after repeated injuries. Where as goaltenders such as Gump Worsley and Glenn Hall were diehard traditionalists that resisted the donning of the mask (Although both of them eventually wore masks their last seasons). Although Plante personally designed his own mask by himself. Most goalies had their masks designed for them. Most of the time team trainers would design and craft these masks at the request of a goaltender. Notable mask designers of the time include Ernie Higgins and Gary Warwick Sr. Andy Brown was the last goaltender to not wear a mask and played until 1974.
The 1970's saw the mask gaining much more acceptence. As the game started to intensify in speed, skill, and shot accuracy it soon became apparent that the mask had to become standard. Also introduced during the 70's was the idea of mask customization such as Gerry Cheevers wearing his "stich mask" and Ken Dryden wearing his "Bullseye" mask. During this time the next jump in mask evolution was found when Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak donned a helmet-bird cage hybrid mask. This slowly begin to see more widespread use and by the 1980's wire caged masks were starting to take over as fiberglass masks started to fade. Pictured below are Gerry Cheevers' mask and Ken Dryden's mask respectively.
Starting in the 1990's up to the present the mask started to look more refined and perfected. You saw masks that were specifically designed for goaltenders and were meant to provide the best vision and comfort possible. Also, the use of airbrushing techniques to create designs on masks was starting to become common during this time such as with Martin Broduer's Devils mask pictured below.
As for the next step in the evolution of the mask? Who knows? The mask has enjoyed over 50 years of evolution from a crudely made piece of equipment into a finely perfected piece of art and an essential part of every goaltender's kit.