With another hockey season on the horizon, it seems timely to take a look at a Canadian invention that is credited with drastically improving safety in front of the net – the goalie mask.
Jacques Plante, the legendary Montreal Canadiens netminder, is widely recognized as the player that popularized the modern, fibreglass goalie mask. Previously, there had been no widely accepted face protection, and goaltenders often experienced multiple facial injuries, including fractures, during the course of a season. Before adopting the mask in 1959, Plante himself had received more than 200 stitches to his face, had had his nose broken four times, and had suffered a fractured cheek and jawbone.
Any early facial protectors were generally a temporary measure to protect the face of an already-injured goalie, and were discarded soon after the injuries healed. The primitive masks often provided inadequate protection, usually covering only part of the face, and they often inhibited the goalies’ vision. Plante himself had been wearing a generic facial shield in practice since 1956.
The mask Plante adopted in 1959 had its origins in the previous year’s playoffs. Bill Birchmore, a salesman for Fiberglass Canada, was watching a 1958 playoff game between Montreal and Boston when Plante was struck in the face with the puck. Birchmore conceived the mask during the ensuing break in play. He believed a thin layer of fibreglass shaped to Plante’s facial contours would protect the goalie from future facial injury without restricting his vision.
Birchmore enlisted Al McKinney, a sales trainee with Fibreglass Canada, to provide the face from which to model his first mask. Birchmore started with a mould of McKinney’s face, spreading plaster from McKinney’s hairline to his jaw while the sales trainee breathed through a pair of straws inserted in his nostrils. Thirty minutes later, Birchmore realized he had forgotten to apply a releasing agent (such as petroleum jelly) to McKinney’s face beforehand! It took an hour to remove the plaster mould, an experience McKinney compared to pulling adhesive tape from hair on the skin. But Birchmore had his mould, and was soon able to make a prototype.
The prototype was only three mm thick. It had a rubber lining around the forehead, cheeks and jaw to absorb some of the puck’s impact and was held in place by elastic straps that attached to the top and to either side of the mask. Birchmore tested the mask by repeatedly striking it with a steel ball. He was unable to damage it.
However, Plante took some convincing. Initially, he doubted the strength and effectiveness of the material. He eventually agreed to test the mask, having his face moulded (under medical supervision this time) before the start of the 1959 season. He wore the mask regularly during practice that season and was encouraged by its performance, but his many requests to wear the mask during games were turned down. Coach Toe Blake feared the mask would impair Plante’s ability in goal.
This changed in November 1959, when Plante was hit in the face in the third minute of a Canadiens-New York Rangers game. He was escorted from the ice, bleeding heavily from a broken nose. After receiving stitches to a cut above his upper lip, Plante refused to go back on the ice without his mask. Blake had little choice but to concede, allowing Plante to wear the mask while the cut healed.
But by the time his injury healed, Plante had grown accustomed to the mask and didn’t want to discard it. Blake acquiesced, to a degree, not wanting to upset the Canadiens winning streak. In March 1960, Blake finally convinced Plante to remove the mask for a regular season game against Detroit. The Canadiens lost the game, ending their 18-game winning streak. After the loss, objections disappeared. Soon the use of masks spread throughout the rest of the NHL and elsewhere.
Plante went on to develop the mask with Birchmore, eventually establishing his own company, Fibrosport, specializing in goalie masks.
Summary by: Richard Murphy
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