November 01, 2009
Today is the 50th anniversary of Jacques Plante strapping on a goalie mask in a game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, which is remembered by Stan Fischler in a Hockey News piece.
The commemoration has given us some really inspired looks at goalie masks, from Stu Hackel's in-depth piece on Plante for the New York Times to Elliotte Friedman's Inside Hockey report about mask painting on "Hockey Night in Canada" to TSN's amusing fan vote on the best mask in the NHL today.
It's worthy celebration, because the goalie mask is fascinating aspect of hockey culture that has -- like hat-tricks and slap-shots -- seeped into different genres of popular culture.
But that doesn't even begin to mine the depths of the goalie mask's peculiar juxtaposition with the sport from which it was born. Its existence is a fascinating contrast with the established doctrines and perceptions of professional hockey, and flies in the face of those of professional sports as well.
From the moment Plante donned one to protect his injured mug -- check out more about Plante on The Copper & Blue -- the goalie mask has been an essential piece of safety equipment in hockey. Seeing a goaltender wear one is to be reminded instantly that rubber pucks flying at speeds in excess of 100 mph are tiny black agents of maiming.
But masks don't look like shoulder pads or shin guards or anything other piece of equipment that serves to protect. Over the years, they've become personalized statements of artistry.
They reveal something psychologically about the man behind the mask, whether it's Vesa Toskala's(notes) desire to be ferocious or Martin Brodeur's(notes) conservative understatement or Ray Emery's(notes) love of pugilism. In the case of Chris Osgood(notes) of the Detroit Red Wings, his no-frills mask reflects his flash-less, blue collar approach.
Like a tattoo or a sticker on a car, they tell us everything from a players' attitude to his pop culture preferences: Kari Lehtonen's(notes) Heath Ledger-as-the-Joker, Patrick Lalime's(notes) Marvin the Martian and Steve Valiquette's Spider-Man tributes immediately come to mind.
(Again, for these masks in all their glory, head to TSN. And check out The Goalies Archive for more.)
This evolution is absolutely stunning in the context of "team first," "it's the logo on the front not the name on the back" hockey culture. Players who appear to self-promote are frequently lambasted by the establishment as "putting themselves before the team," and yet Jason LaBarbara will probably be known as the guy with Eddie Vedder, Metallica and the Ultimate Warrior on his mask by as many people who know him as the Phoenix Coyotes' backup goalie with nary a criticism.
(From In Goal Magazine.)
The goalie mask is also something unique to hockey. The NFL would disband a franchise that allowed its quarterback that level of personalization on his helmet. MLB catchers aren't exactly putting a pirate maiden on their masks like Mike Smith(notes) has for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The NBA comes closest to personalization, with headbands and sneakers and high socks; but the tattoos basically take care of that aspect of the game (if the dunk celebrations don't).
There's no other piece of athletic equipment that so perfectly captures the distinctive aspects of its sport: The need for protection against the brutality of the game; its inherent artistry amidst that brutality; and the struggle between individuality and the anonymity of competing in what is a true team sport.
But beyond the sociological aspects of the mask is an widely accepted truth:
They're just bitchin' cool.
That's why they've become symbolic and iconic in pop culture, from Casey Jones from "TMNT" to machete-wielding monsters to every hockey movie ever made.
Spots Illustrated pointed out the Hollywood-zation of the mask in a visual tribute to hockey "frights" -- the Thunder City Bombers goalie from "Youngblood"; Denis Lemieux "Slap Shot"; this incredible mask worn by Jeff Anderson's in Kevin Smith's "Zack and Miri Make a Porno"; and, of course, Jason Voorhees "Friday the 13th."
People forget that Jason started out as a homicidal maniac wearing a sack over his head, sort of like the Scarecrow from Batman. He upgraded to goalie gear and ... well, let's just say that "Friday The 13th burlap sack" isn't one of the best-selling Halloween costumes of the last three decades.
Put on a goalie mask, and you're going to get attention. Which is one of the reasons why their future in the NHL is intriguing, because they're basically billboards for the players who wear them ... so why not for the advertisers that support the League?
We've already heard that goalies want in on the commercialization of hockey gear, feeling their equipment lends itself to NASCAR-style (OK, Euro hockey-style) logos and slogans.
If the sweater remains off-limits for sponsorship, what about the lid? We've already seen the Tampa Bay Lightning turn their goalie masks into movie posters, right?
If the 'tenders are serious about increasing their revenue streams, this could be an interesting compromise and/or battle with the NHL on the horizon.
But that's down the line. For now, let's celebrate the singular joys of the modern hockey mask. What's your favorite one in current circulation? And will we ever seen anything that comes close to the awesomeness that was Gilles Gratton's?