Like many, the position of goaltender has always fascinated me. Maybe it’s the big pads or the ability to sprawl across the crease; or perhaps it’s the anonymity. But I’ve always thought of goalies as some sort of comic book-like superhero. And much like comic book heroes have masks, an NHL goalie disguises his alter ego to look the way he wants opponents to see him.
But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, there was a time when net-minders didn’t wear anything to protect their face. That all changed on November 1, 1959 when a goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens, by the name of Jacques Plante, became the first at his position to wear a mask – though many are unaware that Clint Benedict of the Montreal Maroons actually wore one 19 years earlier, but for just two games.
It was Plante that other players soon imitated, which could be why he was the “first”.
As the years went on, alterations were made to the mask to help it not only fit better, but better protect the goaltender’s face. Years progressed and soon every goalie wore a mask, but many wanted to make alterations to help differentiate themselves from their counter parts.
Guys began to paint on their masks – anything from team logos, to small doodles, to elaborate drawings. Soon, entire masks were painted thanks to Chico Resch, who became the first to leave none of his “canvas” blank.
Plante wasn’t trying to make a fashion statement 53 years ago when he started the trend, but rather just protect his nose after it was broken because of a slap shot from the New York Rangers’ Andy Bathgate. It’s safe to say a lot has changed since then, and with thousands of masks worn over the years, I decided to pick the top five of all-time.
#5 Roman Turek – Calgary Flames
Roman Turek‘s career might not have left a huge mark on the NHL but his helmet certainly did. Turek spent just eight seasons in the NHL, splitting time with the Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues and Calgary Flames, before making his way to Europe in 2004. During his stint with the Flames, Turek wore a helmet that had Eddie – the mascot for Iron Maiden – holding a skull, sticking his tongue out and reaching his empty hand out atop Turek’s left eye. It was an awesome way to mix two things I personally love – music and NHL hockey.
#4 Curtis Joseph – Toronto Maple Leafs
It’s not tough to imagine what Curtis Joseph – the man nicknamed “Cujo” – wore on his helmet. That’s right; Joseph’s helmet looked like something straight out of Stephen King’s 1981 novel. For five seasons as a member of the Maple Leafs, Joseph wore a blue mask with a wolf head on it. The wolf was different shades of blue, had yellow eyes and appeared to be howling, at which point Joseph’s face was exposed but protected by a cage. Thanks to his strong play in the mecca of Toronto, the mask became perhaps the most recognizable as the millennium changed.
#3 Ken Dryden – Montreal Canadiens
There’s one word to describe Ken Dryden’s mask – simple. But that’s what makes it so awesome. It is a classic and it might just be the color combo that made it so recognizable. Dryden spent his entire career in Montreal, which meant plenty of time for fans to admire his red white and blue mask. There were no elaborate drawings or anything of the sort; instead it was white with a blue ring and a red ring in the center, which created an outline of the Canadiens’ logo. It had the characteristics of a bull’s-eye, leading many throughout the league to nickname it, “the target mask”.
It’s somewhat ironic considering Dryden lead one of sports’ greatest dynasties to six Stanley Cups in the 1970s.
#2 John Vanbiesbrouck – Florida Panthers
Maybe it’s because I get nostalgic about the 1990s-era NHL, but when I think of that time, I think of one helmet; and it’s attached to the head of John Vanbiesbrouck.
The man known as “Beezer” was the first goaltender for the Panthers – who joined the league in 1993 – and quickly became a star. He wanted something simple on his smaller-style mask and what he got was the face of the team’s logo blown-up on his helmet – with slight modifications of course. Maybe it was the legend of Scott Mellanby and the “rat trick”, or perhaps seeing the plastic rats rain down after a playoff win but whatever it is, Beezer’s mask will always be one of my favorites.
#1 Gerry Cheevers – Boston Bruins
Gerry Cheevers wasn’t just one of the league’s best goaltenders in the 1970s – he was one of the most fashionable, too.
Sure, he went unbeaten for 32 straight games and won two Stanley Cups, but it was his mask that he will forever be remembered for. It wasn’t anything gaudy like previously on the list. No, instead he wore an old school white, Jason Voorhees-like mask with stitches all over it.
Cheevers started with a white mask – much like everyone else in the 12-team league – but as time changed he had to keep up with the changing style. During one practice he was hit with a shot that sent him to the ice. After being sent to the locker room and undressing, he was forced back out by the Bruins’ coach, but not before a trainer drew stitches with a black marker in the spot that saved his face. It began as a joke but quickly gained momentum as Cheevers drew more on his mask each time he’d take a puck to the dome.
And there you have it. I’m sure that list will change in the upcoming years – if the NHL ever gets its act together and works on the labor issues – but for now those masks simply can’t be beat. Coming to an agreement with others on a favorite mask can be near impossible, much like choosing pizza toppings, which is why we’d like to know who you think has sported the best mask in the NHL.
Photo Credit: Getty
Turek: By: Dave Sandford -Collection: Getty Images Sport
Joseph: By: Dave Sandford -Collection: Getty Images Sport
Dryden: By: B Bennett -Collection: Getty Images Sport
Vanbiesbrouck: By: Doug Pensinger -Collection: Getty Images Sport
Cheevers: By: Melchior DiGiacomo -Collection: Getty Images Sport