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Sports Then and Now

How NHL Goalie Masks Evolved – From a Joke

Posted on January 10, 2015 by Ashley Andrews
Gerry Cheevers was the first hockey goalie to give masks personality.

Gerry Cheevers was the first hockey goalie to give masks personality.

When NHL goalie Gerry Cheevers sarcastically rebelled against his coach in a 1968 Bruins practice, he unknowingly changed the face (literally) of hockey forever.

Cheevers admittedly faked a head injury in that practice after taking a shot to his then plain-white fiberglass mask in hopes of cutting practice short, which the eccentric goalie was apparently fond of. When his coach found him perfectly healthy in the locker room, he demanded Cheevers get back on the ice.

It was then that Bruins trainer John Forristall decided to add a little flair to Cheevers’ “injury.” Gerry and John jokingly cooked up the idea to draw a line of ten stitches across Cheevers’ mask where the puck hit, completely oblivious to the statement they were making. The joke stuck and by the end of the season Cheevers’ mask was covered in black stitches, heralding the evolution of the goalie mask beyond mere functionality.

Now known as the grandfather of modern mask design, Cheevers’ crude stitched mask served a dual purpose; protection and personality. Protective gear in the NHL before the 1960’s was, well, irrelevant. Goalies almost never wore masks in games, and those who did were often scrutinized when masks became more popular. Cheevers’ inaugural design highlighted the importance of protective equipment (especially after the current Hall of Famer said it made him a braver and better goalie).

The stitched mask brought another unintended element to the ice. For the first time hockey was given a shot of creativity. Goalies especially saw an outlet to show whom the man behind the face-embalming mask was.

Cheevers’ didn’t intend for his mask to be taken seriously. To him, it was just a mock extension of his personality, until other goalies began emulating it. Mask designs exploded onto the ice in the few years following Cheevers’ stitches. Designs came simply at first for net-minders, exampled by Doug Favell’s 1971 completely orange Flyer’s mask and Bernie Parent’s colorful 1972 Philadelphia Blaze flame mask.

Bernie Parent

Bernie Parent

The growing design fad certainly didn’t slow down with more complexity and color. The 1976 season became the year of the mask, and forever proved the fad’s validity.

It’s impossible to talk about the boom of goalie mask designs in the 1970’s and 80’s without mentioning the artists who brought them to life, specifically a former goalie and art student by the name of Greg Harrison.

Harrison’s first design was nothing but powder blue paint covering Pittsburgh goalie Jim Rutherford’s mask in 1974.

Harrison’s designs escalated quickly as he started pumping out designs for several NHL goalies. By the late 1970’s, an estimated 80 percent of professional goalies dawned Harrison’s designs. His creations ranged from personality-oozing, intricate designs to beautiful simplicity with basic colors, shapes, and team logos. Famous examples of Harrison’s work feature how diverse he could be in his style.

His more complex designs include Gilles Meloche’s 1976 Cleveland Barons mask, and Gilles Gratton’s 1976 big cat mask while playing for the Rangers.

On the simpler side, Harrison designed Al Smith’s 1981 Buffalo Sabres mask with only the logos of different teams Smith took the net for.

Harrison had a way of making the simple beautiful, and complexity even more so. My personal favorite Harrison piece is 1981 Blues goalie Staniowski’s teardrop-blue note rig.

Greg Harrison mask worn by Jim Rutherford.

Greg Harrison mask worn by Jim Rutherford.

Back in those days, though mask designs were booming in the NHL, there weren’t many artists specifically dedicated to goalie masks as Harrison was. Though demand was rapidly growing, the few existing artists were able to handle the creative workload. In the modern NHL things are remarkably different. Countless different artists and art studios deliver ever-evolving designs pro goalies. Among the most talented artists today working on masks are Dave Gunnarsson, Todd Miska, and Frank Cipra. Some of the go-to studios for NHL goalies today are Head Strong Grafx, Paintzoo, Diel Airbrush, Eye Candy Air, and Airtrix Studios. Of course we could be here all day talking about all the different talented artists involved with pro hockey, but the ones mentioned here are definitely worth looking up.

In recent years some NHL goalies and clubs have branched out from professional artists for mask designs. Lending creative control to a team’s fan base has produced some amazing designs worthy of pro goalies. Fans are usually able to submit their own designs via a contest, with frequent – and seemingly lasting – success.

Goalies from clubs like the Columbus Blue Jackets, Nashville Predators, Vancouver Canucks, and St. Louis Blues sport fan-designed masks currently. The Predators, Canucks, and Blues all held contests for new mask designs for this 2014-15 season – and they’re all incredibly awesome. Here are the 2014 Blues fan’s top three finalist designs for Jake “The Snake” Allen.

Harrison's design for Al Smith.

Harrison’s design for Al Smith.

Mask designs today have a rightful place in society as actual pieces of art. Goalies from youth leagues to Olympic All-Stars are on a constant search for the next best extension of their personality. Thanks to the Internet, unique hockey goalie mask designs are easy find online in a variety of styles.

Whoever the designer, it’s certain that creative goalie gear will always have a place in the net. I’m just hoping for someone to dawn a throwback Cheever’s mask, stitches and all.

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