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Hockey's Safest Invention Was Born Of Painful Necessity

Montreal Canadiens' goaltender Jacques Plante posing on his home ice at the Montreal Forum in November 1958. (AP)
Montreal Canadiens' goaltender Jacques Plante posing on his home ice at the Montreal Forum in November 1958. (AP)

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jacques Plante should have been happy. It was fall 1959, his team was beginning its quest for a fifth straight Stanley Cup, and Plante was coming off his fourth season as an NHL All-Star.

Only A Game

But Plante was fed up with being hit in the face with hockey pucks.

“He had fractured each of his cheekbones once and had his nose broken twice and had totaled some 150 stitches before the 1959-60 season opened,” said Fred Addis, a member of the Society for International Hockey Research.

On Nov. 1, 1959, Plante and the Canadiens were in New York. A shot hit Plante in the nose and mouth, leaving cuts that required stitches. That's when he decided it was time for a change.

When he returned to the game, Plante’s face was hidden behind a form-fitting fiberglass mask. The future Hall of Famer would wear a mask for the rest of his career.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the fiberglass mask in the NHL.

Addis says Canadian goalies had been experimenting with masks long before Plante, including a female collegiate goaltender in Ontario who tried a fencing mask in 1926.

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The story of Plante’s innovative fiberglass mask begins at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. Don Spencer played goalie for the Hamilton hockey team in the late 1950s.

Hamilton’s athletic trainer and track coach, Gene Long, had been developing fiberglass heel cups for his high and long jumpers. Spencer asked Long for help after an ankle injury in fall 1958, and Long created a fiberglass plate to fit inside Spencer’s skate.

In early 1959, Spencer and Gene Long began talking about making a fiberglass mask. According to Long, who now lives in Bluffton, S.C., the original process began with plaster of paris, and it was especially unpleasant for claustrophobic goalies.

“You covered up the whole face, except for possibly a straw in the mouth to breathe or leaving the mouth ajar while you covered this whole face with essentially a cast,” said Long.

By the time Long had finished Spencer’s mask, Hamilton’s season was over. But around that time, Spencer heard about another goalie in the market for some facial protection.

“In mid-April, there was an article in the newspaper talking about the fact that Jacques Plante was beginning to look for a face mask. And so, I wrote (to him) about that process and hoped for a response,” Spencer said.

Spencer never heard back, but researcher Fred Addis believes Spencer’s letter prompted Plante to abandon the problematic Plexiglas shields many goalies had begun using in practice. Over the years, some reports have erroneously credited Plante with creating the fiberglass mask, which was actually made by a fiberglass salesman named Bill Burchmore.

Burchmore and Plante are deceased, and it’s not clear how they met. Addis says they later they formed a mask-making business and Burchmore helped pioneer other styles including the pretzel mask, which featured bars.

Modern-Day Masks

Today’s masks bear no resemblance to Plante’s original. The current models are more like helmets with stainless steel face masks and often feature elaborate artwork.

Dominick Malerba owns Pro’s Choice Goalie Masks, in Middleton, and has been making customized masks for pros and amateurs for 20 years. His NHL clients have included Mike Smith, Andy Moog, Mike Richter and Olaf Kolzig.

"In one season they were unacceptable and only worn by cowards, and in the following season there were hockey organizations that were mandating their players to wear them."

--Fred Addis, hockey historianThe slap shots of today’s top defensemen — like Boston’s Zdeno Charra — routinely break 100 miles an hour. Malerba’s masks feature each feature 14 layers of fiberglass, graphite, and Kevlar, sealed with a custom epoxy.

Malerba’s NHL masks costs about $2,200 apiece. After Gene Long made his first mask in 1959, word spread, and his hobby turned into a small side business. Long says it took him three five-hour days to make each one — and it wasn’t all that profitable.

“It was my Christmas money for my three growing girls,” said the former Hamilton College trainer. “I started out selling these masks at $25 each mostly for high school and college goalies. I don’t think that they ever got as expensive as $50. So it was Christmas money and fun.”

From Obscurity To Mandate

But when Jacques Plante first donned Bill Burchmore’s mask during an NHL game, it wasn’t a fun transition. Many coaches, players and team executives, even within the Canadiens organization, criticized Plante and feared masks would create distance in the relationship between fans and their favorite players.

But hockey researcher Fred Addis says while some goalies took years to come around, Plante’s stature in the game helped masks gain acceptance.

“When the best goalie in the league puts on something as innovative as a face mask, obviously people are going to follow suit. In one season they were unacceptable and only worn by cowards, and in the following season there were hockey organizations that were mandating their players to wear them.”

This program aired on November 21, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Doug Tribou Twitter Reporter/Producer
Doug Tribou was formerly a reporter and producer at WBUR and for WBUR's Only A Game.

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