By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

Uni Watch's recent examination of old-school football facemasks brought a particularly strong reaction from one readership segment: hockey fans, many of whom requested a similar column devoted to goalie masks. And with the NHL season on the brink of cancellation, more and more hockey aficionados have been writing in. "Help us," they say. "We're dying out here!"

Take heart, o you slashing-starved masses, you orphans of the ice, you red-line refugees -- Uni Watch hears your cries.

And it was with you in mind that Uni Watch recently braved blizzard conditions to travel to that renowned hockey bastion of Staten Island, to interview one Dennis Simone. If you didn't already know Simone was a goalie mask maven extraordinaire, you'd probably get the idea after seeing his license plate, the things he hangs on the wall, and his knickknack collections. He's also the guy behind the excellent Painted Warrior Web site, a longtime Uni Wach favorite.

OK, so Simone's a mask geek -- just like lots you reading this. What makes Simone different is that he's also a graphic artist who's designed masks for a slew of NHL goalies, including Mike Richter, Guy Hebert, and Curtis Joseph (Simone was the first mask designer to make graphic use of Cujo's nickname). If the flashy mask is the metaphorical equivalent of the Wizard of Oz, then Simone is the man behind the curtain.

Simone got into mask design around 1991 and spent the next decade living a little boy's dream. "If a goalie came to Madison Square Garden or the Meadowlands or Nassau Coliseum, I'd go down and meet him," he says. "I'd get into the locker rooms, go to practices, get tickets to games. My mask designs got reproduced on magazine covers, on coasters, on all sorts of stuff -- it was great!" But he stopped around 2001. "There were a lot of hassles involved, and it wasn't worth it anymore. But I had a good run, and I made my mark. So I'm happy."

Jacques Plante of the Canadiens is usually credited as being the first NHL goalie to wear a mask, but that honor really belongs to Clint Benedict of the Montreal Maroons, who wore a crude leather mask after taking a puck to the face in 1930. But the apparatus cut down on his vision, so he stopped wearing it after two games.

Masks didn't reappear on NHL ice until 1959, when Plante debuted his fiberglass mask. "He'd worn it in practices for about a year, but not in a game," says Simone. "His coach, Toe Blake, told him not to wear it -- it was considered cowardly. Then he took a shot in the face from Andy Bathgate and told Blake, 'I'm not going back out there without the mask.' So that was that." Other goalies quickly followed, and by the late 1960s, bare-faced netminders had become rare sights. The last maskless holdout was Andy Brown, who played his final NHL game on April 7, 1974, and then played three more seasons with the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA.

More mask history info is available here and here (and in books like this one). Suffice it to say that Uni Watch and Simone agree that the coolest mask period was the 1960s and '70s, when each goalie had a distinct persona conveyed by his mask's unique arrangement of airholes and eyeholes, from Gilles Villemure's sad-eyed clown to Rogie Vachon's evil gremlin, from Ed Giacomin's stoic cyborg to Ken Dryden's skeletal zombie.

It's no accident that most of those descriptions sound like something out of a horror movie -- Jason wears a goalie mask, after all. Were hockey goalies trying to create an intimidation factor? "Not in the beginning," says Simone. "But I think they started to realize that the mask could distract the shooter. One goalie, I forget who, said, 'When I have a player bearing down on me, I want him to look at my mask instead of the spot he's shooting at.' I think that's when they started designing the eyes and mouth to look more menacing."

The best mask ever, of course, was the one worn by Boston's Gerry Cheevers, whose trainer came up with the idea of inking stitch marks onto the mask each time it was hit by a puck or stick, simulating what Cheevers' face might have looked like in the pre-mask era. "Eventually I think he stopped putting them in the exact spots he'd been hit," says Simone. "It was more like, 'Well, some stitches would look good here, and there's an empty spot here ...'"

Here's Simone's take on some other notable masks from the fiberglass era:

  • Doug Favell: "That was the first painted mask. His teammates snuck into the locker room and painted it orange as a Halloween prank."

  • Glenn "Chico" Resch: "That was the first mask to have a full painted design, complete with the matching team colors." According to Douglas Hunter's "A Breed Apart," the design was the work of "Linda Spinella, a friend of an Islanders trainer studying art in New York. ... Resch let her use his mask as a canvas. Not only did she paint the mask, but also the backplate which was attached to the straps."

  • Ken Dryden: "It's a combination of a pretzel-style mask and a full mask. And you can see, it's been taped near the center, so I don't know if it was cracked or what. Later on he switched to a more conventional mask, with the target design. He used to say the paint job on a goalie mask should be simple, so the people in the cheap seats can see it. That's the problem with a lot of today's masks -- there's so many little details, you can't make it all out even when they show a close-up of it on TV."

  • Corrado Micalef: "He was the last one to wear an old-style fiberglass mask, and he never painted it. Very old-school."

    By the time Micalef's NHL career ended in 1986, most goalies had switched to the birdcage mask -- essentially a standard hockey helmet with facebars on the front -- which provided much better eye protection. Although the birdcage didn't become popular in the NHL until the early 1980s, Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak had worn one in the 1972 Summit Series, which in retrospect was the beginning of the end for the old-style fiberglass mask. A few goalies still wear the birdcage, but most now prefer the mask/cage combo, which is more like a fiberglass mask with the face cut out and replaced by bars. This style has also inspired a new generation of baseball catcher's masks (a story told in greater detail here).

    But these modern masks don't interest Uni Watch so much. For all their fancy airbrushed designs, they have little of the old masks' charm -- with one major exception: When Steve Shields was with the Bruins, he had a Gerry Cheevers tribute design painted onto a modern mask, which was total genius. "It even had the ears and hair painted on, so it looked real," says Simone. "Great, great mask."

    Want to take your mask obsession to the next level? Do what Simone does: Collect classic mask reproductions. There are several suppliers out there; this one is Simone's favorite, although this one looks pretty cool too. Yeah, they're a little pricey -- but hey, you should have some extra cash available since you haven't been shelling out for hockey tickets.

    Other Masked Men
    Hockey and football are the primary mask-oriented sports (and as the ever-helpful Curtis Worrell of Helmet Hut points out, their mask cultures have even cross-pollinated). But masks show up in basketball too, as anyone who's recently seen LeBron James can attest. And he's just the latest in a long line of masked NBA players, many of whom can be found on this handy list.

    As for masked baseball players, the first one Uni Watch recalls seeing was Pirates slugger Dave Parker, who attached a football-ish facebar to his helmet in 1978 after breaking his cheek in a collision with Mets catcher John Stearns. Players wearing similar mask contraptions over the years, usually after being beaned, have included Gary Roenicke, Ellis Valentine and Andre Dawson, and anecdotal evidence suggests that Don Slaught, Robby Thompson, Charlie Hayes, and Cal Ripken may have done likewise.

    Unfortunately, baseball mask photos have proven elusive, except for two images of Terry Steinbach, who wore a plastic jaw guard in 1988. If you've got pix of other masked baseball players, give a shout in Uni Watch's direction.

    Stupor Bowl
    Did you notice the big uni-related development in the Super Bowl? It was the officials' caps, which for the first time carried the NFL logo on the front -- this in addition to the same logo already appearing on the back of the cap and the Super Bowl logo on the right side, plus all the logo patches on the officials' shirts. Uni Watch says enough already -- at this rate the refs will soon look like NASCAR drivers.

    And speaking of design clutter, that Super Bowl logo was everywhere: on the first-down markers, on the end-zone pylons, on Bill Belichick's sweatshirt (which at least means he was wearing a new one, instead of an old ratty one), even on Paul McCartney's forehead. OK, not really, but that's just because nobody thought of it. Seriously, does anyone doubt that the NFL wouldn't have minded Janet Jackson's "Girls Gone Wild" routine one little bit if she had just worn a Super Bowl logo on her breast?

    Wolverine in Tiger's Clothing
    Last week's discussion of the various University of Michigan teams that have patterned their headwear after the school's football helmet -- whose design dates back to the leather helmet era -- drew a swift and vociferous response from readers pointing out that the winged helmet design actually originated at Princeton, where coach Fritz Crisler created the distinctive look in 1935. He then took the design with him when he left Princeton for Michigan in 1938. For more details, look here and here.

    The upshot of all this is that the assorted Michigan sports programs that have copied the football helmet -- including, as other readers pointed out, the softball and baseball teams -- are not wearing a "representation of a representation," as Uni Watch originally observed, but rather a representation of a representation of a representation. And the rowing team has added yet another degree of separation by taking the insignia beyond the realm of headwear and putting it on their oars.

    There's probably a lesson to be learned here about watering down an idea until it becomes meaningless (or at least about copyright law). For now, let's just be glad Janet Jackson didn't go to Michigan, or else there's probably one more place where where the helmet design would have shown up.

    Paul Lukas used to wear a plastic Tony Esposito-style mask while playing floor hockey in 5th-grade gym class. Archives of his pre-Page 2 "Uni Watch" columns are available here and here. Got a uni-related question or comment for him, or want to be added to his mailing list? Contact him here.



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