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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.