In honor of Cheevers and Plante, an ode to the mask

Updated: November 3, 2009, 2:47 PM ET

I grew up in small-town America, living and loving just about every athletic contest. I watched, listened, played, read, illustrated (horribly) and daydreamed about most of them. This includes the "Battle of the Network Stars" and "The Superstars" competition, which I took just as seriously as the Super Bowl and the Stanley Cup finals. Gabe Kaplan was part of my childhood hero roster.

I didn't realize it during my youth, but I was, and still am, enraptured by the marrow of competition, as well as acts of striving, achieving, overcoming, bonding and celebrating. It's why my eyes get wet at the end of "The Natural" and "Searching For Bobby Fischer."

Looking back, the NHL was, without question, the most theatrical of the athletic bunch. The old arenas were like Sunday cathedrals with their emotive images of blood, sweat and tears accompanied by the intimidating sound track of a haunting organ.

Steve Babineau/NHLI/Getty Images

One image burned on Bucci's brain: the mask of former Bruins goalie Gerry Cheevers.

In those basilicas of brawn, spirited players engaged in bare-knuckle fighting, and, holy smoke, there were mosh-pit free-for-alls! One of the indelible images from my youth is witnessing a bench-clearing brawl at a minor league game involving the Johnstown Jets. It was a field trip for my brother's Cub Scouts group, and I rode behind the Webelo wake. I vividly recall a player in the brawl who looked like he was about 62 years old, gray and balding, pinning down an opponent on the ice like he was Jack Palance subduing Billy Crystal.

All of these sticks and bones gave the game ferocity and a uniqueness that couldn't be matched. Football in the 1970s was tough, but these toothless hockey guys had blades on their feet and sticks in their hands. And most didn't have helmets. That included goaltender Andy Brown, who was the last goaltender to play in an NHL net without a goalie mask. That happened when I was 8, as I rode my bike around town with no helmet and was driven to school without the mandatory use of seat belts.

However, all of the other NHL goalies not named Andy Brown did wear facial protection and few sporting artifacts meant more to me as a child than the early NHL goalie mask. It had an appeal and gravitational pull that was undeniable. The creativity, campiness and organic look of early goalie masks helped usher the NHL game into its popular, punk-rock subculture that true fans still long for. They gave NHL goalies an eerie and creepy look of mystery. Eyes without a face.

The goalie mask remains the most unique piece of equipment in the history of team sports. For a child, every NHL game was Halloween. For an adult in the 1970s, perhaps an "Eyes Wide Shut" reaction. The goalie mask truly made these men other people, other mysterious things. To actually slip one on to play street or pickup pond hockey? Well, there was nothing cooler. If players were as market savvy then as they are today, Gerry Cheevers could have sold a million "stitches" masks for $20 apiece in the United States and Canada. He could have bought the Bruins, given himself a raise, bought Wayne "straight cash, homey" Cashman a new Plymouth Duster and never would have had to leave for the WHA.

Where else in professional sports have athletes been permitted to express so much individual personality and nonuniformity? Ironically, it was the NHL, where nearly every action of individuality is taught to be repressed for the benefit of the team. Then again, these were goalies, viewed by some with the scorn and suspicion of an NFL kicker. I guess the whole paint-my-mask-like-a-growling-tiger thing slipped through the "there is no 'I' in team" cracks in the ice. "They are goalies ... whatever."

Today's subtle and somewhat cookie-cutter goalie masks with their limited space don't approach the mysteriousness and original art-room charm and appeal of those original face protectors. But they do still give goalies a rare opportunity to personalize a piece of their equipment and reveal a bit of themselves.

So, we pay homage to 50 years of common sense, survival and an every-night-is-Halloween party on my hockey mask. We take a look around the NHL at some of the paint jobs in today's game, understanding it all started 50 years ago this past Sunday with the courage, quirkiness and ingenuity of hockey's most revolutionary player, Jacques Plante.

(All photo credits: Getty Images; you can also vote for your top goalie mask here.)

Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins
The initials on the back of his mask, E.F.G.T., are a tribute to his grandparents, Estelle, Francois, Gaston and Therese, and do not stand for Emile Francis Grew Tomatoes.

Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
Where is the Hakan Loob tribute? Terrible job!

Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils
The initials of Brodeur's kids are on the back of his mask, not a picture of Megan Fox or a juicy cheeseburger.

  • Vote for your top goalie mask here, puckheads!

    Ray Emery, Philadelphia Flyers
    Sugary Ray has Joe Frazier on one side, Bernard Hopkins on the other and Rocky on the back. Bob Probert was incorrectly omitted.

    Martin Biron, New York Islanders
    This mask transforms goalies into David Banner turning into the Incredible Hulk. This is good for a while until technique becomes an issue.

    Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres
    Can tigers do that? I wonder.

  • Vote for your top goalie mask here, puckheads!

    Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins
    That bear clearly flosses.

    Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
    That's Jaroslav Halak on that horse!

    Pascal Leclaire, Ottawa Senators
    Leclaire says his mask doesn't mean anything. I concur.

  • Vote for your top goalie mask here, puckheads!

    Jonas Gustavsson, Toronto Maple Leafs
    The Maple Leaf meets Monster meets GM Brian Burke's nerves.

    Semyon Varlamov, Washington Capitals
    This just in: Mount Rushmore is in South Dakota. Leonid Brezhnev's eyebrow is on the other side.

    Mike Smith, Tampa Bay Lightning
    Can that floating girl play defense?

  • Vote for your top goalie mask here, puckheads!

    Tomas Vokoun, Florida Panthers
    "Yep, it's made with bits of real panther. So, you know, it's good. It's quite pungent. It's a formidable scent. It stings the nostrils."

    Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes
    Pirates of the Carolina-bean.

    Ondrej Pavelec, Atlanta Thrashers
    Tonight on Fox: Ondrej Pavelec.

  • Vote for your top goalie mask here, puckheads!

    Chris Mason, St. Louis Blues
    Dude, your Blue Note has some serious congestion.

    Steve Mason, Columbus Blue Jackets
    Knights of Columbus, that would hurt without this mask!

    Cristobal Huet, Chicago Blackhawks
    It ain't Espo's.

  • Vote for your top goalie mask here, puckheads!

    Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators
    Ahhhhh, OK.

    Craig Anderson, Colorado Avalanche
    If Fred Flintstone was the Abominable Snowman.

    Chris Osgood, Detroit Red Wings
    Chris, can you at least stick a bumper sticker on that bucket?

  • Vote for your top goalie mask here, puckheads!

    Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks
    A little early for the playoff beard, eh?

    Nikolai Khabibulin, Edmonton Oilers
    Foghorn Leghorn? Who knew?

    Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary Flames
    You should really use a moisturizer.

  • Vote for your top goalie mask here, puckheads!

    Evgeni Nabokov, San Jose Sharks
    Turn your head and Nabokov.

    Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild
    That's salmon blood in that beverage bottle.

    Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
    "Get that earth creature and bring back the Uranium Pew-36 Explosive Space modulator!"

  • Vote for your top goalie mask here, puckheads!

    Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix Coyotes
    Wayne Gretzky was on his mask, but Gary Bettman had it removed.

    Marty Turco, Dallas Stars
    Marty, that dude on your forehead could use a sandwich.

    Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks
    "I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany."

  • Vote for your top goalie mask here, puckheads!

    John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or crosschecks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.


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    Bucci's Power 5

    1
    Pittsburgh Penguins

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    2
    San Jose Sharks

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    3
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    4
    Chicago Blackhawks

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    5
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    "I'm gonna get that Orr guy to punch Regis in the mouth." (Getty Images)

    Your captions:

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    And the Maple Leafs make a line change. (Getty Images)

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