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The Goalie Mask: Saving Grace or Losing Face

"Johnny Bower you're my hero!" (photo by Dick Shad, Tampa Bay Times)

"Johnny Bower you're my hero!" (photo by Dick Shadd, Tampa Bay Times)

The flurry of comments and video highlights of Ondrej Pavelec’s “maskless” save vs. the Senators on Halloween night (and on the 50th anniversary of Jacques Plante’s first donning the mask no less!) caused me to reflect on the whole notion of how or why a goalie loses his or her mask in the first place. For me this query took on a more sombre angle when I watched – and cringed at – the video of Kitchener Rangers’ defenseman Ben Fanelli getting smashed into the boards, losing his helmet and fracturing his skull.

Ever since Plante’s historic night 50 years ago, hockey fans and the goalie community in particular have built a cult around the mask and its symbolism. However, when all is said and done it must be pointed out that the guardians of the net can’t do much guarding if their lid keeps flipping off. When Pavelec lost his mask in that game the big hoopla was about him actually making a rather scary shoulder save on Alex Kovalev before the referee had time to blow the whistle. Whenever a goalie’s mask gets knocked off (just anecdotally I can attest that this happens numerous times every season) it is standard practice to stop the play immediately. This practice, however, apparently isn’t even a rule, and won’t be until the NHL officially updates its rule book in 2012.

Getting back to the mask “malfunction”: most of us can readily attest that the mask, while cool looking (especially with a 500$ paint job of girls in bikinis or loathsome gargoyles), is more of a necessary evil than anything. It is relatively heavy (3 lbs), hot, sweaty and after a season or two, often gives off a villainous odor that has you thinking you are putting your head into a toilet bowl. But we goalies endure the nuisance. The reason why is damned simple: most of us would probably be dead (and not just brain dead as half of us are already) if we didn’t.

That stated, why in God’s name don’t we do up the chin strap?

Here’s a test: go run into the garage and grab your mask. Try to FIND a chin strap in it. Not a chin cup, which is more for fit and comfort. Look for an actual chin strap that buckles under your chin, and when done up effectively stops the mask from being taken off. For example, if you have an Itech mask, especially one of the entry level models (1000, 1200, 2500), you almost certainly have a second set of snaps on either side of the chin where a strap is intended to go. Many of us just loosen this strap or remove it altogether. It makes it way easier to flip up the mask to take a drink, to lambaste the ref or to spit, as all good hockey players do with great frequency and panache. A substantial number of masks, however, have no chin strap whatsoever and are held on strictly by the force of the elastic that squeezes the back plate and the mask itself against your face.

OK, I got it: that means I am trusting my life to a rubber band…

For all the volumes of debate on the web and in dressing rooms about which mask rings the least when hit, which sightlines are clearest and which cage finish looks best, precious little talk is reserved for the humble chin strap, even though it could make a huge difference. While goalies don’t regularly get body-checked (though there are a number amongst us who would contest this statement), the danger of the mask falling off and our heads hitting the goalpost, the ice or an errant skate slicing through space at 25 mph are real. Going back to the tragic incident involving the junior player who is still in critical condition, if one looks at the video, his helmet is already off when he hits the glass, way before his head slams into the ice. Ditto for Andrei Kostitsyn 12 months ago against the Avalanche. Ditto for Islanders Kyle Okposo against Dion Phaneuf this fall. Ditto for Donald Brashear years back in that ugly incident with Marty McSorley. What can anyone conclude if it isn’t the injury being caused or substantially worsened by the bare head hitting the rock-hard ice from 6 feet up?

I am not a football fan in the least, but one thing I admire about the sport is the nuance in its culture. 300 lb. mastodons pile drive each other into the turf, then when the whistle blows they help the other guy back to his feet, not try to rub their stinking gloves in his face. Everybody does their chin strap up the second they step onto the field. Why? Because there is a penalty for not doing so, that’s why. In hockey, for whatever absurd reason, snugging up your chin strap is not cool. Take a look the next time you watch a game on TV. Most of the guys, by my estimation, could slip 3 or 4 fingers under the chin strap it is so loose. I snicker as I imagine an NHL player trying to tell a Hummer-sized NFL lineman that he’s a sissy because he fastens his chin strap tight.

Just for the record, minor hockey does have a rule that goalies must have a chin strap just like any other player (whether it is done up is a different story). Nevertheless, in five years of coaching goalies at that level I have only seen this enforced once (imagine that in an Atom tournament the other team sends over a parent “spy” to watch our goalie from behind our bench. Go figure, minutes later the ref stops the play and after consulting the opposing coach, makes our goalie leave the game because he doesn’t have a chin strap).

I’m not sure if there is any definitive comment to be made about this whole issue. I don’t want to sound like a crusader, since my own goalie mask came from the manufacturer with an unapproved cat eye cage and no provision for a chin strap. Nevertheless, it has saved my life more than a couple of times, yesterday afternoon being the most recent occasion.  In that light, it boggles the mind to think of Jacques Plante and his contemporaries playing every night with nothing on their faces but beads of sweat and a gap-toothed grin…

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  1. James

    I’ve noticed that some masks don’t even have the nubs to attach a chin strap to.

    Thankfully my son’s Itech is old enough that it does. But, his teammate has a newer Itech and I don’t think you can even attach a chin strap if you wanted to.

  2. Bryan

    That’s a big reason why I wear a Jofa helmet/cage combo: strapped on, and never comes off!!

  3. Nick

    I wear an Itech 2500 and I use the chin strap, although it’s loose enough I can slip my mask off if I want, but not to get a drink. Instead I have one of the Nike water bottles with the funky no-drip tops that doesn’t leak; you squeeze the sides and you get a burst of refreshment. Very handy when you don’t want to bother with taking off your glove or blocker. I shoot it through my cage.

    I don’t think that the force of the shots that I see have the potential to force my mask off even if I didn’t use the chin strap considering 1) I play roller and beer league although the kids are pretty good and 2) the weight of the mask and 3) the angle and speed a shot would have to come in at to force it up and off my head. From personal experience, my mask has a better chance of coming off from me scrambling around fighting to smother a puck amidst a bunch of bodies. But I’ll continue to wear my chin strap nonetheless. 😉

  4. Heather Galindo

    Great post! My Hackva has a strap but it took me forever to figure out what it was for when I got mine. I’d only ever seen goalies just easily lift their mask up.

    I don’t fasten mine but maybe you’ve convinced me to start. I don’t lift my mask up much anyway because then I end up with hair in my eyes, plus it doesn’t stay up very well since Hackva makes a pretty heavy lid. As long as it doesn’t touch me, and it shouldn’t, why not?

  5. JR

    No chinstrap for this hack.

  6. Dan

    I have never had my mask come off and I don’t wear a chin strap. I find that if the chin cup is fitted properly and the mask straps are adjusted properly (not too loose) there is virtually no chance of the mask slipping off.

  7. Paul Szabo

    Thanks for your comments to my article. In response to Nick, I would concur that I don’t think a shot would cause my mask to fall off either. I think the real danger is from getting rammed by players crashing the net. This happens in the NHL frequently enough, at which point there is a legitimate danger of the goalie getting his head smashed into the goal, the ice, the boards, etc. To follow up Dan’s comment, NHL goalies pretty much have their masks all custom fitted perfectly to their head, so if theirs can fall off I am not sure why an off-the-shelf mask can’t. When you see how easily most goalies flip up their lid with one hand to take a drink, then just nod their head forward to lower the mask, it seems pretty obvious that the same thing could happen from the force of an impact.

  8. Kris

    I’ve had several shots hard enough to rip the mask clean off of my head in my playing time, and I will say this, I am glad there was no strap on there to hold it on. I was lucky that it took the mask off, or all of that energy would have been taken out directly on my head.

    Straps are a good thing, and they are required by USA hockey and the NCAA. When you get to the Pro ranks you are allowed to chose. If you don’t have a strap and you lose your mask a lot, that is a fit preference not a masks fault. (Those traps can be worn tight enough to make sure the mask rarely comes off)

    And if you do have a custom mask, 2 drilled holes and 2 snaps inserted in the mask and you can add a strap if you really want to.

    All I am saying is that when you are a pro you do what feels right, strap or not, tight or loose thats your choice, but as an amateur safety is obviously a very serious issue (that is why you see the itech masks with the straps on them)

  9. paul szabo

    Hi Kris;
    Interesting observation you make. You must play in a league with mega hard shooters. However, I am not sure whether the mask coming off due to impact lessens the blow to the head. I used to be a motorcycle safety course instructor and I know that we never wanted our helmet coming off at impact, even if our head wasn’t slamming into the pavement! Impact force is absorbed at the point of impact and and distributed throughout the structure, aided by the foam. That’s why the shell needs to be so stiff and that’s why fibreglass is more expensive than (zytel) polycarbonate. In any case, keep your lid on! A friend of mine got hit in the forehead playing in my garage league. Cracked her mask (KOHO 570) and she has had concussion trauma symptoms for the last several months…

  10. Kris

    Not Mega hard per se, just where it hit me in the forehead it had enough force to take the mask off! And I can say if it would have hit me square or solid enough I bet it would have cracked the mask.

  11. Ben Jones

    The reason I wear a Mission/Itech cage and helmet combo is because whenever I take a puck to the head or get bumped over and I wear a mask it falls off but my cage stays on.

  12. Lee

    I wear a cage helmet set up, old school. Just two games ago, I took 3 to the head. same guy each time, trying to go up stairs. No damage to either the head or cage. I wish there was an official cage helmet set up. I feel that I am in a cave with the mask.

  13. cam

    i was just wondering if in minor hockey the goalies need a chin strap? my sons bothers him but for pee wee and bantam would he be aloud to take it off?

  14. Paul Szabo

    Hi Cam;
    I wrote an article for which talked about this very topic ( In fact, the chin strap is mandatory for all levels of minor hockey (at least here in Quebec, for all goalies and players). Having said that, though, it must be pointed out that in 99% of cases it never gets checked for goalies and in 99% of cases even if it is there, it just sits in the helmet loosely rather than being done up every game. That’s how we all are able to flip up the mask to take a drink.

  15. Todd W

    My son is 11. His mask had the strap and he never used it, and never lost his mask in practice or play in 2 years. So 2 weeks ago I took the strap off.
    Last night an older player was goofing around with him and intentionally pulled his mask off. A team mate saw them rough housing, joined in, and my son wound up tripping on his own mask and winding up under 2 other players. No injury, but I put the strap on again this morning. We’ll see how it works out for him. Thinking about sewing a shammy or terry cloth wrap for comfort, or maybe using an elastic chin strap.

  16. Shell

    As a goalie who is on the ice four times a week on average, I don’t see the need for a chinstrap. My mask is fitted (with chin cup installed) to the point, it is not easy to just lift it up or even take off without both hands free. It may get a little sweaty, but once strapped in, my head is wrapped and stays. This is almost to the point of being a part of my body. When my mask comes off, it is generally the result of a major incident. This has only happened three times in 11 years (over 2200 times on the ice) and none as a result of a shot, even from our juniors. Shots won’t take off my mask, even though some might dent the cage or crack it. It may have a place in youth hockey, but not for me.