The Goalie Mask: Saving Grace or Losing Face
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…