Maltese Sports: Are Gel Mask Liners Hockey’s Saving Grace?
I have been in contact with Phil Maltese of Maltese Sports for several years since buying his first generation mask gel system many moons ago, after learning that Olaf Kolzig had it in his mask back in 2001, at which point I had to have it too.
For those unfamiliar with Maltese gel, it is a direct replacement for mask foam that claims to be safer, cleaner, and cooler.
So all the cool kids must have been using it, right? Not so much. The gel was also a lot heavier than standard mask foams, which caused many to shy away. But as technology goes, so does the goalie industry, and Maltese Sports is back with a brand new invention: The Maltese Mask Gel version 3.
Not only is the latest incarnation easier to apply to your mask, safer than standard foams, and come with antibacterial properties (no more hockey smell? Sign me up), but it is now also comparable in weight to standard mask foams. They’ve accomplished this by using a new process to impregnated the foam with air, making it lighter and more shapeable while drastically reducing the overall weight with losing its protective properties. After hearing all that, I had to give it a try again.
I called Phil up and he set me up with a gel combo/throat protector, and his Version 3 Mask Gel System.
All I had to do was wait for it to arrive and slap it in the old mask. Of course as always that was easier said than done.
Yes, the Maltese V3 installs easily, but the old foam was a pain to get out. Sore fingers aside, I find I have a more custom and comfortable fit with the V3 installed in my mask. I get that closer to the cage feel I like with my face – and better vision through the cage as a result – it’s a lot cooler, as there is way less of the V3 gel in the mask than there was foam, and the slight weight difference is hardly noticeable now due to the new V3 gel technology.
Shots in the mask with don’t seem to ring as bad, and I have felt fewer concussive impacts (that slapped feeling you get sometimes after getting hit square in the face). In my opinion, if you are looking to get a mask refurbished, need to replace the foam in your mask, or looking for more protection, at least give Maltese Mask Gel consideration. It is comparatively priced to other replacement foam kits, and for you chin sling lovers out there, Maltese offers a chin sling option now as well.
After getting the products from Phil (His Throat/Combo is something I will never be without now after trying.) I was curious about how he got his start in hockey and how he came up with some of his ideas. I also wondered why more people weren’t using his products, and what he thought of all of the concussions and head injuries we are seeing lately, so I called him up, and he agreed to do an interview with me.
The following is our conversation. Phil warned me that he gets a little excited at times, and can be candid, but that only made me want to talk with him more:
IGM: So what is your hockey background?
PM: My background in hockey started back in the early seventies outside in front of my house in a post world war housing development. Back then I played anything I could because sitting on your ass playing video games wasn’t invented yet. But one day we got a very fuzzy picture of what appeared to be a hockey game on the TV. It was one of those UHF stations … Channel 29. You squint at the TV most of the time trying to figure out what was happening and then you get a flash of a real image and that’s when I saw Bernie Parent with ‘that’ mask of his. That’s when I decided to learn to skate … at fourteen years old. Goalie was the only position for me, which was good, because I didn’t know how to skate. But if you want something bad enough – translation, are willing to humiliate yourself in order to learn – you too can play this game. Fortunately for me, my school had its own rink and before you know it, I’m getting around in a very non-ambulatory way. Long story short, I’ve been a goalie for thirty-six years.
IGM: Let’s talk some history – What makes someone get started in implementing gel in to hockey equipment?
PM: “I bought one of the masks (pro players were wearing) back in the day. It was cool looking like the other guys, however, after a period of time of owning and using the mask, let’s say two years to be fair, the padding would no longer hold the shape of the mask no matter which adhesive I tried. Plus it smelled and was now hard – tough to squeeze. So I sat down and had a good think. I can’t remember now how I arrived at gel, but it had to have been a commercial for Dr. Scholl’s gel foot beds that got me to thinking. So I made a phone call to the company on the back of one of those foot bed packages. I couldn’t believe how deep within the company I was able to get. I spoke to a gentleman and told him my intended use. He confessed a gel supplier was who I really wanted to speak with. The glitch was he wasn’t allowed to tell me the name of the gel supplier. Naturally I made a disappointed sigh and just before we hung up, he said the name! From there I called the right people and before you could say “large sums of money” we were on our way to version one of the gel interior.
“When it was due to arrive it occurred to me that the previous padding (foam) was a half inch thick most places. How was something half the thickness going cause my mask to fit now? Didn’t even occur to me to think how is quarter inch padding going to protect me? Naturally, I was very excited to see if I was the proud owner of a real idea or just a hair-brained idea. I put the mask on, adjusted the back plate straps and much to my surprise, the mask felt like it fit and it felt nice – but a little heavy. Turns out version one weighed a hefty fourteen ounces. First game wearing it, I get kicked in the head full force. Both the ref and player asked if I was all right, immediately I got up, shook my mask into place and headed for my post. Amazingly, I was more than okay, I was stoked!”
IGM: What’s your take on the head injuries happening in the NHL? Players or equipment?
PM: “In my opinion, most of those head injuries – talking goalies here – could be avoided if one simple aspect of the mask was changed and that’s the interior padding. What did you think I would say? These are my own experiences with various padding that seems to occur after the padding has gone from its supple feel to hardening. That padding is also a sponge for one’s sweat and filth and that builds with every use. Just like all the other foam padding, they were not specifically designed to attenuate impacts. That padding is in there to provide a degree of comfort and take up space. I’m starting to see a lot of complaints about customers mask padding. The latest is how foam irritates the skin.
“The feedback from Ginny Capicchioni regarding her gel’d mask was very encouraging. (She is the only woman to play men’s box lacrosse and she made the USA men’s box lacrosse team that recently played a tournament in the Czech republic.) Ginny is not a tall person so that puts her head right in harm’s way and she loves her gel setup. Another guy I sent a ‘loaner’ mask to reported that he took a ‘howitzer’ of a shot to the chin of the mask and even though in the past he has been concussed, he reported no side effects of any kind after that impact. I think it’s time to check with the real decision makers of hockey teams: The accountants. There’s no denying that pro hockey players are a commodity and therefore an investment by their teams. If your star goalie gets knocked out, so to speak, of the lineup and this means you either miss the playoffs altogether or you don’t get deep, then you have to make a change to prevent that. My gel is that change.”
IGM: Why are so many head injuries occurring?
PM: “As previously stated, I think given that most masks are made of similar high grade materials – or at least they should be. The area where I believe makers ‘cheap’ out is in the padding they use.”
IGM: Do certifications make masks safer?
PM: “One of my favorite topics. I went through this process once, and my mask and gel setup passed on its first try. Testing at HECC involves an anvil drop test. This is where the head gear in question is placed or should I say strapped to a lead head form. Raised to a height of six feet and then dropped on what HECC calls an anvil, which is really a flat metal surface. That’s it. So that’s why we have mask lined with foam. The lead head form feels nothing so technically you could line any piece with concrete (there’s that reference again) and the head form wouldn’t complain. They perform another test to make sure the cage doesn’t break too easily and for butt ends to get through. That’s it! So in the end when a parent who knows very little about masks sees that ‘Good Housekeeping’ seal of approval, they’re drawing the conclusion that this mask will keep their child safe, but what they don’t know is how many tries it took to get that mask certified.”
IGM: Is it pointless to have a certification? Is it kind of a sell it to the highest bidder mentality?
PM: “I think a standard should be established, but without the antiquated set of criteria. It’s time to move toward a biofidelic head form with sensors to measure the force of impacts, decibel levels and pertinent data like that, so actually protecting the goalies head can occur.”
IGM: Would your product help? Why? Do you have proof?
PM: “My product would absolutely help because of the simple fact that my gel was specifically designed to attenuate impacts. An example would be, when I found gel it was being used in mostly medical applications. Like a cushion for an amputated leg in a prosthetic limb or a gel ring for the head of a newborn or as a bed pad to prevent bed sores. I just applied this technology to my sport, more specifically my position: goalie. As for proof, that resides in documents, which I have.”
IGM: How do you go about R&D with your products?
PM: “Ahhh, this is a closely guarded secret! I test the products myself initially. If I get the results I’m looking for then I ask for volunteers. They understand that their risk is minimal because I would never allow a quasi-effective product to go out. I have to be convinced that it’s working the way intended. If those volunteers are experiencing the same things as I or if they discovered something on their own then we make an adjustment.”
IGM: I know you a little better than the average consumer, and I know you don’t have a huge budget, are you often the guinea pig? (Is that why you agreed to talk with me?)
PM: “Absolutely, I’m the guinea pig! I wouldn’t have it any other way. Even if I had a huge budget, I would still want to be the initial tester because I don’t want anyone of my crew or customers getting hurt.”
IGM: Why do you think it is we don’t see Maltese gel in the better known mask/helmet manufacturer’s products?
PM: “Well, initially as in first version of the gel, when I shopped it around the big boys, all they mostly wanted to know was what did it weigh. After I told them, that was the end of the conversation. After it became clear to me that I was going to enjoy self-imposed gel exclusivity, I began making my own products to prove to myself that protection matters more than weight. After all we are goalies playing a relatively stationary position with hard projectiles flying into us. …
“I have no real idea why the mask makers reject my material, but it doesn’t matter because the end user sees the value especially if they are having a negative experience with their current padding. Like skin irritations or concussions. You know, minor stuff.”
This is why thin padding is desirable, but not if that padding is junk. Quarter inch gel has served my customers for the past twelve years better than the various thicknesses other mask makers use. I once pulled the foam out of an Itech mask that was an inch thick in the forehead. To me any thicker than 3/8” and you’re too far away from the action. While I’m at it, chin cups are the devils work and so is padding the entire inside of a goalie mask with foam.
IGM: If you had one opportunity to tell the world about Maltese Hockey, what would you say? Why should people use your products?
PM: “I play the position. I know what works and what doesn’t and many of the gear designs are just not thought out or designed by college boys that don’t even play hockey. When I get hurt another product is born. Simple, logical design has always worked for me. But most importantly, I care about my customer’s safety. I care that my name is on the product. I care that my customers get their money’s worth and I care that my product actually performs the way I say it will.”
As you can see, Phil is passionate about what he does, and the vibe I get from him is he truly cares. His products are born out of a need for something safer and more protective than what we have out there. Concussions have become an all too real reality in our sport and we definitely need to be better protected!
If you are interested in any of the Maltese products you can get in touch with Phil, and see his products through his website at www.MalteseSports.com.