In his era, Jacques Plante was seen as a wimp. After the Montreal Canadiens goalie was struck in the face by a flying puck while playing against the New York Rangers on Nov. 1, 1959, the future Hall-of-Famer refused to return to the ice sans protection. Much to the scorn of his coach and fans, Plante returned from the locker room with a crude home-made fiberglass mask in place. Though coach Toe Blake wanted Plante to remove the mask after his wounded face healed, the Canadiens rattled off an 18-game win streak, despite Plante's obscured face. The complaints stopped, and the goalie mask was born.
Fifty years later, Plante's credited more for his good sense than lack of spine. The last professional goaltender not to wear a mask left the ice in 1974, and modern players can't imagine life without one. "I don't know if I would have played goal [without it], let's put it that way," famed New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur told NHL.com in 2009.
Modern masks have come a long way from Plante's first design. In the 1970s, goalies started to replace the eyeholes with steel cages, improving a goalie's ability to see the puck (a major criticism of Plante's original design) and extending the fiberglass to protect the top of the head and neck. Today's goalie sports a mask that includes protection for the throat and is fashioned often from carbon fiber or Kevlar for added protection against flying pucks. The design has even crossed sports: in the past decade many baseball catchers have begun sporting hockey-style masks behind the plate.
The hockey mask turned up outside of sport, too: a mask much like Plante's original design is worn by serial killer Jason Voorhees beginning in the third movie ofthe Friday the 13th franchise, part of an attempt by filmmakers to make Voorhees seem more imposing and frightening. But masks today are more likely to resemble canvases than serial killer attire. As mask sizes grew and became more elaborate, goalies started creating their own designs, producing elaborate artwork to inspire their team or intimidate the opponent. Goalie Gerry Cheevers decorated his mask with stitches every time it got hit during his time in goal in the 1970s. Fans rated his cheeky mask the best design of all time in a 2008 poll by the Hockey News.
All this would seem strange to the first generation of goalies, many of whom needed dozens of stitches after games to close lacerations from sticks and pucks. But in case any are brave or foolhardy enough to long for the days of gashed cheeks and broken bones, there's still hope. While the NHL has required all players wear helmets beginning with the draft class of 1979, there's still no rule forcing goalies to wear masks.