Sports Watch

Modern goalies hide behind their masks

Trent Frayne December 9 1996
Sports Watch

Modern goalies hide behind their masks

Trent Frayne December 9 1996

Modern goalies hide behind their masks

Sports Watch

Trent Frayne

What a wonderful wacky moment it was a few weeks ago in Philadelphia when that uninhibited goaltending fellow Ron Hextall sped, no, lumbered, no, galumphed the length of the ice to engage Felix Potvin, his rival in the Toronto cage, in a joust of horrors de combat. Imagine, two goalies festooned in enough armor to gild a tank, squaring off. Horrors indeed.

Yet, how delightful. Nowadays, the Hextall foray aside, goaltenders live trouble-free lives in their cages, their minds at ease, their kissers adorned by bulletproof masks. Technology protects their bulging bellies, and to ensnare pucks they employ catching mitts wide as steam shovels. Rules-makers soon will be cracking down on oversize equipment but, even so, the overstuffed fellows have no fears to awaken them in the night. They might as well be working in rocking chairs.

“The mask revolutionized the goaltender’s job,” Dave Dryden said the other day. Dave is a guy who survived nine NHL seasons in goal for the Rangers, the Blackhawks, the Oilers and the Sabres. Later, he was the goaltending coach for Detroit’s Red Wings, and his years of blocking pucks behind a mask have left him unscathed. These days, he’s an elementary school principal in suburban Toronto, and he returned last fall from Japan and Sweden where he had been engaged to pursue his ongoing sideline: instructing goaltenders.

Dave says the difference the mask made was in removing a goalie’s apprehension. “It allows him to put his face down close to the ice where he can more easily follow the puck.

Wild deflections and guys shooting bullets are no longer a menace.”

Dave’s brother Ken, who filled the Canadiens net for eight seasons, noted a while back that along with providing fearlessness, the mask is a blocker, augmenting the one goalies employ to punch out pucks on the stick side. These days, face unmarked and teeth intact, Ken is an author, a lawyer and a frequent after-dinner speaker, lean in a business suit, white shirt and tie, looking in his horn-rims rather like a professor. The mask allowed that.

Pre-mask goaltenders hardly resemble professors—or businessmen of any kind. Johnny Bower, the old Leaf; Glenn Hall, the exHawk; Eddie Johnston, the onetime Bruin; these are goaltenders whose facial scars suggest they were overworked fencers. The convivial Bower warded off the bombs of Boom Boom Geoffrion and Bobby Hull for 15 NHL seasons. He figures he took at least 250 stitches in his face, and cites facial bumps and bruises as his most frequent injuries. ‘You’d get hit over the eye, it’d swell, there’d be a lump,” he remembers. “So they’d put the leech on.”

“The leech?”

‘Yeah, the trainer kept ’em in a solution on the infirmary shelf and he’d take one out with a pair of tweezers and place it next to the

Former Boston Bruin Eddie Johnston picked up three of his seven broken noses in a stretch of 10 nights

lump. The leech would edge over, examine the lump, then clamp onto it and have a meal. It would get fatter and fatter and then, pop, down he’d go and the swelling around the cut would go, too.”

No goaltender nowadays goes through the mental turmoil that assailed Glenn Hall through his years in Detroit and Chicago. He’d toss his cookies before games. Once, intent upon a faceoff in the opposing team’s end of the rink, the Chicago coach, Rudy Pilous, couldn’t understand why the linesman didn’t drop the puck. Then he happened to glance at his own end. The net was deserted. Hall had suddenly bolted for the dressing room to throw up again.

Eddie Johnston, now the coach at Pittsburgh, wears a slight hook in his otherwise slender nose. He picked up three of his seven broken noses in one stretch of 10 nights in the Boston net. “I broke it in New York and took 18 stitches. There used to be this little Japanese doc at the Garden, who we all called Kamikaze, and he’d just reach up and give the nose a quick twist to bang it back into place. The next night in Boston I broke it again for 12 more stitches and then we went into Montreal and I broke it again. After that I started wearing the mask.”

Old goalers occasionally talk ruefully of their playing days but mostly their reflections are delivered with a chuckle. This was never the case with Terry Sawchuk, who suffered untold misery, mental and physical, through much of his 21 NHL seasons, a trail graphically traced in Brian Kendall’s new biography called Shutout, the Legend of Terry Sawchuk. He relates, too, how Sawchuk introduced the gorilla crouch, “bending so deeply that his chin almost touched his padded knees.” Sawchuk was performing, bare-faced, the style that has made today’s masked marvels fearless. No wonder he had some 400 stitches in his face and head before he adopted a mask in 1962.

One night in the summer of 1955,1 spent far too many hours beerdrinking with Sawchuk at a golf course run by his father-in-law on the outskirts of Detroit. He had just been traded by the Red Wings to Boston. He was depressed. For Detroit he had won the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie, then the Vezina Trophy three times in the next four seasons. So the trade devastated him.

“Does it mean I’m washed up?” he asked. He couldn’t understand how the arrogant Detroit boss, Jack Adams, had picked rookie Glenn Hall ahead of him to guard the Red Wings net. Injuries, accidents, illness and medical operations plagued him. Once, I stood near him in the Maple Leaf dressing room as he weighed himself. He wore only a towel, his body a sunset of bruises, welts and ugly red patches. His weight once had hit 229, but now the scale balanced at 157, a spread of 72 lb.

Still, anguished as he was, Sawchuk never skated the length of the ice to belabor a lodge member. Nowadays, apparently, not everything is tranquil even behind a mask.