September 21, 2011

Goalie Guru: Never underestimate a good mask

I love watching those old grainy, black-and-white games from yesteryear that the NHL Network pulls out of the archives every now and then. My 12-year-old hockey-playing daughter, Brynne, is amazed that these guys played without helmets. But when she sees that goalies once played without masks, her reaction is almost disbelief. Me, too.

Hockey without helmets was commonplace in my youth, but I never once got between the pipes — not on the streets and certainly not on the ice — without some sort of facial protection. And I’m glad I did. Like most goalies, I have my own tales of on-ice accidents and frightening near-misses.

Shortly after my family relocated to Manchester, N.H., in my first practice with my new high school team in November 1974, I learned firsthand just how important a good goalie mask was. Some of the team wise guys obviously decided they were going to find out if the new kid from New Jersey had the stones to play net. We had a big winger named Ivan Bellemare who had a hard, heavy shot. During warm-ups — warm-ups! — Ivan unloaded a rocket from just above the left faceoff dot, hitting me squarely between the eyes. I had an old Cooper helmet/cage combo in those days; Ivan’s shot separated the cage from the helmet and sent me reeling. The back of my head smacked into the crossbar, transporting me into la-la land.

When I finally came around, I looked at my cage, and the straight bar running from my forehead to my nose was bent perfectly at a 45-degree angle. In fact, when I show people the cage (yes, I kept it, the only high school memento I still have), most think it was designed that way. Until I show them where all the welds are cracked. That mask, I’m convinced, literally saved my life.

I promptly switched to a Jacques Plante-style fiberglass mask, which looked cool but had its own shortcomings. The mask was designed to prevent “serious” injury, which it did commendably, but garden-variety shots to my face would still sting like crazy.

Today, though, there’s no excuse for goalies to feel like they’re not adequately protected from the neck up. The new cage/helmet masks combine the best design elements, making sure the contact points are both raised from the face, and adequately cushioned.

“Masks have benefited from higher certification standards and better materials,” Bauer Hockey’s Henry Breslin says. “Goalies will always suffer a few bumps and bruises on their body, due to the nature of the position, but now their heads are better protected.

“The position has evolved where most goalies go down to make a save, which makes the head more vulnerable, but the masks have become better at all levels and have helped minimize head injuries.”

Breslin is right on the money. The butterfly technique, especially among younger, smaller goaltenders, leaves the head more exposed (high school and college shooters, in the tradition of Bobby Hull, will even buzz a few pucks past the goalie’s ear just to see if they can “soften” him up). Yet I still see many youngsters with inferior, or ill-fitting, masks. And I’m not the only one to notice this trend.

“Another huge mistake I see all the time is a parent investing literally thousands of dollars in fancy, custom-colored gear with the big brand names on them, all the most expensive gear from their child’s feet to their shoulders, and then look around the shop and say ‘What’s the cheapest mask you have?’” says Matt Garland of ProMasque and the Goalie Barn in Wilmington, Mass. “I courteously remind them that they’ve started at the wrong end. A properly fitted mask made with the best available materials is the absolute first place to invest their money.

“A bruise on their knee simply does not compare to what damage can be caused with an inferior mask,” Garland says.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that buying a good mask is enough. Goalies, and their parents, need to make sure the mask fits correctly.

“It’s important to adjust the straps when you try a mask on; that’s why they’re there,” Breslin says. “There shouldn’t be a significant gap between the shell and back plate when the mask is on. Finding a mask that is comfortable and fits your head is critical.”

Garland agrees wholeheartedly: “A loose fitting mask is an accident waiting to happen,” he says. “The mask must fit properly and make contact all around the head and face. Gaps can cause serious ‘stingers’ or even concussions.”

Garland also is a stickler of masks that are designed properly. Like Breslin, he believes masks should properly placed safety straps to keep the mask on the goalie’s head, and defective “ridges” to disperse the impact of a shot.

“Goalies (and their parents) should be leery of masks that have ‘flat spots’ in the center of the forehead,” Garland says. “This allows for no deflection of the puck, and the goalie will take the full brunt of the shot’s G-forces in the head.”

In the same vein, you need to make sure the mask can handle the types of shots your young netminder will face.

“As the young goaltenders grow and begin to play at a higher level, goalie mask materials must also match their level of play,” Garland says. “Many customers are unaware that many masks are made of plastic, or a plastic-composite ‘sandwich.’ These are very flexible masks that should not be worn much past elite Pee Wee play. The best mask for an elite goaltender is a handmade, hand-laminated, fiberglass and bulletproof Kevlar mask.”

Likewise, be aware that not all goalie masks at your local shop have cages that are approved for all levels of play. The popular pro-model “cat-eye” cage and the square cage sported by Tim Thomas aren’t allowed in most amateur leagues, from college on down through Mites. If you’re not a beer-league player, look for CSA, CE and HECC certification.

Lastly, once you make sure the mask fits, you then have to be diligent that it’s worn properly. All the time. This responsibility normally falls to the parents, but needs to be shared by coaches as well. At the Stop It Goaltending camps I worked this summer, we were constantly reminding kids to keep their masks down over their face.

“Many young goaltenders like to emulate their favorite pros, and pop the mask up on their head to get a drink, then just nod their head lightly and the mask falls down onto their face again,” Garland says. “That’s cool to watch, but very dangerous in reality. If a goalie can easily pop his mask up and down on his head, his opponents can knock it off just as easily in a collision. One need look no further than the accident involving Joe Exter from Merrimack College a few years back. The results can be horrific.”

On March 8, 2003, Exter (Cranston, R.I.) was playing in the Hockey East playoffs against Boston College when he went racing for a loose puck with Eagles forward Patrick Eaves. The two collided, Eaves’ knee striking Exter in the head, knocking his helmet off. Exter’s unprotected head slammed into the ice, fracturing his skull. He was diagnosed with a serious concussion, put into an induced coma and endured a series of operations.

Exter’s story has a happy ending. He recovered, played professionally for a brief time, and recently became an assistant coach at Ohio State. I’ve talked with Exter, and know for a fact how fortunate he feels to have escaped a more devastating outcome.

Parents need to take make sure their young goalies don’t have to rely on Lady Luck.

This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Brion O’Connor is a Boston-based writer and owner of Inspired Ink Communications. He is also a long-time hockey coach and player, specializing in goaltending instruction. Learn more at TheGoalieGuru.com. He can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.