Since the beginning of civilization, humans have created masks to replace the surface identity of the wearer with an artistic representation of a symbolic identity drawn from nature, history, the imagination, or the abstract subconscious. Such intricately decorated and personalized masks can be found in all parts of the world, in all cultures –– including, and especially, in professional hockey.

plastic hockey mask - Adsum
Jacques Plante changed the face of hockey.

As insane as it sounds, most hockey goalies did not cover their face for the first half century or so of the sport. In 1959, when Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante took a puck to the face during a game and returned to the ice wearing a mask, Montreal’s coach was forced to either abandon his rule banning Canadiens goaltenders from wearing masks in games or play his team without a goaltender. The coach relented and the style of mask worn by Plante –– similar to that worn by Jason in the Friday the 13th movies –– became a standard among goalies over the next couple of decades. Made of simple white fiberglass and fitting tightly to the face, the mask was not unlike a traditional volto mask worn by masqueraders in the Carnival of Venice, but it lacked in decoration and personal expression.

Gary Cheevers - Adsum
Gary Cheevers iconic mask with hand-drawn stitches started the trend in the 60s.

The great artistic leap in goaltender masks came in the late 1960s, when Boston Bruins goalie Gerry Cheevers exaggerated a hit to his mask in practice to leave early for the locker room. When his coach found him inside the locker room, uninjured, enjoying a drink and a smoke, the coach ordered Cheevers back onto the ice. As a light joke, a trainer drew a set of simple black stitches on Cheevers’ white mask where the blow had been sustained. From that point on, whenever Cheevers was hit in the mask with a puck, a new set of stitches would be added until the mask was nearly filled. By the end of his career, Cheevers mask became an icon in hockey and other goaltenders followed suit in finding their own ways to decorate their masks.

plastic hockey mask - Adsum
Gilles Gratton pulled out the "Lion Mask" in 1976, whilst playing for the New York Rangers. Known as "Gratooney the looney", he once claimed pain from an injury sustained in a previous life (amongst other things).

In the years since, goalie mask art has become its own subculture, with specialized painters using things like color changing paints and a variety of airbrushing techniques to create everything from impressionist cityscapes to photorealistic animals. However, no goalie will likely ever have a mask more memorable and iconic than Cheevers. With just a few simple strokes of permanent marker on white fiberglass, Cheevers mask uses minimalism to create infinitely varying images of horror in the mind of each viewer as they imagine what Cheevers’ face might look like had he not worn a mask. In doing so, it underscores not only the importance of a mask in hockey but the more basic relationship between a mask and the varying possibilities of the face underneath it.