1 December 2013 -

Going Face to Face: The Making of Goaltender Masks in North American Professional Ice Hockey, 1959-1991
Jacques Plante holding an early ‘pretzel’ style of mask made of fibreglass, one of the many designs he experimented with over his career, Winter 1960. Library and Archives Canada/Jacques and Raymonde Plante fonds/PA-195211, © Public Domain, nlc-5777.

Situated among current and ongoing debates about the history of sport, design, and material culture, my essay focused on the design and development of masks used by ice hockey goaltenders. Despite the inherent dangers of their profession, goaltenders (or ‘goalies’) did not regularly start to wear protective face masks until the latter half of the twentieth century. Over time, this class of objects has undergone gradual yet drastic changes, not only in their form and design but also in their perception, distribution, and adoption. My essay had three aims: to conduct a broad cultural historiography of these masks; to explore the main factors that constrained or enabled changes to this type of object; and to compare my findings with established theories of causality from various academic fields.

I began by examining the different ways these mask have been depicted and historicised in popular media. This generated an array of sources to draw upon, including books, biographies, memoirs, articles, museum and gallery exhibitions, television advertisements, internet auction websites, online forums, photographs, stamps, posters, and figurines. With an absence of prominent academic discourse on the topic, it was also crucial to address the gap between ‘popular’ and ‘professional’ histories. Of the existing narratives, many have focused solely on key individuals and milestones without further elaboration, while some have used the masks to promote positive sentiments towards Canadian national heritage and collective identity.After establishing an understanding of prevalent narratives, I proceeded to identify and analyse the key issues that shaped the evolution of these goalie masks, categorising them into three broad types: psychological, sociological, and technological. As a result of persistent pressures, some goaltenders began wearing a mask not to prevent short-term injury but to ensure longevity in their professional careers. Feelings of pride, the desire to avoid humiliation, and the capacity of the masks to showcase artwork reflecting their wearers’ distinct personalities further led to the increasing acceptance of these objects. Moreover, the trading of players between teams and mounting safety concerns within the hockey community prompted the establishment of standards, policies, and the need to develop new styles of masks (especially since many goalies regularly exchanged feedback with their preferred mask-makers to provide suggestions for adjustments and improvements). The technical backgrounds of the mask-makers themselves also had great influence over the objects’ design evolution, as did the eventual integration of new techniques and materials such as Kevlar and carbon-fibre reinforced polymers.

Finally, I turned to a discussion of the applicability and limitations of three theoretical paradigms. Although each of the concepts examined (Thomas C. Schelling’s notion of ‘externalities’, Mark Granovetter’s idea of ‘thresholds’, and Trevor J. Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker’s ‘social construction of technology’ model) offers a valuable way through which to interpret the goalie masks, they all are unable to account for and wholly capture the nature of how and why these objects and attitudes surrounding them have changed.

My essay argued for the value of historical, historiographical, and theoretical examination of the material culture of sports, and I concluded by advocating continued and increasing discourse between scholars working in different fields to reach broader audiences.

Andrea Tam


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