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How Hockey Works

Hockey Gear
Dany Heatley, right wing, Atlanta Thrashers
Dany Heatley, right wing, Atlanta Thrashers

Like other aspects of the game, the equipment worn by hockey players has evolved over the decades. At first, the only "equipment" worn was a turtleneck wool sweater and a pair of leather boots with blades strapped to them. Sticks were carved out of heavy pieces of wood.

Goalies were the first to adopt padding, since they were the ones throwing themselves in front of the puck. At first, goalies were not allowed to fall to the ice when making a save. To protect their legs, they wore leather or horsehide pads stuffed with sponge or deer hair. When they soaked up water, the pads became very heavy.

The other players started wearing shin pads, and by the 1920s, most players wore padded gloves, or gauntlets, and padded pants. Skates became one-piece boots with permanently attached blades.

The next major equipment development came for the goalies. Until the 1940s, they wore the same gloves as the players. A goalie named Emile Francis showed up wearing a first-baseman's glove for one game, and the league approved it. He also started attaching a rubber wedge to his other glove. These primitive designs would develop into the distinctive trapper and blocker worn by modern goalies.

Amazingly, despite facing blazing slap shots and repeated injuries, goalies did not wear any kind of facial protection until the late 1950s. Clint Benedict wore a temporary protective leather shield after a serious face injury in 1930, but the idea was soon discarded.

Jacques Plante is considered the true father of the goalie mask. He designed and made his own fiberglass mask and started wearing it in practice, but his coach wouldn't let him wear it in games. Finally, on November 1, 1959, Plante was hit by a puck and required stitches. He refused to return to the game without the mask. Eventually, other goalies starting wearing them. The last goalie to play without one was Andy Brown of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who was still stopping pucks with his face in 1973.

The early fiberglass masks still allowed goalies to be injured, because the mask rested too close the player's face. For several years, a wire cage design was adopted. Later, a hybrid design was developed by taking one of the old fiberglass masks, cutting out a section in front, and covering it with a cage. This design is the most widely used today.

Finally, in the 1970s, players began wearing helmets. The threat of severe head injuries, and NHL rules requiring all new players to wear helmets, made the helmetless hockey star an endangered species. In 1997, the last bareheaded player retired, and the species became extinct.