/Cult of personality: the history of goalie masks in Philadelphia

Cult of personality: the history of goalie masks in Philadelphia

The Masked Man, the Keeper of the Cage, or that weird guy on your beer league team who talks to himself in the posts. Every hockey team needs a goaltender and it seems that every goaltender has a strange personality. As Philadelphia Flyers legend and Hall of Fame goaltender Bernie Parent once said, “You don’t have to be crazy to be a goalie, but it helps!”. Goalies are the last line of defense a team has for keeping the puck out the net. Every team is perennially searching for the one player who can build a wall in front of the net for a long time. Players like Dominic Hasek, Martin Brodeur, Jacques Plante and Terry Sawchuk all cemented their place at, arguably, the toughest position in any sport. A forward has two other line mates who can bail him out. A defenseman has a partner to help him out if he makes a mistake. The goalie, on the other hand, has the posts – and they don’t move that much.

Every player has their own way of expressing their personality. Goalies express themselves through many facets – the most notable certainly being the mask. One of the first goalies to design his mask was Gerry Cheevers. After Cheevers sustained an injury, Bruins’ trainer John Forristall wanted to make a joke, and drew a few stiches on the mask. This clever idea started a revolution among hockey goaltenders.

The Philadelphia Flyers’ goalies have had some great and not-so-great mask designs. From the iconic white mask of Bernie Parent to the new designs sported by Michal Neuvirth and Brian Elliott, the netminders of Philadelphia have always looked menacing. Well, sometimes, at least.

The Puck Bullies
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It would be blasphemous to have a list of Flyers’ masks without including the originals. The first game the Flyers ever played took place on October 11th 1967 versus the California Golden Seals. Bernie Parent was the goaltender for the Flyers’ inaugural game. Unfortunately, he would lose his first game after allowing 5 goals. He would then not play another game till November 4th of that year, earning the win as the Flyers beat Montreal 4-1. In the meantime, the Flyers had another goalie protecting the net, Doug Favell. Favell would secure the first shutout in franchise history, beating cross state rival Pittsburgh Penguins in the Flyers’ home opener. Now, on to the most important part – the masks! When people think of old hockey masks, they think of the white fiberglass masks worn during the early ’60s and ’70s. Bernie Parent wore this classic all-white fiberglass mask, topping it off with small Flyers logos on either side. Pucks that deflected off it, however, would leave marks and scars on the mask. Parent’s battle-worn mask made the cover of Time Magazine for the “Hockey – War on Ice” cover.

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Doug Favell was the first Flyers goaltender to paint his mask. Wearing a completely orange mask for a Halloween game, Favell would later add white lines to create a starburst look. Simple designs were as good as it gets during the Flyers early years. Favell and Parent would split the time as goaltender of the Flyers until Parent was traded in 1971. Favell became the workhorse during the next three years for Philadelphia, before being traded during the 1973-74 – for none other than Bernie Parent.

 Red Army destroyer
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Wayne Stephenson played the role of backup to Bernie Parent until Parent went down with an injury during the 1975-76 season. Stephenson played well enough in place of Parent to keep the starting position when Parent returned late in the season. His most notable win for the Flyers was the victory over the Soviet Red Army team. Stephenson let in only one goal as the Flyers beat up on the Red Army team both on the ice and the scoreboard, pummeling them to the tune of a 4-1 victory. Stephenson’s mask started as the same basic white mask, before he got crafty with his design. Splitting the Flyers logo in a mirror image look across the eyes, Stephenson would peer through where the dot would be in the logo, his eyes glaring down opponents looking to sneak the puck past him.

Style changes
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During the 1970s, the goalie helmet continued to change, evolving from the fiberglass to a hockey helmet/cage combo. The well-known Russian goaltender, Vladislav Tretiak, who played against the US Miracle on Ice team, helped hockey make the switch by sporting the helmet. The design allowed for more visibility, but did not provide great overall protection; the style was classified as failing to provide adequate face and cranial protection. The first notable Flyers goalie to wear this style was Pete Peeters, who began his Flyers career with an impressive streak of 27 straight games without a loss. Initially sporting a plain white mask, he would then design a look that reflected the Flyers’ colors. Looking more like a luchador design than something hockey related, however, Peeters would eventually drop this style of mask in favor of the helmet/cage combo.

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Phil Myre was the second half of the 35-game unbeaten streak for the Flyers. Sharing the net with Peeters, Myre also donned the helmet/cage combo mask. He also was one of the first Flyers goalies to wear a style that is close to what modern hockey goalies use today. His fairly modern mask was mostly white, with Flyers orange on the bottom. A couple of Flyers logos were also sprinkled on top. Myre only spent two seasons with the Flyers, including being part of the team that lost in the Final to the New York Islanders.

Michel Larocque brought back the fiberglass mask to Flyers’ goal line. His orange mask with a black-and-white streak, modified to include his nickname, “Bunny,” down the center and above the eyes, made his short time with the team memorable (he played just two games with the team). The reason for his short Flyers’ career was because the Flyers decided on another goalie: Pelle Lindbergh.

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Pelle Lindbergh quickly became a star for the Flyers. Wearing the same style mask as Bernie Parent, Lindbergh mirrored Parent for Flyers fans, winning games and the hearts of fans. Selected to the 1983 NHL All-Rookie Team, he would also make the NHL All-Star team in 1985, winning the Vezina Trophy that same year. He was the first European goalie to win the Vezina Trophy. Tragically, Lindbergh’s career and life would be cut short when he lost control of his car and crashed the vehicle, severely injuring himself and his two passengers. Pelle Lindbergh would die a few days later in the hospital, on November 11th, 1985. The Flyers have unofficially retired his #31, as no other Flyers player has worn the number since. Fans rallied in numbers to vote Lindbergh to the 1986 NHL All-Star team, and he became the first player to be voted to the team posthumously.

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Mark “Trees” Laforest sported a giant (you guessed it) tree on his mask when manning the Flyers’ goal line. Laforest would play a few years in Philadelphia before eventually losing the number 1 goalie job to current Flyers General Manager, Ron Hextall.

The ’90s and the changing tides
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Ron Hextall is easily among the most beloved Flyers’ players in history. Known for his hard hitting, take no bullshit style to netminding, he protected the Flyers net for years. Becoming the first goalie to actively shoot and score a goal, he improved on his feat by doing it again in the playoffs. Hextall wore a now-iconic mask that had orange and black arrows on his bucket. By creating an orange and white variant, he would also be the first notable Flyers’ goalie to put something besides a basic logo and design on the mask. During his time with Philadelphia, he would add Philly landmarks to his masks – Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell are a few to be included. Hextall would eventually be traded away, but returned to the Flyers in time to play in the Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings. Hextall was unable to get a ring, however, as the Flyers were swept in 4 games. Now the current GM of the Flyers, Hextall has brought in young talent and is looking to bring the Flyers their first Cup since 1975-76.

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Dominic Roussel would take over for Ron Hextall after Hextall’s first run with the team; he was the Flyers’ starting goalie during the 1993-94 season. Roussel sported two different masks during his tenure. First, he sported a mask with stretched and stylized Flyers’ logos with his number 33 on the chin. On one of his other notable masks, Roussel featured a cartoon style bull on one of his masks – it was an all-black mask with “Broad Street” written across the forehead and a cartoon bull on either side of the mask. “Bullies” was written across the chin area.

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Currently the president and GM of the New York Islanders, Garth Snow was traded to Philadelphia and would back up Hextall during the 1997 season, playing in Game 2 of the Final. Snow only stayed a few seasons with the Flyers (noticing a pattern yet?), but brought a mask that featured what seemed to be a yeti on either side of the mask, with an arm reaching to the chin area, grasping at the Flyers logo. The stretched arm and weirdly-shaped hand make this a mask that, in my humble opinion, is one of the worst on the list. Snow would be traded for another short-term Flyers goalie Sean Burke.

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John Vanbiesbrouck, who is mostly known for his play with the New York Rangers and the Florida Panthers, signed a two-year $7.25 million contract (with an option for a third year) with the Flyers late in his career. His first year with the team was successful, but his second was as shaky as a newborn fawn on a hockey rink. His mask was nothing pretty either. With a glittery orange base with a streaky black and white Flyers logo, Vanbiesbrouck arguably sported one of the worst masks in Flyers’ history. Vanbiesbrouck, however, did lead the way for another Flyers fan-favorite, Brian Boucher.

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“Boosh” would take over for Vanbiesbrouck, and would also improve the team in the mask department. In his first stint with the team, he sported a silver mask with a pilot on the sides, basically designed to look like a plane. This design was revisited later, with the same pilot returning, but a redesigned plane layout showing the orange and white of the Flyers’ jerseys. Boucher also wore a simple orange and white pattern, looking clean and pristine. After leaving the Flyers after the 2001-02 season, Brian Boucher returned to the orange and black in 2009. He climbed the fan-favorite ladder in 2010, as he was part of the rollercoaster 2010 season that eventually ended in a Stanley Cup Final appearance. With the loss of a coach, a shootout win to get to the playoffs, and coming back from 0-3 to beat Boston in Game 7, the Flyers had their fans living emotional highs and lows.

New millennium
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The Flyers found themselves with one of the best goalies in the league to start the new millennium. Roman Cechmanek debuted in 2000-01, taking the starting job from Boucher. Surprising everyone, he finished second in Vezina Trophy voting, only to perform miserably in the playoffs that year, including an ultra-embarrassing 8-0 loss to the Buffalo Sabres. His second season saw more great play, but yet again his play, along with the Flyers play in general, crumpled in the playoffs. His amazing regular season play continue the following year but, you guessed it, the playoffs crumbled the team again. Cechmanek’s masks had some questionable designs, as well. Once featuring the head of the Sphinx, the grey and silver mask was about as nice as the Flyers’ playoff runs during his time with the team. Known for using his head to actively block shots, Roman Cechmanek would take another shot to the head when the Flyers traded him in 2003.

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Robert Esche would take over in the crease, and featured two things on his masks: a skull on the top and musical figures on the sides, including artists Hank Williams Jr., Robert Plant, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kid Rock. He would rotate the artists annually, ending with Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. While Esche wasn’t hitting the right notes for long in Philadelphia, he did have a steady, memorable design to his masks; the mostly black masks with black and white silhouettes made for an easily-recognizable look.

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Coming out of the 2004 NHL lockout, and following an injury to Esche, Antero Niittymaki took over the responsibilities on the Flyers goal line. He was coming off a win of the Calder Cup with the Phantoms in the AHL. Among one of my all-time favorite masks, Niittymaki’s helmet featured a gangster in a white suit, smoking a cigar and shooting a tommy gun, and included bullet holes on the chin. The mobster was modeled after Frank Nitti, a nickname that Niittymaki was given upon arriving in Philadelphia.

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In another attempt to ease their goalie woes, the Flyers acquired Martin Biron from Buffalo. Looking to sure up the net position, Biron found success with the Flyers. He also had an interesting mask. Biron’s middle name is Gaston, so Biron created a character to embody the name, which turned out to be a lumberjack named the Great Gaston. Leaping through the air and brandishing a goalie stick, Gaston was large and burly. Orange on one side and white on the other, the mask is a peculiar choice for a peculiar goalie. Biron found himself lost in the Flyers’ woods, however, as they signed both Ray Emery and Brian Boucher during the 2009-10 offseason.

The 2010 goalie carousel
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The 2010 Flyers season was a wild ride for fans, beginning with Ray Emery and Brian Boucher battling for the team’s top netminder spot. Emery’s mask featured Philadelphia boxers Bernard Hopkins and Joe Frasier, and even included Philly’s favorite boxing character, Rocky. Ray Emery was the early front runner to win the job until he went down with an abdominal injury, which was followed by season-ending hip surgery. Once he was able to return to work, he wore a slick, base white mask with orange and black accents.

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Michael Leighton was claimed off waivers to alleviate the goalie troubles and, after Boucher went down with an injury, Leighton took over. He wore a nice Winter Classic helmet that featured a snowy skyline with orange and black lines on the white mask. He would also pay homage to the Broad Street Bullies with pictures of some of the players. Leighton and Boucher traded injuries during the season, as well as the run to the playoffs. The series against the Bruins, featuring a comeback from a 0-3 series deficit, was the highlight of a deep Cup run for the Flyers.

Past few seasons
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After the 2009-10 goalie carousel finally stopped, the Flyers signed undrafted Sergei “Bob” Bobrovsky during the offseason. Bob impressed coach Peter Laviolette enough for the head coach to trust him with the opening game spot. Bobrovsky responded by bettering the Flyers’ goalie situation, as well as bringing back a messy mask design: a black mask with a fighter jet zooming on either side of Philadelphia landmarks. Personally, I’m not a fan of this mask; I believe that it’s messy and cluttered. He had a new mask created for the playoffs, however, this one featuring Rocky holding the American flag on one side, and Simpsons’ character Sideshow Bob on the other. Again, I believe the mask could have been better. Rocky looks like a cheap airbrushed shirt you would get on the boardwalk in Wildwood, NJ and, while I think the Sideshow Bob reference is funny, I’m just not a fan. His third mask kept the fighter jets confined to one side, as they broke through a brick wall. On the other side, graffiti letters and numbers, which looked like they were done in MS Paint, were at the forefront. Now, before you get mad, let me clarify: I like Bobrovsky. He played well for the team, albeit finding more success in Columbus. His choices for mask designs, however, simply aren’t the best.

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After yet another disappointing end to the season, the late Ed Snider made one thing clear: the revolving door that was the Flyers goaltending spot was going to stop. After trading away key players from the 2010 Cup run – including moving Jeff Carter and then-captain Mike Richards – the team announced a huge goalie signing. By inking a nine-year, $51 million contract, Ilya Bryzgalov was brought in to be the number one goalie in Philadelphia. Bryz would bring his quirky personality with him and quickly ascend to fan-favorite status, which reached astronomical levels during the 2012 Winter Classic. At this point, HBO was filming an all-access 24/7 special for each Winter Classic. Stepping into the spotlight that year was Bryzgalov. Whether it was his crazy universe speech or knowledge of Russian spirits, he was incredibly likable. As for his masks, he briefly wore a Star Wars themed space mask. Topping the list of Bryz accoutrements, however, is his Siberian Tiger mask. Flyers fans were hopeful that Bryzgalov would pounce on the upcoming season and prove that he was worth the huge contract that he signed. Unfortunately, Bryzgalov got lost in space and, following another disappointing season, he found himself out as the Flyers goaltender and out of the franchise, as the team bought out his contract.

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Replacing Bryzgalov was former Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason. His play had declined after his Vezina nomination and Calder Memorial Trophy-winning rookie season, and Flyers fans were nervous. Would Mason return to his rookie form? Mason was able to regain some of his protecting prowess, and held the starting goalie job for the team for the next few seasons. His masks, which sported portraits of past and present Flyers with a twist, were also some of the best in team history.

AMC’s The Walking Dead is a phenomenon that tangled the world up in a zombie’s embrace. Mason’s masks paid tribute to the Flyers by creating zombie versions of them. Current players such as Giroux, Simmonds and Vorachek can be found with Flyers’ legends Clarke, Parent and Hextall. Even Flyers equipment manager Derek Settlemyre made it on the mask. Hockey players weren’t the only zombified figures, as Mason also brought the Founding Fathers back to life in a spooky fashion. Steve Mason left the Flyers following the 2016-17 season, leaving the team with Michal Neuvirth and free agent goalie Brian Elliott going into the 2017-18 season.

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Michal Neuvirth and Brian Elliott are the current tandem in goal for the Flyers. Neuvirth has used a digital camo-style mask with brown and orange tones. This very busy mask is not easy on the eyes and appears to feature brown and orange blobs when watching the games on television; Brian Elliott has by far the better mask this season. Modeled after the Hextall arrow mask, Elliott sports a much cleaner, simply better layout. His moose symbol on the backplate (created to represent his nickname) and the evil-looking Casey Jones from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles top off what is easily the better of the two masks. The season is still very young for the Flyers and they hope that the youth movement can carry them back to another successful season and hopefully, possibly, they will carry the Stanley Cup down Broad Street come 2018.

Author’s note:

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After finishing this article, Michal Neuvirth has had a new mask designed; he will use that mask going forward. Gone is the digital camo of the previous design and a nicer, more easily readable design takes its place. This orange mask has a white-outlined Flyers logo stretching from either side of the mask in a mirrored fashion. The lion from the Czech Republic coat of arms is emblazed across the top. Neuvirth also shows love for current teammate Jakub Vorachek, with the mascot Lucky Pucky from Vorachek’s charity foundation Kluk Puk making an appearance. Neuvirth plans on donating the mask to the charity at the conclusion to the season. Neuvirth has rebounded from his awful Flyers’ digital camo mask and is back on the winning mask track.

Jim McBride is a Contributing Writer for Good Night Good Hockey. He also loves dogs. Note: He is not this dog. The primary way of contacting Jim is at this email: jmcbride@gnghockey.com.