Unnecessary Toughness: Protective Gear and Masculinity in Hockey
In 1949, Baz Bastien was getting ready for a new season with the Pittsburgh Hornets. But the first day of pre-season training did not usher in another successful year of hockey for the goaltender from Timmons, Ontario. Instead, Bastien’s promising career ended in a flash. A puck struck him in his right eye, causing an injury so severe he had to have the eye removed.
It may be difficult to imagine today, but before the 1960s, professional hockey players almost never wore helmets or masks. Even goalies, whose very job entails blocking pucks shot towards them, played without head or face protection. The gendered social meanings attached to physical danger and protective equipment help explain why for decades, bare-headed hockey players risked fractured skulls, shattered noses, and lost eyes.
Hockey players were competing in a sporting culture in which injuries to unprotected faces were not merely tolerated, but were celebrated as symbolizing a player’s courage and manliness. Headgear was considered effeminate and emasculating, while scars and missing teeth were often worn as badges of honor. For decades, the sport’s dangers reinforced popular conceptions of aggressive masculinity, and injuries were regarded almost as a rite of passage. Such attitudes were perhaps best expressed by the colloquial saying: “You’re not a hockey player until you’ve lost some teeth.”
And the risk of losing teeth was all too real. The job of a hockey goalie had long been recognized as especially dangerous. A 1934 Washington Post article entitled “Pity the Poor Hockey Goalie” described both the physical risks and the mental stress associated with the position: “Getting hit with a disk at that speed is like stopping a hunk of granite … Think of the chap who has to stand there, waiting, watching, trying to still his fear.”
Sportswriters celebrated athletes’ cavalier attitudes toward the hazards, framing them as fearless exemplars of manhood. Lorne Chabot, goaltender for the Toronto Maple Leafs, was quoted in The New York Times in 1947 as saying, “I always shave before a game. I seem to stitch better when my skin is smooth.”
By the mid- 20th century, the introduction of the slap shot and curved hockey sticks further heightened hockey’s risks. Should players protect themselves against flying pucks, errant sticks, and sharp blades? Or would the equipment render them cowards? Many athletes remained reluctant to wear headgear, fearing the potential social repercussions. As a 1959 New York Times article recounted, goalie Roy Worters refused to wear a mask even after losing six teeth from a puck striking his mouth. “What do you think I am — a sissy?” he asked.
That same year, Jacques Plante, a goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens, got hit in the nose by the puck. Thereafter, he insisted on wearing a mask. Plante’s talent and stardom helped him to override his coach’s disapproval of the protective gear, and he began inspiring other players to consider the equipment. In response to critics who derided the mask as cowardly, Plante retorted, “If you jumped out of a plane without a parachute, would that make you brave?”
By the 1960s, coaches, medical professionals, administrators, and others involved in the sport were also increasingly calling for mandating protective gear to prevent injuries. In doing so, they often appealed to the need to reassure concerned wives and mothers. Media reports on the debate frequently coded the desire to enhance player safety as feminine. In these stories, mothers typically sought to protect their children in youth leagues, and wives sought to protect their husbands in the professional leagues. An NHL player’s wife said to The Toronto Telegram in 1961 that requiring headgear “would put a lot of players’ wives at ease. I am for them, definitely.” (1)
Conversely, one general manager contended that “female fans wanted to see the faces of the players.” And a 1959 article in the United States Amateur Hockey Magazine warned that with the frightening looking masks, mothers might “get the idea that it’s too rough a sport for little Johnny.”
Much of the debate about protective gear seemed to come down to whether equipment would comfort, impress, disappoint, or frighten women. Did masks and helmets symbolize safety and reassurance, or did they represent the dangerous, masculine, frightening nature of the sport little Johnny wanted to play?
Sporting goods manufacturers wanted masks both to symbolize safety and for little Johnny to willingly wear their equipment. They therefore sought to market their products in ways that would reassure players that wearing equipment was compatible with the particular form of masculinity associated with ice hockey. “Has hockey turned into a sissy’s game?” asked a 1964 Hockey Buyer’s ad for protective equipment, before responding in the negative and asserting that tough professionals were indeed embracing safety gear. “Today’s hockey player hasn’t gone soft. He’s just a little smarter than he was years ago,” the ad read. Such advertisements aimed at youth players implicitly or even explicitly countered the narrative of equipment as “sissifying.”
But it wasn’t enough for this message to simply come from manufacturers. NHL athletes also crucially began reframing protective equipment such as goalie masks as masculine. In doing so, they helped make the gear socially safe for male athletes to wear. Perhaps most iconic of all, Boston Bruins goaltender Gary Cheevers began drawing stitches on his mask to indicate where the puck had struck him. As Doug Hunter documents in his book A Breed Apart: An Illustrated History of Goaltending from 1995, each stitch indicated where he would have gotten injured if his face had been unprotected. These stitches enabled Cheevers to display not actual scars, but instead his prevented injuries as badges of toughness, becoming “a visceral public image of the carnage the mask prevented.”
Other goalies followed suit, decorating their masks with all sorts of intimidating imagery, from fanged animals to aliens and monsters. Today, the NHL celebrates the “scariest” goalie masks, and helmets are standard gear for all players. Part of the process of persuading hockey players to wear helmets and masks involved not only improving equipment but also reframing that gear as tough and masculine. Understanding this social and historical context surrounding sports equipment is crucial for public health efforts to enhance sports safety.
Yet even today, not all professional skaters protect their faces with visors, and refusing to wear protective equipment can still be viewed as a marker of tough masculinity, while the desire to protect against injury often remains coded as feminine. In 2017, one of the remaining holdouts told a reporter of his choice to forego a visor: “My mom’s going to read this article and she’s going to rake me through the coals.”
1. Qutd. in Love, W.G. “Protect Our Hockey Faces,” Journal of the Canadian Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation 92;15 (1962): 14.