The Masked Man

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 12:03 PM ET

When Jacques Plante first tugged on a crude facemask during an NHL game in 1959, it was little more than a curiosity. The hockey world largely dismissed the strange headgear, introduced by the Montreal Canadiens netminder known almost as well for his peculiar behaviour as his outstanding goaltending.

Yet in the ensuing 46 years, not only have masks become mandatory equipment for those brave enough to station themselves in the crease, they are one of the most unique pieces of sports equipment used anywhere in the world.

That is both a problem and a blessing for hockey memorabilia collectors, mesmerized by the game's masked men who demonstrate their style with personalized, eye-catching paint jobs.

Getting your hands on one of them is another story.

Dig in the corners long enough, hard enough, and you can find game-worn hockey sweaters, game-used sticks and game-worn skates soaked with the sweat of the greatest players of all time.

But almost impossible to find are game-worn goalie masks.

So unique and so cherished by the men who wore them, masks are the Holy Grail for hockey collectors looking for the spectacular works of art to add to their collections.

Their rarity has created a new niche in the collector's market -- replica goalie masks -- like the ones marketed by former NHL netminder Warren Skorodenski.

"There's something really neat about masks, some kind of mystique about them, and these have real character," says Skorodenski, a Calgarian who tended the twine for both Chicago and Edmonton in the 1980s.

"The original masks are moulded to the goalie's face so they have their own unique shape. The masks are also a progression of how the game changed and there's character in each mask.

"I think they're interesting. The first time I had some made, I took them into my kid's school. What the teacher thought would be a 15-minute question-and-answer session turned into an hour-long thing. The kids all wanted to see them and try them on."

In addition to selling a replica of his own X-ray styled mask he wore with the Blackhawks, Skorodenski has entered a contract with 10 other goalies whose masks he has replicated. Each former NHLer autographs the mask and a certificate of authenticity is provided to the buyer.

Skorodenski notes some dealers sell masks without the permission of the goalie, who originally made the design famous while copying the unique artwork for resale constitutes a "grey area" for everyone involved.

"We have a contract with each goalie. The goalie's image belongs to them and is unique to them," points out Skorodenski.

"It's a copy of the player's face."

Skorodenski knows each of the other

10 goalies whose masks he markets and pays the former players for their signatures, enhancing the value of the memorabilia.

"I don't begrudge Johnny Bower making a buck off a mask he wore (in the late '60s)," Skorodenski says.

At last month's Flames Alumni 3-on-3 Pond Hockey Classic charity dinner, replicas of masks worn by Don (Smokie) McLeod of the WHA's Calgary Cowboys, John Davidson's New York Rangers mask circa the late 1970s and one from Bower were popular purchases, fetching in the $1,000 range.

Although Skorodenski's venture is still in its infancy, some of the masks have sold for more than $2,000.

He says replicas of the mask Gerry Cheevers wore backstopping the Boston Bruins during two Stanley Cup victories in the early 1970s has been the most sought after and recognizable.

Every time Cheevers was hit in the face by a puck, he would have painted onto his mask the stitches he avoided suffering. The design quickly became a classic.

"Cheevers has to be one of the most popular and it's probably the best-known mask," Skorodenski says. "They were all unique and hockey fans recognize them."

Skorodenski says his last game mask cost about $750 to make in the mid-1980s.

His first moulded mask was made by a man who worked in the casting department of a hospital in Selkirk, Man.

"I started getting masks made when

I was 14 or 15," says the former Winnipeger.

"We had just the baseball backcatchers masks, progressed to a plastic mask before graduating to a Jacques Plante fibreglass replica mask that was sold through retail outlets."

The replicas Skorodenski markets, fibreglass copies of those worn in the 1970s and '80s, aren't nearly as elaborate as the airbrushed masterpieces worn by NHL goalies today. But their relatively crude look is part of the charm and harkens back to a time when the masks were still evolving into what current NHL goalies wear.

"When I played for the Oilers they were painted by a fella who painted the rink," Skorodenski recalls. "I remember Glen Sather came to me and asked if I'd mind if they painted my mask. He took it to the guy who painted the rink and it came back with the Oilers oil drop on the chin.

"A lot of these were just team colours or somebody came up with a rough design and away they went."

Skorodenski has a manufacturer who provides him with a finished product but the former NHLer often adds his own touch by marking the masks with sticks, pucks and skate blades to enhance the game-worn look.

"It's certainly a conversation piece and a work of art because they're very unique," he says. "They're a part of hockey history and part of the evolution of the game and the way the game changed. Different eras, rule changes, expansion were all part of that history.

"There's all kinds of research involved and I like to think these moulded goal masks are part of history, part of the evolution of the game. They're kind of a marker as you go through history from Jacques Plante, Johnny Bower, Ken Dryden, Cheevers, Gump Worsley, Rogie Vachon ..."

His website, clearwater-publishing.com, includes a Legends of the Crease section, a collection of 11 replica masks signed by the men who wore the originals.

Skorodenski would like to expand his lineup of masks.

He has talked to Vachon, Glenn Hall, Ken Dryden and Tony Esposito and is hoping the former players also agree to have their masks reproduced.


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