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  • Budd Bailey

Book Review: Brave Face

Review by Budd Bailey

Once upon a time, hockey goaltenders didn't wear masks. 

That idea may sound like a fairy tale these days. After all, skaters have been known to shoot pucks at more than 100 miles per hour. You might have guessed what happened when vulcanized rubber traveling at that speed strikes the head of a human being. The puck usually wins, and so do doctors who are paid to sew up the damage. 

But it wasn't always that way. As ridiculous as it sounds now, no one between the pipes used to wear masks - even in the NHL. That raises the question, what happened?

That's what is at the center of Ron Vanstone's book, "Brave Face" - a title that probably will force you to start humming the Paul McCartney song of a similar title, "My Brave Face."

As the author points out here, the hockey mask went through something of an evolutionary process. In the good old days of hockey's beginnings, no one shot the puck particularly hard ... or particularly high. While accidents certainly did happen, there weren't enough cases of injuries to cause people to search furiously for a cure for the common puck to the face. 

But by the 1950s, the shots were getting faster and the risks were growing quickly. Finally, in 1960, all-star goalie Jacques Plante had had enough. He started wearing a mask full-time and started a revolution. The early masks weren't great. They weren't well ventilated, the goalies sometimes lost the puck at their feet, and the equipment didn't offer that much more protection. Besides, some coaches didn't like the idea of them for some reason. Inertia is a powerful force in life sometimes. But eventually, one goalie wearing a mask turned into two, and two turned into three, and so on. By the late 1970s, mask-less goalies had become extinct.

Vanstone's story is wisely broken into sections. The first goes back to the pre-mask's days and Plante's decision to wear one regular in games. The second covers the great goalies of that era, who eventually came around to the idea that reducing the chances of losing an eye was a good idea. The third reviews the final holdouts, featuring such names as Joe Daley and Andy Brown. Vanstone tips his hat to Dave Dryden, a goalie in the 1960s and 1970s who helped push the revolution along. 

Credit must be given to the author to the amount of work that goes into this. Vanstone tracked down several of the goalies who were mentioned here for interviews, and found out plenty of other information about all of them. He also has the definitive word about several milestones in the history of goalie masks, which ought to solve a few arguments. Vanstone also has plenty of fun along the way here, showing a nice command of the language. You'll definitely smile a few times while reading this. 

This adds up to a good book on the subject ... for a while. In the second half of the book, there are some details of goaltenders' lives, featuring injuries and decisions about wearing a mask. After a while, they start to seem to go down the same path. It's rather easy to go from reading to skimming. The problem is that this is not a particularly long book, and some deletions of material probably would put it under the amount of type needed for a decent-sized publication. 

To be fair, the subject of goalie masks is a rather small niche in the world of hockey. If you have an interest in it, then "Brave Face" will be worth reading. The guess is that most sports fans probably don't want something so detailed. A good-sized article probably would cover their curiosity about it. Still, authors often come up with books like this, complete with a personal drive to tell the full story. Vanstone deserves plenty of credit for putting this together.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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