Thanks to the research of hockey historian and museum curator Fred Addis — and with a recent assist from USA Today — former Hamilton coach and trainer Gene Long is being credited with developing the prototype of the protective mask introduced to the National Hockey League by goaltender Jacques Plante 50 years ago this fall.
According to Addis and reporter Kevin Allen in "Unmasking the Real Story of the Man that Revolutionized Hockey", Long created the fiberglass mask during the 1958-59 season for Hamilton goalie Don Spencer '59 after Spencer had sustained several facial injuries. While a few goalies already had experimented with other types of masks, Long's model offered the advantage of a custom mold, which cushioned the impact, as well as better peripheral vision. The technology grew out of Long's work in creating a custom-built fiberglass heel cup for long jumpers. "Theoretically, on a custom fit, the shock was distributed over the entire area," he told USA Today.
The development also came at a time when hockey's machismo still meant resistance to such protective gear, as Addis has shown in his historical research. "I never understood the reluctance to wear a mask," Spencer told the newspaper. "It gave you confidence. If you took a puck to the mask, it hurt. But it didn't break bones … you didn't cut, and you didn't lose teeth, and your eyes were not in danger."
The Hamiltonians were not proprietary about Long's new mask, and that may be why he is not credited in a more definitive way for its development. Long has told Addis that he freely offered his "recipe" to anyone interested; Spencer, meanwhile, sent Plante a letter about the mask in the spring of 1959 after reading a newspaper article about the Montreal Canadiens star's interest in a mask. "I was thinking I might even get a couple of tickets to the Stanley Cup playoffs," Spencer told USA Today. "I never heard back from him."
Plante created a sensation and changed the course of professional hockey when he donned a Long-like mask on Nov. 1, 1959, after being hit in the face against the New York Rangers. It was made for the star goalie by an employee of Montreal plastics manufacturer CIL, but Addis notes that the two masks "look like twins." (CIL, ironically, had begun business nearly a century earlier as the Hamilton Powder Co.)
While there's no way to prove that Long alone is responsible for the mask, it's fair to say that he "invented the technology," Addis — who is a member of the Society for International Hockey Research as well as curator of the Leacock Museum National Historic Site in Orillia, Ontario — told USA Today. "I think you can make that case."