More than 50 years ago, he put a mask on his face in the name of safety and he has no regrets. He thinks folks who resist wearing a mask during today’s pandemic are letting their egos get in the way.
Say hello to Gerry Cheevers, the 79-year-old Stanley Cup-winning goalie of Bobby Orr’s Big Bad Bruins in the 1970s.
"People that won’t wear the mask are underestimating the seriousness of this situation,'' says Cheevers, who lives in Boca Raton, Fla. "Put it on. That’s all you can say. Don’t resist it. Don’t let your ego get the best of you.
"It’s not fun having a mask on. But if you won’t do it, I think it’s egomania.''
Like most netminders of his time, Cheevers resisted wearing a mask when he was young. Puck-stopping legends Terry Sawchuk, Glenn Hall, and Gump Worsley wouldn’t do it, so Cheevers went maskless as an amateur goalie and in his first NHL games with the Maple Leafs and Bruins in the 1960s.
"I think people may have wanted to wear masks,'' he says. "But you didn’t want to be called a sissy for wearing one.
"I played until I was 21 and never got cut. I got hit flush on the cheekbone and cracked the bone, but continued to play.
"My first game as a pro, I got 10 stitches over the eye and the next practice I got five. After all those years of never getting cut, I got cut in my first situations in the pros. Still, those two incidents didn’t force me to put on a mask.''
He played only seven NHL games in his first year with the Bruins organization. Still maskless, he made it into only 22 games in his second season.
"It got to a point where you just couldn’t play anymore without a mask,'' he says. "My attitiude was, ‘If I can’t find a mask, I’m never going to play.’
"I think the fact that it was a necessity outweighed everything. The fact that you had to have it was more important than wondering if I was going to sweat a little more or make an adjustment breathing.
"The first mask I had was developed by a trainer for the Detroit Red Wings. But if you got hit on the cheekbone, it would shut the whole mask and wreck your face, so when I was with the Bruins, Ernie Higgins [a craftsman from Norwood] and I got together and worked on one. We decided we needed a sponge inside.''
Cheevers played his first NHL game with a mask on Oct. 11, 1967.
“For me, the biggest problem with the mask was finding the puck,” he says. "I had deep eye sockets, so I couldn’t really see the puck at my feet. There were times when I cut the eye sockets out so much that a puck could have gotten in there. It took me a good three years to get used to it.''
Cheevers’s mask became fashionable when Bruins trainer John “Frosty” Forristall started painting black stitches on it after Cheevers would take a puck to the face. Instantly, Cheevers’s mask became Frankenstein-famous. An early-day Freddy Krueger. Football had Joe Namath’s white shoes. Basketball had Kareem’s goggles. Hockey had Cheevers’s mask.
All the goalies came around eventually. Even the old-timers caved.
"I remember when Glenn Hall put on a mask,'' says Cheevers. "He had played way over 500 straight games without one. And that’s hard to believe because he’s one of the great ones.
"We were playing at the Boston Garden and he was at one end and I was at the other and Bobby let a shot go and it went through a screen, and Hall had his catching mitt over his face and his stick mitt over his crotch and it hit the glass. And he put on a mask the next game.
"Sooner or later, all of us — our vanity had to be put on the back burner and we had to wear a mask.
"I see a parallel with what’s going on out there today, I really do.
"I resisted [wearing a mask now] a little, but that’s got nothing to do with the fact that I wore one playing hockey. It’s the ego stepping in the way. People think, 'Well, I don’t have to wear it. I’m indestructible.’ Which is not true. You should feel like you’re smart for wearing a mask.
"Right now, I’m wearing the same type of mask everyone else wears, but someone’s making me one out of a Canadian flag and I plan to wear it. You can keep it around your neck while you’re golfing because it’s so hot and humid here.
"I saw a woman in an outdoor restaurant last night and she had made four or five masks with sparkles on them. I think the decorated mask is coming back — like the ones that we had in hockey. I think it’s a good comparison.''