Boston Bruins goalie Gerry Cheevers waves his stick in the air after the Bruins defeated the Montreal Canadiens, 4-0, at Boston Gardens, Thursday, May 19, 1978, Boston, Mass. Montreal leads the best-of-seven series, 2-1. (AP Photo) Associated Press

 

Goaltender Gerry Cheevers was the man behind the mask who became the visual representation of the Big Bad Bruins of the 1970s.

Cheevers became the “father of goalie mask art” back when protective face gear was in the developmental stage and its use in the NHL was optional.

Gerry Cheevers started his career in the pros not wearing a mask. . (AP Photo) Associated Press

Cheevers’ mask contained dozens of painted black stitch patterns to indicate the cuts he would have sustained had his face been unprotected.

The mask had the look of a weathered scarecrow and was the precursor to the distinct and colorful goalie helmets worn by today’s netminders from the NHL down to youth hockey.

With the NHL season on the shelf due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Bruins are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their four-game sweep of the St. Louis Blues in the 1970 Stanley Cup Final.

Cheevers was invited to participate in a monitored town hall Zoom meeting Thursday morning with Bruins’ season ticket holders. The initial questions submitted by fans centered on the mask.

“I had a mask that was useless when I first started (using one) and then I met a man named Ernie Higgins from the South Shore,” said Cheevers, from his home in Florida. “He developed this mask for me and the first mask I wore from Ernie Higgins was the only mask I ever wore and it’s on my grandson’s wall down the street here in Florida.

“It was evidently named the top mask art-wise anyway.”

Cheevers’ mask was a white shield that hugged the contours of his face with a spongy rubber substance in between that served as a shock absorber for slap shots.

The first stitch to appear on Cheevers’ mask was the result of a ploy he hatched to dodge a particularly hard practice.

Cheevers took a puck to the face early in the session, feigned an injury and retreated to the clubhouse for a smoke and a glance at the Daily Racing Form. Cheevers loved to play the ponies and owned several race horses over the years.

Bruins Coach Harry Sinden didn’t buy Cheevers’ scam and went to the clubhouse to fetch him. Cheevers picks it up from there.

“I went to practice and Harry was coaching and the puck clipped up and it wouldn’t have cut me if I didn’t have my mask on, that’s how soft the shot was,” said Cheevers.

“Harry comes in and said, ‘Get back out there, you’re not hurt.’ Our trainer John ‘Frosty’ Forristall was a character and I didn’t think about it, he did.

“He said, ‘Hold it.’ He got my mask and he painted an eight-stitch scar over my right eye and I went out there and everybody got a big kick out of it.

“That’s how it all started. We kept track and we embellished it a little bit but Frosty did all that.”

Cheevers started out in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization before being acquired by the Bruins in 1965. Cheevers did not wear a mask in his AHL years with the Rochester Americans.

Cheevers supplanted veteran Eddie Johnston as the Bruins’ No. 1 goalie in 1967, the same year the team acquired centers Phil Esposito and Fred Stanfield and right wing Ken Hodge in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks.

By the start of the 1969-70 season, the Bruins had three good lines, the best defenseman in the league and a goalie entering his prime years.

“It was a special time, there is no question about that,” said Cheevers. “It was pretty well straightforward and we had a lot of fun.

“We were a closely knit team, there was a lot of fun in the dressing room and in that particular year we were mostly all business.”

Cheevers played in 41 games that season and went 24-8-8 with a 2.72 goals against average, a .919 save percentage and four shutouts. He started 13 of the 14 playoff games against the Rangers, Blackhawks and Blues and was 12-1 with a 2.23 goals against average and a .925 save percentage.

Cheevers’ worst win of the run was the Bruins’ 4-3 overtime victory in Game 4 against the Blues at the Boston Garden that clinched the Stanley Cup. Cheevers conceded he gave up two soft goals in the game but saw the silver lining in that sorry effort.

Cheevers said that if he hadn’t surrendered those gift goals, Bobby Orr never would have scored the most famous goal in Stanley Cup history.

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