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Ernie Higgins is a former plumbing superintendent who has changed the game of hockey. Higgins has developed the fiberglass masks and helmets which are worn by more National Hockey League goalies and colleges players than any other model.
Higgins's mask is lightweight and ventilated but does not obstruct a goalie's vision. Because of these advantages, over 12 NHL netminders, including Boston's Ed Johnston and Gerry Cheevers, have chosen his design.
Higgins became a professional mask-maker at the age of 54, when he decided to leave his plumbing job. "I just decided I wanted to use my hobby (making molds and casts) as my business," he said.
No special technique for making masks was known when Higgins set up business in 1969 at his Norwood home. Since making his first mask in 1962 for his son Neil, now a junior goalie for Boston College, he had tried different ways of fitting fiberglass to face molds.
In the last two years Higgins experimented by trial and error and finally developed a 16-hour procedure for making a mask which never wears out.
The key step in fitting a mask is making a mold of the goalie's face. The goalie wears a woman's stocking over his face, with a hole cut out for breathing through the mouth. Higgins puts vaseline and them plaster on the covered face.
While the plaster hardens, the goalie breathes through a straw protruding through the mold. "Some people get real nervous about the breathing." Higgins said. "Then I don't plaster around the mouth until near the end."
Higgins's biggest competitor is Jacques Plante, the former Montreal goalie who invented the mask. In a game with the New York Rangers a Vic Hadfield slapshot caught Plante in the forehead and knocked him unconscious. When he returned to the ice to finish the game, he was wearing a mask, much to the disgust of coach "Toe" Blake and the rest of the Montreal players.
Not only goalies benefit from Higgin's work. He has made a rib protector for a Boston Braves skater, fiberglass shins for a polo player, and a lightweight removable cast for Ken Harrelson's leg.
After St. Louis's Wayne Maki belted Boston's Ted Green over the head with his stick. Higgins made Green a special helmet to protect him from a further head injury, which might prove fatal.
Higgins devotes half of his time to outfitting hockey players and half to specialized orthopedic work. For children with bad head injuries he makes fiberglass helmets, and for injured people with long-term recovery periods he makes special casts.
"This is what I like to do," he said. "It gives you a tremendous amount of satisfaction helping people with injuries."
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