ARCHIVED - Canada's national game gets high tech goalie masks

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September 07, 2007— Ottawa, Ontario

With a new hockey season just around the corner, NHL goalies may be more comfortable stopping pucks this year. With help from NRC, a Canadian firm has created a lightweight goalie mask made from advanced materials.

Manufactured by the Montréal-based firm Marquez Transtech Ltd. on behalf of ITECH of Kirkland, Quebec, the new mask is the first made from advanced "thermoplastic" composites. The state-of-the-art mask is composed of a continuous fiber fabric embedded in a thermoplastic matrix for increased strength and impact resistance.

State-of-the-art goalie mask
State-of-the-art goalie mask

Marquez specializes in making composite parts for the aerospace and transportation sectors, but was interested in developing new applications for thermoplastic composites. In the 1990s, the company worked with NRC-IMI on another research project. "Nearly two years ago, they asked us to help on the goalie mask project," says Dr. David Trudel-Boucher, a research officer in the Structural Polymers and Composites Group at the NRC Industrial Materials Institute (NRC-IMI).

Currently, goalie masks are made of thermoset composites – the standard for the industry, adds Dr. Trudel-Boucher. "You make thermoset by mixing a catalyst with a resin to create something very solid. But it's well known that thermoplastic material has better impact properties – with goalie masks, you mainly want impact protection," he stresses.

Using thermoplastic composite, "we were able to produce a lighter mask but with the same impact properties. It's about 20% lighter, which would make it more comfortable for a goalie," he says.

According to Dr. Trudel-Boucher, NRC-IMI helped Marquez resolve various technical problems. "A goalie mask is difficult to mold because of its geometry," he says. "One of our key challenges was to control the molding process so there was good bonding between the thermoplastic composite and the surface finish."

"But the biggest issue was probably developing the surface finish. As you know, many goalies like to paint their mask. Goalies want to look good on television, so the surface finish and hence the mask's appearance have to be very glossy, very good looking."

Although it can't divulge specific details, NRC-IMI helped Marquez develop a hermoplastic surface finish – one that is easy to paint on. "If you buy a hockey mask and send it to the paint shop, they will presume that it's a thermoset mask, because that's what they see all the time," says Dr. Trudel-Boucher. "We had to find a solution such that customers would not have to worry about the mask being made of a different material. Our surface finish allows any paint now used on a regular hockey mask to be applied on the thermoplastic mask."

He adds that the surface finish developed jointly by NRC-IMI and Marquez may have potential applications in other products where external appearance is important. "For example, it could be used in transportation panels. Some trucks and buses are made with composite panels."

NRC-IMI completed its work in 2006 and last winter the new mask was officially launched by ITECH, "so we should see some thermoplastic masks in sport stores this fall," says Dr. Trudel-Boucher. It may also make an appearance in NHL games this season. According to the company's website, "as the official mask of the NHL, over 70% of the league's goalies who wear branded masks choose ITECH."

And if the mask is drafted by the big leagues, it might even help improve goalies' performance. One netminder who tested a prototype said that when a hockey puck hits a standard mask, the noise can be very intense. "Goalies often stay still for a fraction of a second after a puck hits them in the mask because the noise is so distracting and uncomfortable," he says. But using the new mask, the noise is much quieter.

Could a thermoplastic composite mask give goalies a split second advantage when stopping rebounds? "It could, but I'm not a goalie so I can only guess," says Dr. Trudel- Boucher.

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