Birdcage or fishbowl? Buying a helmet and face mask

Birdcage or fishbowl? Buying a helmet and face mask
(Illustration by Sal Barry)

Looking through my old hockey cards, it is hard to believe that there was a time that players did not wear helmets. Now, helmets are mandatory at every level of play. Next year, the NHL will even require their players to wear visors to protect their eyes and nose too.

For adult amateurs, helmets are a requirement and full facial protection is almost always mandatory. Any instructional clinic or beginner’s league is going to make you cover not only your head, but your entire face — from forehead to chin – too.


Ron Dugay, from the 1981-92 Topps Hockey card set.

A helmet and full facial protection is one of the first pieces of equipment you should buy. Even if you don’t get all of your gear right away, having a helmet with face mask, gloves, stick and skates will allow you to participate in “Stick and Puck” sessions — think public skate, but with sticks.

I’ll be honest — wearing a helmet sucks. It cuts into your peripheral vision, and it is annoying to “look through” a face mask. Plus, you miss out on the awesome feel of the air rushing through your hair while skating down the ice. (Oh, how I envy Ron Duguay from his heyday with the New York Rangers.)

I’ll be honest again: getting your teeth knocked out sucks. Getting hit in the head with a puck or an errant stick sucks. Getting hit in the eye — like poor Manny Malhotra did in 2011–  sucks too. (WARNING: this link is NOT for the weak of heart!)

No, none of that stuff happened to me — and it won’t, either.

Like skates, helmets are not something you want to cut corners with. There’s opportunity to do that with some of the other gear you’ll get, but a helmet should fit you well. Keep in mind that a “good fitting” helmet will actually feel a bit tight.

There are two types of facial protection. The first is a “cage-style” face mask, affectionately referred to as a “birdcage.” The second type is the visor/cage hybrid, jokingly called a “fishbowl.” Both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Full Cage (“Birdcage”) mask

Advantage #1:
Air freely flows between the metal bars, so it won’t collect moisture or fog up like a visor does.

Advantage #2: Many times, you can purchase a helmet and cage combo for cheap.

Disadvantage #1: You might find the metal bars distracting. Personally, I do, which is why I wear a “fishbowl.”

Disadvantage #2: Sometimes heavier than a visor and cage hybrid.

Visor & Cage hybrid (“Fishbowl”) mask

Advantage #1:
It’s clear! No bars to look through!

Advantage #2: Generally lighter in weight than a full cage.

Disadvantage #1: Can to fog up or collect moisture — though most will have an anti-fog coating.

Disadvantage #2: More expensive than a cage mask. But like everything else, a deal can be had if you look online.

Disadvantage #3: You’ll need to buy a helmet bag ($10) to keep the visor from getting scratched up while toting your gear around. (Though some visor & cage hybrid masks come with a bag.)

While I did say to not be cheap when protecting your noggin, that doesn’t mean you can’t look for a deal. You might be able to find an older helmet at a discount. And by older, I mean from a year or two ago — not the 1990s. Big box stores like  Dick’s Sporting Goods and some online retailers might have last year’s helmet — including a cage or hybrid mask — for around $50.

If you purchase a face mask from a pro shop, they will usually install it on the helmet for you. I bought a Bauer Concept II hybrid mask from Gunzo’s and the salesman not only put it on my helmet, but adjusted the helmet I brought with, too.

Recommendation: Try on both types of face masks, and see which one you like better. If the metal bars are not a distraction to you, then go with a cage mask. But if you are like me, and find it hard to “be behind bars,” then go with the hybrid.

Filed under: Equipment

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