Hockey fans who play in rec leagues and eagerly devour new equipment with each new RBK (vowels not included) advertising blitz might think the cage Rick DiPietro used when he returned from a facial fracture this year is something you can just pick up off the shelf, in the vintage section.
Not only did Bauer (Cooper) stop making those Chris Osgood-style cages several years ago, but forging a custom replacement that's strong enough to stop NHL pucks is no amateur shop task.
"The full face cages that Osgood and DiPietro wore may look like the vintage Cooper model, but they’re nearly nine times stronger than anything out there," says Sean Code of Olympia Composites, one of the few shops that still knows how to do it. Code shared a little history with me about how they're made, and how they came about. He told me the Osgood mask DiPietro used in March was actually his shop's work.Finding a Cage No One Makes Anymore
"I offered to make cages for a few NHL teams last year and Detroit asked for two; a single and double bar version of the old Cooper HM30," Code explains. "Osgood got hurt soon after and couldn't use them. But when DiPietro got hurt a month or two later and needed something special, they found an old email from me and called to order one.
"The funny part of the story is I was on my way to the airport for a trip out of the country for a week when my big break opened up, as I was helpless to do anything. I told [Islanders equipment manager Scott] Boggs to speak with the guy from Detroit for an overnight shipment. When I returned, DiPietro was in the new single bar cage."
How They're Made: No Sweatshop Spot-Welders
"The cages are a special kind of stainless steel, thicker wire, TIG (tungsten inert gas) welded by hand, and hardened with a patented process to make them 8.5 times stronger than a regular cage," Code says.
This is no simple process, and Code calls TIG a "lost art," just like sculpting the old fiber glass masks we remember from days of yore.
"The welder holds a small hand torch that blows argon gas around a superheated tungsten probe that brings the materials up to a molten state to join them throughout the depth of the joint," Code explains. "The argon bathes the weld to protect it from contamination and oxidation until it cools."
"The challenge with this product for a TIG welder is the tight space they have to work around inside the cage, and the thin materials make it tough to get the temperature right without melting through. The quality of each weld is hard to achieve on top of this, and we have two welds per joint. Same problem as the premium materials, people don’t understand the time involved and the improvement in strength from a TIG weld over a spot weld."
Code went on to tell me quite a bit more about the intricacies of this process, including how careful they have to be when considering custom orders, fitting the cage with existing equipment, and keeping goalie eye sight lines clear -- if there is demand from any of you specialists to hear more, I can add more later or ask him more of your questions.
How Somebody Gets into Welding Goalie Cages
For Code, his route to this specialty is twofold: He's worked in the steel construction industry -- and he's also plays goalie. (I did not ask him if he's crazy like most goalies, including half the writers at LHH. But, I mean, I just assume...you know goalies.)
"I’ve been playing goal since 1976 at every level," he says. "My concern for safety comes firsthand. I have to be sure that I would wear the cage with confidence before I could send it to my client."
Meanwhile, how he came to know welders skilled enough for the job is something anybody who's worked in skilled labor can identify with:
"The steel construction company where I worked for several years employed up to 150 welders and fitters for seasonal projects around our region; this allowed me to see the spectrum of talent and invite guys to try their hand in the shop," he says.
"The trade pays very well and I got to meet some of the very best over the few years I was there. Although everyone claimed it would be easy I only found three or four guys during that time who were capable of producing high-quality cages.
"The quiet ones usually had the best welds."