Ken Dryden in his book THE GAME spent a chapter explaining why goalies were not regular hockey players. They dressed differently, they played differently, they were different. While the rest of a goaltenders teammates are skating around passing and shooting a puck, stick handling, moving, the goalie sits and waits. He does nothing but wait to be assaulted from all angles with a vulcanized rubber puck shot at him at over a hundred miles an hour.
The danger of the position is hi-lighted by the equipment they wear. The pads and gloves bear little resemblance to anything the other players use. The goalie needs that protection to come through the experience of playing hockey merely bruised and shot-shocked. The amazing thing is that for the first 42 years of National Hockey League play the goalies wore no protection on their faces. What is probably the most important protective piece of equipment in hockey today was not worn. No wonder Glenn Hall used to throw up before every game.
The fledgling NHL had become the first hockey league to allow goalies to go to their knees to make a save. Before this was allowed all goalies were required to be stand-up goalies or be penalized. Clint “The Praying Goalie” Benedict was a goalie for the Montreal Maroons who had perfected this new style of going to his knees to make a save. He did it so often he earned his nickname.
During a game versus the Maroons arch-rivals the Montreal Canadiens, on January7, 1930, Benedict went to his knees to make a save. A Howie Morenz shot caught him in the face breaking his nose and fracturing his cheek.
Benedict subsequently became the first NHL goalie ever to wear a facemask. He needed something to shield his fractured face. He toyed with several designs. The most logical choice would have been a catcher’s mask. They’d already been designed, tested and proven in baseball. It would certainly have protected him and his damaged face.
Instead Clint settled on an apology of a mask. He claimed he couldn’t see the puck properly through a catcher’s mask and instead used a rudimentary leather mask that covered his nose, cheeks, forehead and mouth, but left his eyes completely open. It was more bandage then mask. The message seemed to be I am protecting my injury but not myself. I am not wearing the mask because I’m afraid. I’m wearing the mask because my broken face needs protection. He wore that first mask on February 20, 1930 against the New York Americans. This was however his last year in the NHL and the mask left the league with him. He played for the Maroons farm team in Windsor the next year abandoning the mask because he felt it interfered with his vision. He never did return to the NHL.
The hockey mask was introduced through necessity by Benedict and seemed to retire with him. It was another 29 years before a goalie was courageous enough to buck convention and wear a mask in the NHL.
Fifty years ago, this November 1st, Jacques Plante first put a mask on during an NHL game. The game took place on November 1, 1959. Plante was struck in the face by a slap shot from the previous season’s most valuable player, Andy Bathgate. Plante was badly cut on the nose. “The shot by Bathgate nearly ripped my nose off,” opined Plante.
NHL teams didn’t carry a back-up goalie on their roster in the fifties. The home team was expected to provide an emergency back-up for such situations. Their back-up was Joe Schaefer. Never heard of him? Neither had Canadiens coach Toe Blake.
Schaefer was destined to play parts of two games in the NHL. He played 39 minutes in the 1959-60 season for the rangers, losing and giving up five goals. The next year he played 47 minutes in a game and gave up three goals in another loss. His career consisted of portions of two losses. He ended his career with a 5.58 GAA. Toe Blake was reluctant to leave Les Glorieux chance of success in Schaefer’s unsteady hands.
That left only Plante the innovator. Jacques was seen as an eccentric in his time. Playing for the Quebec Citadels in junior he started wandering out of the crease to play the puck or stop it behind his own net. As Jacques remarked later, “We had four defensemen. One couldn’t skate backwards. One couldn’t turn to his left. The others were slow.”
The creative Plante just felt it was easier for him to go get the puck then wait for his defenseman. The NHL at the time hadn’t caught up with Plante and his antics outside the crease often resulted in him being castigated by fans and coaches.
Likewise Jacques had worked on and built a goalie mask in his spare time. He used it in practice to protect himself from injuries when a game wasn’t on the line. It’s amazing what is considered eccentric or innovative fifty years ago seems like everyday common sense now. Goalies are always wandering out of their creases to play the puck. They always wear a mask.
Plante bleeding and with a broken nose from the Bathgate shot, pulled out the practice mask. He said he’d only return to the ice if he could wear it. Blake was reluctant to see his goalie don a mask. He felt it would reflect poorly on Plante’s courage and toughness. This in turn would reflect poorly on the Canadiens. Plante was adamant however and Blake was unwilling to use the unknown Schaefer in nets.
Toe gave Jacques permission to use the mask until the cut was healed. Jacques won the game with New York. The Canadiens then went on an eighteen game unbeaten streak all while Plante wore his mask. Blake finally insisted that Plante take the mask off. The Habs lost to Detroit 3-0. That was it. Jacques Plante wore a mask for the rest of his glorious hall of fame career. Other goalies soon emulated him.
By 1974 pretty well all the mask-less goalies were gone. Lorne “Gump” Worsley was an exception and one of the last to give it up. Playing for the Minnesota North stars Gump had had a great NHL career. He was playing his 22nd season without a mask. He’d starred with the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens and was now finishing his career with the expansion Minnesota North Stars. Gump was seen more then once in his long career getting hit in the head with the puck. Legendary Montreal Canadiens broadcaster Danny Gallivan liked to say, “It looks like the Gumper has taken one on the melon.” He was knocked unconscious in more then one North Star game. Finally Gump adopted the mask playing the last six games of his career with a mask at age 44. His claim during his career was that his face was his mask.
The only goalie that lasted longer without a mask in the NHL was Andy Brown of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He lost to the Atlanta Flames 6-3 on April 7, 1974 and this was the last appearance by an NHL goalie without a mask. Andy continued to play in the WHA until 1977, still without a goalie mask.
Plante popularized the mask producing a fiberglass design that other NHL goalies were happy to wear. There was a reluctance in the NHL to adopt a catchers mask-like cage for hockey, that still seems incomprehensible. There seemed to be a fear that it interfered too much with a players ability to see the puck. That never seemed to be much of a hindrance in baseball but fears aren’t always rational. A lot of the early masks had huge eyeholes that seemed capable of allowing a puck entry. This was all in the name of unobstructed vision.
This fiberglass version of the mask wasn’t perfect and didn’t always protect the wearer. Jacques Plante himself during the 1970 playoffs against the Bruins took a Phil Esposito deflection off in the forehead. It shattered his mask and knocked him unconscious. When he awoke in the hospital it’s said his first words were a claim that the mask had saved his life. The mask has certainly improved since Plante’s day gaining padding and getting thicker over time. Some goalies finally adopted the full cage for protection.
Gerry Cheever’s first mask was adorned with a drawn in stitch pattern every time he was hit in the mask with a puck. He finally had to stop as the mask had become covered with stitches but it was a dramatic presentation of the protection the mask afforded the goalie.
Masks have certainly saved goalies from injuries since Jacques Plante forced his coach to allow him to wear one. Plante needs to be thanked for having the ingenuity to design and build the mask and the courage to wear it. Despite opposition from his coach and the culture of hockey itself, Plante had the fortitude to continue wear his mask after his injury healed. He’s saved many goalies from injuries ever since. His courage has had more impact on the game of hockey then any goalie I can think of.
The NHL which has a rule in place mandating that NHL players must wear helmets for player safety, has never implemented a rule requiring goalies to wear masks. Goalies may wear hockey masks. They are not required to wear a mask.
11.7 Masks – Protective masks of a design approved by the League may be worn by goalkeepers. Protective masks deemed to be worn only to increase stopping area will be considered illegal.
Despite the reputation goalies have for eccentricity and dare we say it, masochism, there doesn’t appear to be one out there who wants to play hockey without a mask. State legislatures often mandate the most obvious things. Common sense becomes law. The state of Wisconsin is said to have put a law on the books making it illegal to jump off bridges or buildings. The NHL however appears not to fear an influx of new goalies ready to stare barefaced into a Sheldon Souray slap shot. The mask goalies know, is essential.
If someone does show up wanting to play in the NHL without a mask you can bet the NHL lawyers will be rewriting the equipment rules immediately. Now however common sense still seems to reign. The NHL doesn’t “require” a goalie to wear a cup either. There are no reports of anyone opting out.
A Look at Hockey Masks of The Past:
Scott Weldon covers hockey for Sports Then and Now.
The Game – Ken Dryden, John Wiley and Sons, Oct 2003
The Mad Men of Hockey- Trent Frayne, McClelland and Stewart, January 1974