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Anniversary highlights importance of mask innovation

The man who popularized the goalie mask, Jacques Plante, is shown in this 1959 photo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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The man who popularized the goalie mask, Jacques Plante, is shown in this 1959 photo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

By Stan Fischler

NEWSFLASH - Nov. 1, 1959
NEW YORK - History was made at Madison Square Garden tonight during an intensely fought game between the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers. Rangers right winger Andy Bathgate threw a hard backhand shot on goal striking Montreal goalie Jaqcues Plante in the face. The Habs netminder fell to the ice in a pool of blood. After being stitched up, Plante would not return to the ice without wearing facial protection, thus marking the first time in NHL history a goaltender donned a facemask in the same game he was injured.


It was a cool November night almost 50 years ago today that Jacques Plante stunned the hockey world by putting on the facemask.

Such a protective device had been used before, but only as a temporary move to cover a head injury.

Clint Benedict was one NHL goaltender who used it briefly and Dennis Mooney, a goalie for the Atlantic City Sea Gulls, tried a sheer, curved plastic covering that proved unsuitable because it both fogged up and cracked under severe impact.

What remained to be seen after Plante wore the mask in that revolutionary contest was whether he would be permitted to continue doing so.

Vehemently opposed to the device, coach Toe Blake battled his goalie on the issue until a compromise was struck:  If Plante lost games while wearing the mask, the experiment would be aborted and Plante would return to the standard mode of playing minus mask.

However, Blake would tolerate the invention as long as Plante triumphed.  

As it happened, Plante ran off a substantial winning streak.

In his first 11 games with the mask, Plante allowed just 13 goals.

Still, Blake remained skeptical, insisting that Plante try one game without the mask. The goalie did and it proved disastrous. The Habs lost and that was the last time Plante ever played a game without the mask. He was 30 at the time and one-third of the way through a Hall of Fame career.

The next major question was directed at the other five regular major league goalies: would they follow suit and ape the Montrealer?  

The macho philosophy of NHL netminders at the time opposed the mask. Future Hall-of-Famers such as Glenn Hall of the Chicago Blackhawks and Lorne ‘Gump’ Worsley of the Rangers adamantly refused to follow Plante’s lead, but, in time, other goalies relented.

One by one, puckstoppers followed suit until Worsley was the last remaining mask-less goalie.

“My face is my mask,” was the Gump’s explanation.

Gump finally relented with his final NHL team, the Minnesota North Stars.

Receiving pressure from both Cesare Maniago and his wife, Gump ordered a mask prior to the 1973-74 season.

Worsley first wore the mask in an NHL game on Oct. 13, 1973. He allowed two goals in the third period and Minnessota was defeated by the Buffalo Sabers 4-3. Afterwards Gump complained he couldn’t see the puck at his feet and that the mask was still too hot and made it hard to breathe.  

Gump didn’t wear the mask for some time after that, but he did make some alterations to it by drilling extra holes for air and widening the eye slits.  

Later in the season when he was called on to play in eight out of 10 games, Worsley returned to using the mask. He then retired after the season.  

Complaints about the mask from the likes of Gump and others actually had a positive effect in that designers diligently worked to improve them. And once Hall, Worsley and Terry Sawchuk caved on the issue there was no going back; the mask was in the game to stay.

To wit:

GOALIE STYLE:
As the masks improved and became impregnable, goalies lost their puck-fear and thereby changed their styles. “Without a mask, the predominant reflex we had was fear and we positioned ourselves accordingly so as not to get hurt,” said Islanders Stanley Cup-winner Glenn ‘Chico’ Resch. That all changed when the masks became so strong that goalies actually were able to make saves by blocking the puck with their masks. This, in turn, enabled the flourishing of the butterfly style now generally in use (see game-changing moment No. 29.)

SHOOTING STYLE:
Where once forwards could intimidate goaltenders with “headhunting” shots, this weapon was negated by the mask, which led to a decrease in scoring. It also inspired shooters to find new techniques and high-tech sticks. In addition, widespread crowding of the goal crease and screening became standard operating procedure.

GENERAL USE:
The mask allowed goalies infinitely more freedom to dive into scrambles and perform what was once extremely hazardous positioning.

OTHER EQUIPMENT:
The success of the mask multiplied the focus on additional goalie safety. If a netminder could have a face covering, he could also have better protection from his shoulders down to his skates and, eventually, puckstoppers began to look more like the Michelin Man than ever before (see game-changing moment No. 49.)

All of this was rooted in the introduction of the slapshot as a practical weapon by Montreal’s Bernie ‘Boom Boom’ Geoffrion in the early 1950s.

Had the slapshot been banned, along with the curved stick, Plante and his cohorts in the crease might never have sought facial protection.

After all, organized hockey had been played for more than 60 years without goalies requiring a mask.  

One could quarrel with the end result, but hockey has adapted.

It’s safe to say we’ll never see another goalie do what Glenn Hall did: play 502 consecutive games without a mask.

In fact, we’ll surely never see another professional goalie anywhere play without a mask, even for a second.

This article was orginally printed the The Hockey News special edition magazine Sixty Moments That Changed The Game.

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