Clint Benedict was not only one of the best netminders of all-time, but he was also the original innovator in hockey for goalies. He was the first to drop to his knees to stop the puck when, in his time, dropping to the ice was illegal. It earned him the nickname ‘Praying Benny.’ He was also the first goalie in the NHL to wear a mask, when he did so in 1930 with the Montreal Maroons.
Benedict donned the pads for the first time in his hometown of Ottawa in 1907. Before that he was a clever forward, and a childhood friend remarked that Benedict was one of the finest stickhandling youngsters who ever nursed a puck on the local Ottawa outdoor rinks. During a game for his school team, the goalie on Benedict’s team went down with an injury. By the time he came to, Benedict had already strapped on his pads and gone into the net. From that time on, he never left the goal.
Benedict moved into the senior amateur ranks at 15 and was a pro at 20. He was also a very accomplished lacrosse player, winning the Ottawa city championship in 1911. Benedict joined the Ottawa Senators of the NHA in 1912 and spent 12 seasons as their stalwart netminder in the NHA/NHL, winning three Stanley Cups, in 1920, 1921 and 1923.
Benedict was funny and typically modest. Once when shrugging off his own contribution to his team’s success, he told the Ottawa Journal, “You didn’t need to have a great defense in front of you when you had Frank Nighbor working that check on the front line.”
When the NHA became the NHL in 1917, they changed a long-standing rule so that goalies could finally drop to the ice to make saves. Previously, Benedict made the act of “flopping” an art form. “They didn’t have a goal crease in those days and the forwards would come roaring in and bang you as hard as they could,” he said. “If they knocked you down, you were supposed to get back on your feet before you could stop the puck, those were the rules. It was against the rules then, but if you made it look like an accident you could get away without a penalty. I got pretty good at it, and soon all the other goalies were doing the same thing. I guess you could say we all got pretty good at it enough that the league had to change the rule.”
While the old NHA imposed a $2 fine every time a goalie left his feet, NHL president Frank Calder dismissed the idea for his league. He was quoted as saying, “As far as I’m concerned, they can stand on their head if they choose to.” The phrase became, and remains today, a popular way to describe a goaltender who plays a great game.
Benedict was traded to the Montreal Maroons in 1924, and that’s where he spent the last six years of his career. He won the Stanley Cup one more time, in 1926, carrying the Maroons to the championship with a minute 1.00 goals-against average in the playoffs, making him the first netminder ever to backstop two separate teams to the Stanley Cup.
Benedict donned the first mask in NHL history at the tail end of his career with the Maroons. One night in 1930, a blistering Howie Morenz shot caught him right between the eyes. “I didn’t know what happened until I woke up in hospital,” Benedict said.
When he got out of the hospital a few weeks later, he returned to the Maroons goal wearing a crude mask that looked like something out of a horror movie. He had a Boston firm design a mask with metal bars to protect his face. “It was leather with a big nosepiece,” Benedict said. “The nosepiece proved to be the problem because it obscured my vision. It didn’t feel good, so I threw it away after a couple of games.”
The following summer he tested various catcher’s masks but couldn’t find anything that worked, so he retired from hockey. Benedict finished his 13-season NHL career with a 190-143-28 record and 57 shutouts. He holds the record for most seasons leading the league in shutouts, with seven.
There’s long been a debate on who was the better netminder of the early NHL: Benedict or Georges Vezina. Comparing the two is difficult, since they were polar opposites as goaltenders. Vezina didn’t like to go down to block shots. Instead he stopped pucks with his pads in the stand-up position or slapped them aside with his stick. Benedict was a flopper, doing everything in his power to stop the puck.
Hall of Famer Punch Broadbent once noted, “Georges Vezina of the Canadiens was a great goalie back then. He’s honored with a trophy practically legend in hockey. But we all thought there was no goalie ever better than Clint Benedict. Clint went on for many years with a distinctive style that included going to the ice for pucks, which has become so much a part of a goalie’s play through the years.”
Prior to a game between Vezina’s Canadiens and Benedict’s Montreal Maroons, Vezina told Leo Dandurand, the Canadiens owner who donated the trophy in Vezina’s name, “It will be a close battle. I can hold them out at my end, Leo, but it will be tough to score against them. The best man is in the other goal, you know.”
Dandurand also once claimed to a reporter that he was always very much tempted to trade for Benedict to play goal for the Canadiens instead of Vezina. It goes along with the legend that if Vezina hadn’t tragically died from tuberculosis in 1926, the Vezina Trophy might instead be called the Benedict Trophy.
When Benedict retired from hockey, he moved to England and became the manager of the Wembley Arena in London and also coached the pro hockey team in Wembley. He later returned to Ottawa and worked as a municipal clerk. During this time, he lived within a five-minute walk of the Ottawa Auditorium where he played when the rink opened in 1923.
A great fan of the game right up until he passed away in 1976 at 84, he claimed that Gordie Howe was the best player he ever saw in all of his years. Benedict stayed in tune with the NHL during his later life and had a lot of respect for the elite goaltending of Jacques Plante, Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk. And he always kept his sense of humor. “I have to admit we had it soft in my time compared with those fellows,” Benedict said. “That power play is really something for a goaltender to face. The whole attack is a lot faster and players shoot harder than they used to do. Maybe, they’d score more often if they didn’t fire into the boards as much as they do, playing for those rebounds. My wife thinks they ought to set up the net in the corner of the rink.”
Born: Sept. 26, 1892, Ottawa, Ont.
NHL Career: 1917-30
Stats: 190-143-28, 2.32 GAA, 57 SO
Stanley Cups: 4
DID YOU KNOW?
On March 12, 1912, while playing for the Ottawa New Edinburghs of the Inter-Provincial League, Benedict skated the length of the ice and scored a goal in the playoffs against the Montreal Victorias on goaltender Meredith Haskell. It’s one of the first recorded goals scored by a netminder. Benedict certainly missed out on the big money the players today make. Clint’s first season with the Ottawa Senators paid him $800. He got up to $2,500 when he joined the Montreal Maroons and reached a peak of $5,000 in his final year in Montreal, the equivalent of around $75,000 today.