MONTREAL – Imagine if an NHL goaltender skated out to start a game not wearing a mask.
Today it’s unthinkable. But until Nov. 1, 1959, all goalies played without them, exposing their faces to bone-crushing shots that sometimes left them bleeding and unconscious in the crease.
Fifty years ago Monday at Madison Square Garden in New York, Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens changed hockey.
Having suffered a nasty cut to the nose from a shot by Rangers star Andy Bathgate, Plante persuaded reluctant coach Toe Blake to let him go back in the game wearing the simple mask he had already been using in practices.
And to howls of disapproval from traditionalists who saw the mask as unmanly, or as a hindrance to a goaltender’s vision, or just plain ugly, he kept it on for the rest of his career, except later that season in Detroit when he went without it for one game at Blake’s insistence.
By the time the 46-year-old Plante retired in 1975 – as a member of the Edmonton Oilers of the defunct World Hockey Association – every NHL goalie wore a mask and wouldn’t dream of playing without one.
Since that skull-like white piece that covered only Plante’s face, masks have evolved into complex face, head and throat protection, and the wild colours, scenes and symbols painted on them has made goalie-mask art an industry of its own.
But the battle to have the mask accepted was epic. Plante came under scathing criticism in the media and even from other NHL goaltenders like Gump Worsley and Terry Sawchuk, despite the fact that goaltending had become a even more dangerous occupation since Plante’s teammate Bernard (Boom Boom) Geoffrion popularized the slapshot only a few years before.
Just to be allowed to wear the mask in that first game took special circumstances and a special individual on a remarkable team, all of which is detailed in a newly released biography “Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed The Face Of Hockey,” by Cobourg, Ont., writer Todd Denault (McClelland and Stewart, $32.99).
Plante, who died of stomach cancer in 1986, did more than popularize the mask. The Trois-Rivieres, Que., native was the first NHL goalie to wander out of his crease to play pucks, he argued strenuously for a backup goalie to be dressed in case the starter was injured and, after he retired, became the first NHL goaltending coach.
But aside from the seven Vezina Trophies he won as the league’s top goalie and the large part he played in the Canadiens’ record run of five straight Stanley Cups from 1956 to 1960, he is mostly remembered as the man with the mask.
On that autumn night in New York, Plante had come out of his crease and, while poke-checking Bathgate, tripped him head first into the end boards, causing the Rangers’ franchise player to go for several stitches.
When Bathgate returned to the game, he was still fuming at what he considered a dirty play by Plante and, when he got the chance, with the goalie’s head sticking out of a crowd in front of the net, drilled him in the face with a shot at 3:06 of the first period.
Bathgate has been somewhat apologetic about it in recent interviews, but when he spoke to Denault, he made no bones about getting even.
“It was actually a wrist shot,” Bathgate told the author. “It wasn’t a hard shot but I tried to give him the same as me and I guess I caught him. It was a shot with feeling in it. It wasn’t a blast, and I wasn’t trying to score because the angle was really bad, but his head was sticking out and I decided if he wanted to play those games. . .”
Teams did not dress backups in those days, but were required to have a stand-in ready to play for either club if a goalie was hurt. In New York, the choice was between one of the Rangers’ trainers who sometimes played goal in practices or a guy who hadn’t played in two years.
Really, the only choice was Plante, and since the goaltender said he wouldn’t go back in without the mask, he got to wear it when he returned to action after a 21-minute delay in the game.
Then he got to wear it until the facial injury healed and, when he kept winning, was allowed to wear it full-time, even though Blake didn’t like masks any more than other old-schoolers.
Denault said Blake’s concern was that Plante may have become puck-shy, a condition that had prematurely ended the careers of other goalies, including, it was suspected, Montreal’s Bill Durnan and Gerry McNeil.
Also, the team had won four straight Cups and was after a fifth, and Blake didn’t want the game or his team’s luck to change when all was going well.
“Blake thought: why rock the boat? But Plante’s whole life was rocking the boat,” Denault said in an interview this week.
But the game had already been changed by the slapshot. By the 1960s, Chicago’s Bobby Hull was firing rockets timed at more than 100 m.p.h. Looking back, it is surprising that it took until 1959 for even one goalie to put one on.
But resistance was such that the fuss didn’t really die down until Sawchuk put on a mask in 1962. Denault said Sawchuk was considered more of a traditionalist, while Plante was “quirky even among goaltenders,” and so it was accepted.
Still, many goalies continued to play bare-faced, including Worsley, Plante’s replacement on the Canadiens, and Toronto’s Johnny Bower. The last to play without a mask was Andy Brown of the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 7, 1974 in a 6-3 loss to the Atlanta Flames.
Since then, many of the same debates over courage and peripheral vision erupted when skaters began wearing helmets, which only started to be grandfathered in as mandatory in 1979, and more recently with visors, which many players still refuse to wear.
In the 1968-69 season, Boston Bruins goalie Gerry Cheevers pressed his case for coach Harry Sinden to let him wear a mask in games by having the trainer paint black stitches in places where he would have been cut without it. Thus, goalie mask art was born and Cheevers’ ghoulish mask became a classic.
In 1972, Doug Favell of the Philadelphia Flyers introduced bright colours to mask-painting and four years later, Chico Resch of the New York Islanders was the first to hire an artist to paint his mask.
The NHL reports that to have a mask painted by an artist today costs between US$800 and $2000.
Plante’s historic moment will be honoured with a presentation at the Canadiens game Saturday night at the Bell Centre against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
A French edition of Denault’s book, including the forward by Plante’s former teammate Jean Beliveau, published by Editions de l’Homme, is to be released on Nov. 3. The English edition was in stores on Oct. 27.