It was 48 years ago Thursday that the great Jacques Plante told legendary coach Toe Blake that he wouldn’t return to the Montreal Canadiens net without a protective mask covering his face.
Just 3:06 into the first period of a game with the Rangers in New York that night, the left side of Plante’s face was opened up by a sizzling Andy Bathgate backhander. He crumpled to the ice in a pool of blood, got stitched up and made a revolutionary return.
Goaltending hasn’t been the same since.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead now without a mask,” Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Andrew Raycroft said after practice Thursday. “Obviously a different era, guys probably couldn’t even raise the puck back then so it’s a little different.
“It’s wild to think of the game being like that.”
Plante led the Canadiens to a 3-1 win that night and is widely recognized as the trailblazer behind the goalie mask. And while he certainly deserves credit for that, it’s worth mentioning that he wasn’t the first goalie to wear a mask in the NHL.
That man would be Montreal Maroons netminder Clint Benedict, who was badly hurt by a Howie Morenz shot during a game against the cross-town Canadiens on Jan. 7, 1930. The next time he played, he wore a leather mask shaped like a T connected to an O covering his forehead, nose and cheeks. He soon discarded it because it hampered his vision.
Plante debuted his mask after it had long been in the works and he had worn it routinely in practice. It was little more than a thin piece of fibreglass, just big enough just to cover his face with holes for his eyes and mouth.
Plante and others experimented with different styles in the ’60s, looking to improve vision and breathing. Some were variations of the traditional mask most fans are familiar with while others looked more like a fibreglass version of a baseball catcher’s mask.
Towards the end of the decade, the masks started becoming a canvas for creative types.
According to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Gerry Cheevers of the Boston Bruins was the first to have markings on his shield. Trainer John (Frosty) Forristall painted stitch marks wherever the goalie got hit by a puck.
Doug Favell of the Philadelphia Flyers became the first netminder with colour designs on his mask in 1972, apparently as part of a prank by the team trainer.
And in 1974, Jim Rutherford took to the ice with the Red Wings logo painted around the eye slots in another first. Initially, he didn’t like it but when he won his first game, he stuck with it.
Goalie masks became more and more creative from there, with one of the most famous being the lion mask designed by Greg Harrison for Gilles Gratton in 1976 – stylish and intimidating.
During the 80’s helmets with protective metal cages – the kind Soviet great Vladislav Tretiak began wearing in 1968 – became more commonplace in the NHL. That led to the one-piece helmet-cage blend netminders wear today, an innovation Raycroft is happy about.
“Guys weren’t shooting it 90 miles an hour five feet in the air back then, that wasn’t the case at all,” he said. “Obviously it allowed guys to start going down and the butterfly and things like that started coming into play when guys had the masks.”
For trivia buffs, the last goalie to play in the NHL without a mask?
Andy Brown of the Pittsburgh Penguins, on April 7, 1974. He lost 6-3 to the Atlanta Flames