Exactly sixty years ago today, November 1, 1959, professional hockey witnessed the beginning of a coming trend to the sport that should have really taken place long before it actually did occur. All it needed was one player to take the big step forward.
That November night, the Stanley Cup champions for the previous four years, the mighty Montreal Canadiens, were on the road in New York to play the hometown Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Three minutes into the game, sharpshooting forward Andy Bathgate--known for his blazing slapshot--had the puck cradled on his stick when he raced over the blueline, closing in on the Canadien net. Instead of firing from his forehand, he unloaded a backhanded shot point-blank at the Montreal net, catching goalie Jacques Plante completely off guard. The result: the puck slammed into Plante’s face before he could move his glove up to catch it. Down he went, blood covering the ice all around him.
Later in the trainer’s room, Plante told coach Toe Blake that he would not go back out unless he could wear the same fiberglass mask that he had been using all season in practice. Since training camp, Blake was dead set against Plante using the mask in a game for fear of his goalie losing sight of the puck at his feet, along with losing his nerve.
Up to that point in his career, Plante had sustained 200 facial stitches, a broken jaw, and two broken cheekbones. Frowning, Blake gave in, demanding, however, that Plante remove the mask once his face healed. The coach had no other choice. Plante was the only goalie dressed, a common practice at the time. And the goalie was an awful mess now. The puck had forged a nasty gash on Plante’s face extending from mid-nose down to the side of his mouth that took seven stitches to close.
When Plante returned to the game wearing his bizarre skin-colored, form-fitting fiberglass mask, the shocked New York fans suddenly came alive with chatter, laughter and taunts. Plante played brilliantly and Montreal won 3-1, the first of an 11-game unbeaten run with Plante wearing his mask. Combined with the seven-game unbeaten streak prior to the game against the Rangers, the Habs stayed unbeaten for a solid string of 18 games.
Plante was an oddball, cocky, and confident individual blessed with quick reflexes. He was a stand-up goalie who quite often came out beyond his crease to cut down the angles. He was a superb skater (considered by some as the best skater on the team), an excellent puck handler and a roamer. He was also an innovator: When the opposition would step over center ice and fire the puck around the boards, Plante would stop it behind the net for his own defensemen. He was the first goalie to raise his arm on an icing call to let his defensemen know what was happening.
On occasions when the puck was free between Plante and an opposition player who was hoping for a clear-cut breakaway, Plante would skate out and merely freeze the puck. He could also poke check puck carriers bearing on him. No one had seen a goalie play in such an aggressive way before. Add to this, he was the Vezina Trophy winner as the best NHL goaltender for the last four years, the same years his powerhouse team had won the Stanley Cup.
By donning his mask, Plante started a chain reaction throughout North America over the next few weeks and months. By December 13, in another game at Madison Square Garden, Boston Bruins southpaw goalie Don Simmons became the second NHL netminder to adopt a fiberglass mask on a regular basis. A month after Plante wore his piece, University of Toronto Varsity Blues goalie Bob Giroux slid on a molded plastic mask after sustaining a fractured cheekbone in practice in a game December 1, then went on to help his team capture the Sixth Annual Boston Arena Christmas Tournament in Boston later that month.
Before 1959 came to a close, minor league backstopper Gil Mayer of the AHL Cleveland Barons had his jaw broken from a shot. He quickly acquired a mask, tied the Rochester Americans on December 30, then shutout the same team on New Year’s Day.
Other goalies bravely stepped forward including Gordie Bell of the Senior A Ontario Hockey Association Belleville McFarlands to become the first netminder in his league to wear face protection (and very similar to Plante’s) in a game December 2. Two weeks later, Peterborough Petes goalie John Chandick became the first OHA Junior A league goalie to save his scalp with a mask. And he did it by beating the Barrie Flyers 3-0 his first time wearing it. On the other side of continent, Spokane Jets goalie Emile “The Cat” Francis of the Pacific Coast Hockey League wore the league’s first mask on December 17 in a 4-3 loss to the Seattle Totems.
However, some NHL goaltenders were slow to react to what Plante had started. Detroit Red Wings Terry Sawchuk said, “Plante is a good goalie and not because of a mask. I’ve been a pro goalie for more than a dozen years and I’ve never worn a mask in a game. I don’t see any reason for starting now.” Gump Worsley of the New York Rangers voiced something similar. “My objection to the mask is that it is not necessary. Why, all of a sudden, after hockey has been played for 70 years do they decide we should wear masks?”
Worsley’s GM, Muzz Patrick, had a different take. Many hockey fans were women and he felt that they should be able to see men out there, not masks. “They want to see the blondes, the redheads...and the bald spots. That’s why I’m against helmets and masks. They rob the players of their individually.” Despite all that, Patrick ordered all juvenile and junior amateur goalies in the Rangers system to don face masks that same season. Hmmm…
To set the record straight, Plante was not the first NHL goalie to wear a mask in an actual game: He was the first to wear it permanently. Almost 30 years before, on the night of January 7, 1930, Montreal Maroons goalie Clint Benedict--a future Hall of Fame member--was hit on the bridge of his nose by a shot taken by Montreal Canadiens superstar Hockey Morenz that sent him to the hospital and out of action for six weeks.
Returning to the ice at Madison Square Garden February 20 in a game against the New York Americans, Benedict now had a mask on. “It was leather with a big nosepiece,” he said later. “It obscured my vision.” But he wore it that night and for the next four games until he got hit in the face during a scramble on March 4, sidelining him again: This time for the rest of the season and the playoffs. Montreal placed Benedict on waivers that June and he played only amateur hockey after that.
It should be noted that after several games in the 1959-60, Blake asked Plante to try playing a game without the mask. His face healed, Plante agreed. So, on March 8, 1960, he played barefaced against Detroit and lost 3-0. Shaking his head, Blake told Plante to put the damn thing back on and that the subject would never be brought up again. And why should it?
The Canadiens would go on to win their fifth championship in a row that spring of 1960, not to mention Plante taking his fifth straight Vezina as the NHL’s stingiest goalie at the same time. Apparently, he didn’t lose any pucks in his skates for the rest of the season, either.
Over the next season or two, with most NHL goalies not wishing to follow suit by protecting their faces, Plante received hate mail informing him that he was a “chicken” for wearing face protection and that he shouldn’t hide his face. And some of those letters came from women, just as Muzz Patrick had alluded to.