Plante first goaltender to put mask on NHL
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the greatest about-face in the history of professional sports.
On Nov. 1, 1959, Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante suffered a broken nose on a slap shot by the N.Y. Rangers' Andy Bathgate and, after getting stitches, insisted on wearing a protecive facemask.
Montreal coach Toe Blake relented, on the condition that Plante stopped wearing it when the wound healed. The Canadiens proceeded to win 18 consecutive games. The streak ended when Blake insisted that Plante forgo the mask. Plante put it back on, and Montreal won its fifth Stanley Cup.
And the goalie facemask was here to stay.
"A lot of guys viewed him as scared, but anybody who knew anything about hockey knew he was smart," said Eddie Johnston, the former Penguins coach and general manager who played goalie for the Boston Bruins at the time. "It was stupid, getting hurt the way we were getting hurt."
Johnston recalls having his nose broken by pucks six times in one season, which required an unusual hospital treatment.
"They put leeches on your eyes for a half hour to suck the blood out," Johnson said. "Then they'd throw them back into the jar."
Johnston is the last goalie in NHL history to play every minute of every regular-season game, all without wearing a mask.
"And no brains, either" he adds.
He didn't don one until almost 10 years after Plante. The final straw: he spent six weeks in an induced coma after taking an errant Bobby Orr shot off the head in pregame warm-ups during the 1968-69 season.
Penguins goalie Andy Brown was the last to play without a mask, 15 years after Plante first wore his.
The game has changed so much in the past five decades, from the speed of shots to technological advances in equipment, that goalies can't imagine playing without a mask.
"There's no way you could play today's game without one," said Penguins goalie coach Gilles Meloche, who played Junior B two years without a mask. "The game's too fast. They wouldn't last. There wouldn't be any goalies."
Penguins backup goalie Brent Johnson has watched in amazement old videos of his Hall-of-Fame grandfather, Sid Abel, where Detroit goalie Terry Sawchuk was repeatedly hit in the head.
"He was looking at the puck the whole time," Johnston said. "It was incredible. They were fearless ... and crazy. They were tough."
Penguins starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said the old-timers have his respect for playing without protective facemasks, especially after he wore an open-face helmet mounted with a video camera to record a Reebok commercial with Sidney Crosby.
"I had confidence in him but still, at the same time, I was a little worried to get one in the teeth," Fleury said. "My mom would be mad."
While Plante is credited with popularizing the facemask, he wasn't the first in NHL history to wear one. Clint Benedict of the Montreal Maroons wore a crude leather mask to protect a broken nose in 1929.
Today's goalies are thankful for their insistence — and innovation — in wearing a mask.
"It's changed the game immensely," Johnson said. "Every goaltender that dons a helmet owes those first few guys who put that on a debt of gratitude."
Columnist Joe Starkey and beat reporter Rob Rossi take the circle for this week's question: What is the best goalie mask of all time?
Starkey: Easy one. Gerry Cheevers, with black stitches painted in spots where he was struck by shots, had the No. 1 mask of all-time (though, for some reason, I always liked Chico Resch's Islanders mask, with the red-painted outline of Long Island; maybe because I was born there). Anyway, have you ever thought about wearing a mask in the press box, Rossi• The rest of us would appreciate it.
Rossi: Did somebody face wash Starkey again• Anyway, my mask nod goes to Johan Hedberg's "Moose" cover. It was so popular during the Penguins' run to the 2001 Eastern Conference final that EA Sports had the video-gamer version of Hedberg wear it in the next year's version "NHL Hockey." Also, props to Ken Wregget's mask in the mid 1990s that depicted Danny DeVito as The Penguin from "Batman Returns."