Plante changed face of hockey for better

Goalie's actions 50 years ago today at MSG raised game on many levels

Sunday, 11.01.2009 / 12:01 AM / History
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Plante changed face of hockey for better

RANGERS ON DEMAND
Bathgate Recalls Nov. 1, 1959, Game at MSG Watch




By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com

Fans with an eye on the NHL today are sure to hear a lot about the historic importance of this date. Indeed, it was at Madison Square Garden 50 years ago today that Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jacques Plante emerged from his team's dressing room with a mask covering his entire face -- a moment that would forever change the game.

Jacques Plante, the man who made it OK to wear masks in the NHL, was traded to the Rangers in 1963 and spent two seasons as a Blueshirt.
It all unfolded after Rangers great Andy Bathgate drove Plante out of the net with a hard shot that left Plante's face in a bloody mess. In an era where teams did not dress backup goaltenders, Plante's injury caused the first period to be delayed 20 minutes while the Habs repaired their goaltender's face and then debated whether or not to let him wear his mask for the rest of the game.

Thanks in part to the Rangers, it was 50 years ago today that Plante became the first goalie in NHL history to wear a mask simply because he wanted to and not because he was protecting some major injury, as had been the case with the handful of previous NHL netminders who temporarily wore facial gear.

After the Bathgate shot, Plante was fully stitched up. He could have re-entered the game with an unguarded face, but he simply refused to do that. His coach the legendary Toe Blake (talk about old-time hockey) had no choice but to let him play with the mask in front of 15,925 spectators at The Garden.

Many New Yorkers attending that Nov. 1, 1959, game probably thought Plante ghoulish mask made him look like a freak -- or like some costumed kid they had seen the night before on Halloween. But Blake's decision to let Plante wear the mask was a good one, since the Habs went on to a 3-1 victory, stretching Montreal's unbeaten streak to eight games in a season that ended with the Stanley Cup.

Plante's mask didn't come from nowhere. Sick of being hit in the face with shots like the one from Bathgate -- who was angry at the Habs goalie over an incident earlier in the game -- Plante had engineered and developed the mask on his own and had used it in numerous Montreal practices. It was bizarre-looking by any standards, but it allowed Plante to play with a sense of freedom he had never enjoyed when his face was exposed. That sense of liberation from shots at his face helped Plante to a league-leading 40 wins and 2.54 goals-against average in 1959-60.

Over the next 50 years, new generations of goaltenders would turn the mask not just into a better source of protection, but also into an art form. Ironically, a man who was just trying to keep his face from getting bloodied, ended up creating something that his followers could also use as a fashion statement.

It's almost impossible to talk about goaltenders over the past half century without reminiscing about some of the colorful -- and off-color masks -- that became part of the game. An entire section of the Hockey Hall of Fame is devoted to masks, and on this historic day, we are sure to see many images of masks from the past. These pictures will stir memories and remind us of how far the art form have come.

What might be lost in today's talk of masks and mask design, however, is perhaps the greatest significance of this date. In truth, this should be remembered not as the day that goalies began to wear masks, but the day that they stopped not wearing them.

At the time, some hockey purists ridiculed Plante's mask as a symbol of cowardice, but what the Hall of Fame goaltender did 50 years ago today was actually a very brave act that stood up to a misguided establishment that had somehow deemed goaltenders' masks to be a sign of weakness in a world of toughness.

What prevented goalies from wearing masks for the first 40-plus years of the NHL's existence was a peculiar ethic unique to hockey in many ways. That ethic was just part of what makes the game's culture and heritage so rich, but it was also an example of how slow the game has always been to accept change -- even when need for change was as plain as the mask on a goalie's face.

In the 50 years since Plante began wearing his mask, we have seen two other pieces of equipment -- helmets and visors -- go through the same painful evolution. It is hard to believe that only 30 years ago, helmets were not required in the NHL, even though Bill Masterson had died from falling on the ice a decade earlier, and Ace Bailey's career had ended as a result of a similar fall more than 30 years before that. Today, visors are more widely accepted, but only because the game has seen Bryan Berard nearly blinded in one eye and other stars miss considerable playing time due to eye injuries that might have been prevented by a mere half-shield.

Prior to Plante's historic Nov. 1, 1959, at the Old Garden, the techology used to make goalie masks was crude, and the masks themselves were not particularly comfortable. Plante, however, proved that the mask could be comfortable, effective, and helpful in winning lot of games. Still, within the first two months after Plante began wearing his mask, only one other Original Six goaltender, Boston backup Don Simmons, was willing to use one, even though Plante had supposedly taken the stigma out of them.

The Rangers goalie who opposed Plante on Nov. 1, 195 --, Hall of Famer Lorne "Gump" Worsley -- was no fan of the mask and would end up being one of the very last NHL goalies to use one, more than a decade later. But while Worsley had no interest, the Rangers' minor-league goaltender, Marcel Paille, took notice. By the time he began playing in the NHL just a few weeks later, Paille was experimenting with a mask during practice.

If he had taken his mask from the practice rink to the Garden ice, Paille would have been the first Rangers goalie to wear facial protection on a full-time basis. At the last minute, however, he changed his mind about the mask, and it wasn't until four years later, when Plante himself was traded the Rangers, that the Blueshirts had their first true masked netminder.

In newspaper interviews conducted at the time he considered wearing a mask for the Rangers, Paille said the decision to leave his face unguarded hinged on the comfort level. He complained that his mask -- which looked quite different from Plante's fiberglass model -- made it feel like he was watching the puck "through someone else's glasses."

More often in that era, goalies refused to wear masks simply because they sensed they were inviting players to shoot at their heads. Sadly, they were right. The initial opposition to masks in professional hockey was strong enough that many players did shoot at a goalie's head, just as many players later took liberties with those who wore helmets or mocked those who wore visors simply because they were breaking some unspoken code of toughness.

Concerns about comfort were addressed early in the mask-making process, but the fear about appearing less than tough lingered for years. Looking at action photos of NHL goaltenders from the 1960s, one sees a definite shortage of masks. Nearly 15 years passed between Plante's Nov. 1, 1959, game and April 7, 1974, the date when Pittsburgh's Andy Brown became the last NHL goaltender to play a game without a mask.

Plante died on Feb. 26, 1986, so he won't be able to share in this historic anniversary. But while the Rangers and Bathgate certainly have their place in any recollections of Nov. 1, 1959, the real hero was a brave 30-year-old All-Star goalie who had the guts to defy a "tradition" more foolish than noble. In that sense, he had to be much tougher than anyone who had ever played between the pipes before him.

Thank you, Jacques Plante, for inadvertently giving the game of hockey one of its most enduring and colorful symbols. Thank you, too, for what you intentionally did that day at The Garden in showing the hockey world that when it comes to a game as great as this one, no unspoken rule should ever matter more than common sense.