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Fifty Years of Goalie Masks

Saturday, 10.31.2009 / 12:42 PM / Features
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Fifty Years of Goalie Masks
The man behind the mask.
Fifty years ago Sunday night, Nov. 1, Montreal Canadiens Jacques Plante wore the first full-face goalie mask in a NHL game. To fete the occasion, NHL Network is airing a one-hour special, "50 Years Behind the Mask," Sunday at 7 ET (also streamed live here at NHL.com). NHL.com will join in celebrating the 50th anniversary with a week-long series of stories about Plante and the evolution of the goalie mask. In today's installment, NHL.com's Shawn Roarke talks to present-day goalies about the concept of not wearing a mask, plus some goaltenders of earlier eras who started playing hockey without a mask, only to wear one.

Today, goalie masks are part of the fabric of professional hockey, designed to not only protect the wearer from injury, but also as an artistic vehicle to express the goalie's creativity and entertain millions of hockey fans.

But there was a time -- not so long ago -- when such protective measures were seen as not only unnecessary, but as an affront to the game.

In fact, the hockey mask turns just 50 years old on Sunday, Nov. 1. Back then, Montreal's Jacques Plante wore the first goalie mask in a regular-season game during a contest against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 1, 1959.

This historic event was promoted by necessity, not choice. Plante had been lobbying hard to wear a mask in game action after experimenting with it during practice and the preseason. But Montreal coach Toe Blake refused the request, believing his goalie's vision would be limited by the device.

That all changed, however, when Plante was hit in the face by a shot off the stick of Andy Bathgate -- a shot that opened Plante up for seven stitches around the mouth and nose. At that time, NHL teams did not carry backup goalies, so there was a 20-minute delay while Plante underwent repairs. After receiving medical treatment, the goalie refused to re-enter the game unless he could wear his mask to protect the injury.

Blake reluctantly relented and hockey was changed forever.

"Let's put it this way, when I lose my mask in a game, even if the puck is at the other end, when the whistle blows, I'm pretty happy about it," New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur told NHL.com. "I don't know if I would have played goal (without a mask), let's put it that way."

Those are shocking words -- and a stunning alternate reality to comprehend -- coming from one of the game's best goaltenders, but they are thoughts almost universally shared by the goaltending fraternity.

"I can't imagine going out there without a mask," Islander goalie Martin Biron told NHL.com. "The game was different back then, but at the same time, getting pucks shot at you, it doesn't matter -- or a skate or a stick. As a goalie, you've got these scrums in front of the net … that would just be unbelievable."

Today's goalies have known nothing but the security of form-fitting goalie masks that are meticulously designed to provide the best possible protection to both the face and the skull. They know nothing but the oral history passed on by the old-timers of the goaltender's union -- of the derring-do of their predecessors, who routinely stared down those  six-ounce spheres of vulcanized rubber with their faces exposed to all forms of peril.

Former NHL goalie Glenn "Chico" Resch, now a color analyst for the New Jersey Devils, played much of his youth hockey without a mask. He first donned a mask when he was 12, shortly after Plante made history at the Garden.

"To me, those (mask-less goalies) were the most courageous athletes ever, more so than race car drivers or bull fighters because every night you had guys with those hooked sticks unleashing shots where they didn't know where it was going and neither did the goalies," Resch told NHL.com, pointing out that in many of the pictures of the mask-less goalies, the goalie has his eyes closed as he makes the save). "That's why Glenn Hall threw up every night. One mistake could cost you your career. The pressure was incredible."

Just ask Martin Brodeur's father, Denis Sr., who played all of his junior career and minor pro career without a mask. In fact, Denis Brodeur did not finally don a mask until he was playing senior league hockey in 1960. That mask was made by the same man that made Plante's and Denis Brodeur says he was the first Canadian amateur goalie to wear a mask.

By then, Denis Brodeur's dreams of professional hockey had already been put to bed -- in part because of the fear that went along with occupying the crease without any facial protection.

Brodeur Sr. vividly remembers a 1957 game when he was playing for North Bay in the Northern Ontario Senior League as a perfect illustration of what goalies in that period faced on a nightly basis.
"To me, those (mask-less goalies) were the most courageous athletes ever, more so than race car drivers or bull fighters because every night you had guys with those hooked sticks unleashing shots where they didn't know where it was going and neither did the goalies." - Chico Resch
"One night we were playing Sault Ste. Marie and the guy by the name of John Bailey, what a tremendous shot," he told NHL.com. "I jumped high to escape a shot of his and I got it right in the cheek and wound up with 32 stitches. I was 27 and from then on I was always worried about getting hit. I was cringing most of the time."

By the time the elder Brodeur's playing career was done, he had amassed 118 stitches to his face and skull.

"I had ulcer problems, stomach problems. I would eat my lunch at 2 o'clock and I was so nervous right until the game started. Finally I said 'I can't do it anymore.' I quit hockey. I don't think I was thinking about getting hit, but it probably had something to do with it."
 
Resch remains surprised that more goalies didn't give into the fear of being hit in the face.

"Back then, Priority 1 was survival," Resch said. "Priority 2 was stopping the puck."

Now, goalies have little to worry about when it comes to masks, other than which design will best portray the personality of the man behind the mask. Facial injuries are extremely rare today and concussions are not a pressing problem for goalies. Yes, injury remains in a goaltender's consciousness, but it no longer dominates the thought process like it once did.

And, for that, today's goalies have Plante to thank for his history-changing decision 50 years ago.

Author: Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Managing Editor