Who’s Behind This Mask?
The legendary Montreal Candiens goalie was not the first to use a mask for protection, but Jacques Plante was the player to introduce the goalie mask as everyday equipment. Before Plante, the only goalie previously to wear a mask was the Montreal Maroons’ Clint Benedict who wore one briefly in 1930 to protect a broken nose.
This Associated Press photo was taken January 23, 1948 when Plante was just 19-years-old. He was playing organized hockey for the Quebec Citadelles and was still five years away from his NHL debut with the Canadiens.
This leather and fiber mask Plante wore in 1948, was used only in practices because there were so many pucks coming at him at once.
Plante first donned a mask in a game on November 1, 1959 against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Plante was struck on the left side of his nose and upper lip in the first period on a shot from Andy Bathgate. The game was delayed 20 minutes as Plante left the ice, received seven stitches and returned wearing a plexiglass mask (not the one seen in the photo above).
Montreal coach Toe Blake, a traditionalist, had been an ardent opponent of Plante wearing a mask. For this occasion Blake had no choice but to allow Plante to return to the game wearing the mask considering Montreal did not have a back-up goalie and Plante refused to return unless he was allowed to do so.
After the game Rangers goalie Gump Worsley said he “would not wear one (a mask). I do not feel it is necessary.” If the league ever made it a rule to wear a mask, Worsley hoped it would be “optional.”
Rangers general manager Muzz Patrick was more direct, “The use of a mask takes something away from the fans. They want to see the man, particularly the female fans.”
It was Rangers coach Phil Watson who had the most practical observation when he said, “I have no objection to the use of a mask by our goalie, I wouldn’t object to it as long as he saves the goals.”
Watson’s way of thinking carried over to coach Blake as Plante continued to wear his mask in the following games. Blake eventually dropped his mask opposition as over his first 11 masked games, Plante had ten wins, one tie and allowed a total of 13 goals. The unbeaten streak stretched to 18 games and the Canadiens wound up the 1959-1960 season winning their fifth consecutive Stanley Cup.
By the 1970’s almost all goalies were wearing masks. On April 7, 1974, Andy Brown of the Pittsburgh Penguins became the last NHL goalie to play goaltender without wearing a mask. Even long-time mask holdout Gump Worsley came around and wore a mask in 1973-1974, his final season.
Incredibly it wasn’t until the 2010-2011 season that the NHL put in a rule saying that protective masks must be worn by goaltenders.