On November 1, 1959, Jacques Plante took his position as goaltender for Montreal. The mask on his face covered more than the damage to his nose. It covered the anguish he felt facing the fans who considered him a coward for wearing it.
Jason Voorhees is the fictional antihero of the Friday the 13th movies. He wears that old school goalie mask because (darn it) it’s scarier than a meal without maple syrup.
Plante who goes down in history as the first guy to wear a mask in hockey because he did it full time, but he wasn’t the very first, only the most dedicated.
Despite jeers from fans, most of whom could never face a professional puck even once, the mask would not only stick but standardize and evolve.
Some goaltenders in Plante’s time wore masks for practice, but donning one for a game was only for sissies. They didn’t even consider it.
It smacked not only of cowardice but of a player with poor loyalty. The prevailing belief, that masks inhibited playing, was somewhat true. Still, there were exceptions.
A goaltender by the name of Elizabeth Graham wore a fencing mask way back in 1927. She wanted to protect her teeth, a precaution afforded her because she wasn’t a man.
Men, in hockey, weren’t supposed to value their teeth. Lost teeth were little badges of courage and an indication that one’s diet was more soup than sirloin.
Another goalie who broke form, also from Montreal, was Clint Benedict. He wore a hardened leather mask covering his lower face and forehead after an injury. Fans might have raised an eyebrow at his mask, but it didn’t last.
Benedict was a real man. After the injury healed, he went back to maskless playing.
A Japanese goalie, Teiji Honma, wore one more closely resembling today’s masks in the 1936 Olympics, but that was the Olympics, not the NHL. Plus, not Canadian… so no biggie, eh.
Plant kept his mask with his practice gear. His coach, Toe Blake, had already told Plante he couldn’t wear the mask in a game. That they’d even discussed it was bizarre, but they often butted heads.
The pair suffered an ongoing battle of differences. Plante would tell Blake his asthma was acting up, that he wouldn’t be able to play, but the man almost never missed a game. He couldn’t. There was no backup goalie.
It was that fact that put the mask on the ice when Plante took a puck to the face from Andy Bathgate. The cut on Plante’s face opened up a gash from his lip to his nose, spilling enough blood on the ice for even the cheap seats to see the pooling.
Medics stitched Plante up in the locker room. Despite his blood-soaked jersey, Plante was ready to go back out, but not without his mask.
Blake dug in his heels, but Plante refused to go out without it. With no other options, Blake conceded.
In the end, Montreal won, 3-1, and Plante would continue to wear his mask.
Fans and players criticized Plante for his apparent lack of dedication, but they couldn’t criticize his goaltending.
Wearing his mask, he was less afraid to take the puck to the face, even if the mask created some blind spots. In time, other goalies braved the ice with a mask, and in time masks evolved, but so did the headgear for regular players.
The last holdout on the ice without a mask was, Andy Brown, who played for the Penguins in the ‘70s, but he looked less courageous and more stupid as a few goalies who didn’t wear masks suffered career-ending injuries.
Those who did wear them played harder. They stopped more attempts
Today’s goalie masks are the cage-style affairs, which wrap onto full fiberglass helmets. All players wear some kind of headgear.
As it turns out, being a brave man is less important than playing like an animal, which is what happens when players feel invincible.
Thankfully, players can still rip those masks off when they need to start a fight.