Head Case: George Hainsworth, battered Canadiens goaltender, rests in his hospital bed after his friendly fire incident in January of 1929.
It’s settled in, now, rooted deep enough that feels like permanent truth: whereas Jacques Plante in 1959 is the acknowledged trailblazer when it comes to goaltenders wearing a mask in the NHL — the man who changed everything in that department — Clint Benedict did, of course, get there before him, donning a mask of his own in February of 1930.
That’s how it’s rendered in the hockey literature — in the new edition, for example, of Saving Face (2015), a handsome history of hockey masks Jim Hynes and Gary Smith, or in the goalie-focussed edition that The Hockey News put out in December.
But maybe was Benedict not the first goaltender to mask himself in an NHL game? Could a damaged Montreal rival of his have beaten him to it by almost a year, viz. George Hainsworth of the Canadiens? If so, this would be news — if it’s true.
The evidence that I’ve come across is tantalizing, if not exactly conclusive. Here’s how it goes:
In 1959, it was a vindictive backhander by Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers that changed everything for Montreal’s Jacques Plante. Once he’d stopped the puck with his face and had his cuts stitched, he returned to the ice with his famous mask in place —what the next day’s Montreal Gazette called “a flesh-colored helmet, with slits for his eyes and mouth.”
In 1930, Clint Benedict suffered head wounds in successive games — followed by a 15-game absence — before returning to the ice with mask in place to patrol the net for the Montreal Maroons.
First up, on January 4, Boston’s Dit Clapper broke in on a third period rush and his shot knocked Benedict out cold. Revived, he went to the dressing room to collect himself. Ten minutes later, he was back to finish the game.
Three nights later, Maroons and Canadiens, it was Howie Morenz who brought the puck towards Benedict’s net. His first-period shot flew high and hit the goaltender, as Horace Lavigne of La Patrie wrote it, with incredible violence. Lavigne thought the goaltender jumped to stop the puck — just before he dropped “like a lead weight.” There was plenty of blood and this time when Benedict departed the ice, he went to the hospital to be tended for a broken nose and a cut that needed seven stitches to close.
The Maroons did have a second goaltender, Flat Walsh, but he was himself indisposed that night — at home, suffering under a fever of 102. Still, when the call from the Forum came, he got himself up, into a taxi, and over to the rink — where he arrived wearing a coat over his pyjamas. After a half-hour’s hiatus, the game resumed with Walsh in the Montreal net.
Benedict, for his part, left the hospital as soon as he was able, heading back to the Forum to catch the end of the Maroons’ 2-1 win.
Protecting Device: Clint Benedict in his mask, 1930.
Walsh kept the net (with a little help from Abbie Cox) for a month after that. The infirmary report on Benedict spoke of a rest of three weeks or more: “His face is now swollen to such an extent that it is barely possible for him to open either eye.” February 20 was the date he got back: the Maroons were in New York for a game at Madison Square Garden against the Americans. This was the night he first wore his famous mask — a.k.a. “a large protector” (The Gazette). “Clint looked as if he had stepped out of the Dumas novel, ‘The Iron Mask,’ or in the modern manner, was appearing as a visitor from Mars.”
Benedict wore his mask for four more games after that — or three and a third. It’s often written that he discarded the mask after a game or two, but as Eric Zweig has written, that’s not so — what happened was that, five games after he returned, Benedict discarded hockey. Injured again in a game against Ottawa — someone fell on him, or cracked him on the mask, or both — he gave way again to Flat Walsh, who played the Maroons’ final four regular-season games as well as the team’s first-round playoff series, which was lost in four games to Boston.
Benedict didn’t, right away, say he was finished — with this “hoodoo season” behind him, he vowed, he’d be back. But the come the fall, the Maroons decided that at the age of 38, he didn’t figure in their plans. There was regret in Montreal but maybe not overwhelming surprise. “Benny’s downfall,” explained The Canadian Press in November, “came towards the end of last season when he was hit in the face by a puck during a game here. His nose was badly smashed keeping him out of the game for several weeks. When he returned still with a protecting device on his face he found that he had lost some of his old ability to stop the tricky ones.”
George Hainsworth was the Canadiens goaltender on the night, January 7, 1930, when Morenz’s shot sent Benedict to the hospital.
He might have winced, or shuddered: possibly a stab of phantom pain in his nose made his eyes water. Hainsworth was 36, just a year younger than his rival down at the other end. But while the battered Maroons goaltender was nearing the end of his distinguished NHL career, Hainsworth was just getting going.
Leo Dandurand had signed him in the summer of 1926 from the WHL Saskatoon Sheiks and, after a brief tussle with the Toronto St. Pats, who believed they owned his rights, Hainsworth took to the Montreal net to succeed the late lamented Georges Vézina.
He proved a worthy successor, playing in every Canadiens game for the next three seasons, most of which were victories. In 132 regular-season games in those first three years, he had 49 shutouts. After Vézina’s death at the end of March of 1926, the NHL inaugurated a trophy in his name, for the league’s best goaltender, and Hainsworth won it for the first three years that it was awarded.
“Spry as a two-year-old” was a description applied to Hainsworth later in his NHL career; “cool and collected” was another. “A paragon of nonchalance,” advised The Chicago Tribune. “His utter sang froid in stopping the puck affords a rare thrill in hockey,” Montreal’s Gazette trilled. “His severest critic is his wife, who reads the newspapers reports of the games, and writes George in no uncertain terms what she thinks.”
But, for all his successes, were Canadiens loyalists slow to embrace him? Did they possibly not love him as much as they had loved Vézina? That’s what Ron McAllister suggests in the Hainsworth chapter he wrote in his popular compendium of profiles, Hockey Heroes (1949); it wasn’t until early in 1929 that the Montreal faithful finally learned to love Hainsworth. Which brings us, at last, to the (possible) case of Hainsworth’s pre-Benedict mask.
The night Montreal faithful learned to embrace their new(ish) goaltender was a Thursday, January 24, 1929, when the Canadiens hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Forum. The game ended in a 1-1, with Montreal winger Aurèle Joliat scoring the home team’s goal.
But before he fired that shot, Joliat unloosed another: in the warm-up he hit Hainsworth full in the face — an accident, of course, as much as it might have seemed like a rehearsal, or demonstration for his linemate Morenz showing how to go about it in a year’s time.
Hainsworth bled and, as Le Canada reported, bled. While Canadiens’ physician Dr. John Corrigan did his best to stanch the flow, he found that the nose was broken. While the doctor dressed the wound, the team’s management saw to it that an announcement went out over Forum loudspeakers: would Hughie McCormick please present himself, if he happened to be in the house?
McCormick was a practice goalie for the Canadiens, a former minor-league guardian of nets, whose story is worth a telling on another day. He didn’t answer the Forum call, though. If Hainsworth was thinking of taking the night off to recover from Joliat’s friendly fire, he now changed his mind. “Courageous,” Le Canada wrote, “Hainsworth insisted on resuming his place. Dr. Corrigan gave him a preliminary dressing and he played the entire game.
If not for him, said the Gazette, who knows how Montreal would have withstood Toronto’s onslaught. “His sterling work in the middle session probably saved the Flying Frenchmen from defeat, for in the middle session the Leafs swarmed all over the local team.” One eye was swollen nearly shut; after the game, he went by ambulance to Notre Dame Hospital. Still, Dr. Corrigan told reporters that he was confident that the goaltender would be ready to play two nights hence, when the Canadiens went to play in Ottawa.
Can we pause here for a moment to consider the season that Hainsworth was having at this point? This was the year he recorded 22 shutouts in 44 regular-season games. Before Joliat broke his face for him, Hainsworth had slammed the proverbial door in 11 of 25 games, including four of the five leading up to the Toronto game.
In case Hainsworth couldn’t play in Ottawa, the Canadiens got permission from the NHL to use Hughie McCormick. There was also talk of calling in a young goaltender who’d practiced with the team in the pre-season, Alex Bolduc. At the hospital, X-ray confirmed Dr. Corrigan’s diagnosis: Hainsworth’s nose was fractured. Canadiens coach Cecil Hart was, all the same, holding out hope that his goaltender would be on the ice in Ottawa.
Hainsworth himself didn’t have any doubt. On Friday, a reporter from La Patrie dropped in on him at the hospital, room 512. “It was with exquisite urbanity that Hainsworth received your representative,” the visitor wrote. It wasn’t the first time, Hainsworth said, that he’d taken a smack to the head. Back when he’d played for the Saskatoon Sheiks, a shot had smashed seven teeth: “But I stayed in my position anyway.” Another time, he’d taken a ball to the temple, playing baseball: “I had a cerebral concussion.” His face still hurt from Joliat’s shot, he told the reporter. Still, he didn’t mind posing for a photograph in his sick-bed, even as he insisted that he would be leaving it soon. “I want to go to Ottawa, and I am able to play tomorrow night,” he said. “I am able to play and I do not want to hear that the Canadiens have departed tomorrow afternoon without me.”
At some point on Friday he did check himself out. He felt well enough, it seems, to head for a rink — an artist for La Patrie caught him at the Mont-Royal Arena watching from the penalty bench as a local senior team, Montreal St. Francois Xavier, went through its practice paces.
Saturday Hainsworth travelled to Ottawa with his teammates and he played, as promised, as the Canadiens beat the Senators 2-1. It was the second game in a row in which he’d allowed a goal — Frank Finnigan beat him — but Hainsworth earned only praise and sympathy in the press. “Alert,” The Globe called him; “Hainsworth was just fine,” La Patrie noted. His view must have been impaired the bandage he wore over his nose (“a heavy plaster,” The Globe called it), but he was his usual stalwart self. The Ottawa Journal: “Hainsworth in the nets didn’t show any effects from his broken nose if his stopping was any criterion.”
The Canadiens trained down to New York next for a pair of games at Madison Square Garden to start the new week. The first of these, Monday night, was a make-up game against the Rangers, defending Stanley Cup champions. The two teams had originally been scheduled to meet on January 8, but promoter and Rangers’ founder Tex Rickard had died, and the game was postponed to honour him.
The crowd was small, about 5,000. Many of the spectators spent much of the second and third periods jeering the home team. On the ice, the game was “bitterly fought,” The New York Times said. Referees Jerry Laflamme and Eddie O’Leary called many penalties, including a charging major against Bill Cook, his third of the season. When Armand Mondou scored the game’s only goal, the Canadiens had a four-on-three man advantage. The Rangers thought they’d scored a tying goal, through Leo Bourgeault, who (The Times):
… crashed the disk past Hainsworth, only to have the shot disallowed as the crowd booed. Bourgault was all alone at the rival net, and though the spectators thought the goal had been made the ruling was that it had hit the top bar and did not fall into the net.
At the finish it remained Canadiens 1, Rangers 0.
This January 28 game is the one in which Hainsworth may have worn some kind of protective mask to guard his wounded nose — which, again, would ante-date Clint Benedict’s famous face-guard by more than a year.
Unless there was no Hainsworth mask: the evidence I’ve come across comes down to a single reference in a single newspaper account.
In the ten reports of the game I’ve looked at, there are several mentions of Hainsworth injured nose, most of which refer to a save he made with it. Montreal Gazette was one of these, running an Associated Press dispatch that mentions a combined attack by the brothers Cook: “Hainsworth saved at the expense of a blow on his nose, broken less than a week ago.” La Patrie mentions this, too, while commending Hainsworth’s all-around play (“merveilleux,” “superbe,” “solide”). When Rangers’ coach Lester Patrick sent out five forwards in the third period in an attempt to tie the score, “Hainsworth had to make miracles.”
Two New York papers go into more detail — it’s just that the details don’t agree.
Grover Theis wrote up the game for the Times. “When the two teams skated out on the ice,” he remarked, “the most striking thing was that Hainsworth had a piece of plaster from one side of his face to the other.” He went on:
He was hurt in practice, but the goalie was undaunted by the handicap, because he stood up in the face of the first Ranger assaults with real courage and stopped several hard shots that the Ranger forward line carried against him.
On the beat for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle was Harold C. Burr, an enthusiastic hockey correspondent with a vivid style. Here’s his overview of the game:
Not a spectator dared leave until the final whistle. One goal really decided it, but there was much ado before and after it. Once the playing surface was swept practically clean of Rangers. Frank Boucher tied the score, yet didn’t, in one man’s opinion. Excitable Frenchmen hugged and kissed on the ice. The crowd did everything but mob the referees. And Bill Cook drew his third damaging major penalty.
Quite a game, by and large, once everybody got their mad up.
“Les Canadiens sent some cripples into the melting pot,” he continued:
Howie Morenz reported with an ailing ankle and Goalie George Hainsworth wore from ear to ear a rubber protector across the bridge of a nose broken in practice at Montreal last week. But Morenz ran into a blue pocket with a tightening draw-string every time he attempted to advance and Hainsworth’s nose was in danger only once.
It was when rubber met rubber. The goalie was hit in the face by a high shot from Bill Cook’s weapon of wood. He put up both hands as if blinded. Both Cook brothers put their arms around him. But his mask had literally saved his face.
So there it is. A rubber protector. His mask. More than merely a passing reference, Burr’s is a very specific description And yet he remains all alone in his specificity. Assuming he wasn’t the only one to spy this mask of Hainsworth’s, could he really have been the only man on the reporting job to deem it worth a mention?