face facts: the first men in the masks, winter olympics edition

Face First: Japanese goaltender Teiji Honma at the 1936 Winter Olympics.

Japan made the first of its eight Winter Olympic hockey showings in 1936 at the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Games in Germany. They played twice there, and lost twice, though by respectable margins. After going down 3-0 to the eventual gold medallists from Great Britain on February 7, they fell again the next day, 2-0 to Sweden. That left them in ninth place in the final standings for the 15-team tournament, tied with Poland, France, and Italy. (Japan’s best showing came in 1960 in Squaw Valley, when they ended up eighth.)

Stopping pucks for the Japanese in 1936 was goaltender Teiji Honma, here above, who also garnered attention for his protective facemask. In those years, of course, most goalies headed into the breach bare-faced. Elizabeth Graham did wear a fencing-mask when she tended nets for Queen’s University in the mid-1920s. A decade before her, Corinne Hardmann of Montreal’s Western Ladies Hockey Club donned a baseball catcher’s cage. And Eric Zweig has written persuasively about an even earlier masking, in 1903, by Eddie Giroux of the Toronto’s OHA Marlboros.

In the NHL, Clint Benedict was first (famously) to don a mask in 1930 — unless George Hainsworth beat him to it. (Probably not.)

And at the Olympics? As far as I can determine, Frank Farrell set the precedent in 1932 when he backstopped the host team from the United States at Lake Placid. A Connecticut native, he was 23 when he got the U.S. job after proving himself playing for Yale and New York’s amateur St. Nicholas HC. Like Honma, he wore glasses and hoped, apparently, to protect them from pucks. The crude mask Farrell wore at Lake Placid is (not so clearly) visible in the U.S. team photo below.

In Lake Placid, Ralph Allen from The Winnipeg Tribune singled Farrell out for his communication skills. “Should have been a quarterback,” he wrote. “His leather-lunged method of delivering instructions to his mates would make any gridiron field general turn green with envy.”

Representing Canada on the ice, the Winnipegs came highly touted, but the U.S. gave them a run for their (slightly complacent) money. In the tournament’s opening game, “there was” (said the AP) “scarcely anything to choose” between the two teams. They were tied 1-1 going into overtime. It as Canadian forward Vic Lindquist who decided it, halfway through the non-sudden-death period, with a “blistering” shot.

Both Canada and the U.S. dispensed, and handily, with the other two teams in the tournament, Poland and Germany, and when two teams met again nine days later, the Canadians sat atop the standing two points ahead of the U.S. With a win, the hosts could force a playoff game that would decide the Olympic title; Canada could claim the gold with a tie.

The U.S. looked the stronger team for much of the game, taking the lead two minutes in. Hack Simpson tied the score for Canada before the U.S. scored again in the second on a two-man advantage. Canada left it late to reply: with just 33 seconds remaining in the third, Romeo Rivers snagged the puck and scored with what the Montreal’s Gazette saw as “a snipe shot.” He “stickhandled his way into position and rifled a smoking drive into the far top corner of the United States goal for a beautiful marker.”

The AP correspondent wasn’t quite so impressed, it might be noted. Rivers “let fly a hurried shot from near the boards at the blue line and the curving puck slipped past Goalie Frank Farrell for the tying goal:” that’s what he saw. Yet another (American) account told of “a crazily bounding disc that rolled pas Goalie Frank Farrell.”

Thirty minutes of overtime saw no more goals. “With the fat thus pulled out of the fire,” advised the AP, “the Canadians set themselves to repel a series of fierce charges by the determined challengers.” It was good enough for gold, in the end, even if it wasn’t always so pretty. “So tired they could hardly skate,” the Gazette conceded, “the [sic] Winnipegers flung the puck to the other end of the rink whenever they got a chance toward the end of the game.”

Front row, kneeling, from left to right: Frank Farrell and his mask, Jack Bent, Buzz Hollock, John Cookman, Doug Everett, Ty Anderson, and Ted Fraser. Standing: Coach Al Windsor, Ding Palmer, John Chase, Bob Livingston, Frank Nelson, John Garrison, Gordon Smith, Joe Fitzgerald, manager C.J. Gleason, and Tom Murray.