someone with more sense than bravado: clint benedict, conn smythe, and the 1929 mask mandate that never was

Benny In The Nets: After playing seven NHL seasons (and collecting three Stanley Cups) with the Ottawa Senators, Clint Benedict joined the Montreal Maroons in 1924.

This is the first of a two-part series on the NHL’s original masked man, and how in 1929 the NHL almost (but not quite) came to mandate protection for all its goaltenders.

Olive Benedict might have blamed herself when her husband Clint went down in Montreal that January night in 1930, but it was mischance — and a puck Howie Morenz fired — that actually felled the 37-year-old goaltender for the Montreal Maroons and precipitated the painful end of his long and illustrious NHL career.

That came, the end, nine weeks later when, on a Tuesday, 92 years ago this past week, Benedict played the 390th — and final — game of his Hall-of-Fame career, during which he played in five Stanley Cup finals, winning four of those, three with the (original) Ottawa Senators and another with the Montreal Maroons.

In hockey history, that final game of Benedict’s is also annotated as the end of the goaltender’s desperate two-week experiment with the first face-mask in league history. Five games that lasted. It would be 1959 — 29 years later — before Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jacques Plante donned his famous mask in an actual game, jump-starting a new era in the NHL.

Why was the NHL (and hockey generally) so slow in adopting masks to protect the well-being (and faces) of goaltenders? Institutional conservatism, I guess. Hubris would figure in as a major factor, too, I might say, even if Clint Benedict wouldn’t. Asked in 1964 about the possibility of any such stigma having been attached to goaltenders erring on the side of self-preservation, the old goaltender (he was 71) wasn’t having any of it. “Nah,” he told an inquiring reporter, “we took such a beating anyway that nobody would have thought it sissified. No, it was just a case of not developing one that was practical.”

Even before Benedict tried out his mask, the 1929-30 campaign looked like being a pivotal one for goaltenders, with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ owner, coach, GM, and force-of nature Conn Smythe in a leading role. Not much has been made of this, over the years, but that fall, mere months before an infant Jacques Plante celebrated his first birthday, there was an effort afoot to require the league’s goaltenders to wear masks.

From the start, the 1929-30 season was a challenging one for Clint Benedict, who was playing in 13th NHL season, the 18th, if you felt like counting his years in the NHA, too. In November of ’29, just as the season was getting going, he left a game in Ottawa after the first period after what was described as “a violent attack of indigestion.” Maybe he shouldn’t have tried to play: reported to have been ailing all day, he took the ice “in a weak condition,” as Montreal’s Gazette described it.

Flat Walsh replaced him that night, and went on holding the fort as Benedict recovered, as it was subsequently reported, from a case of ptomaine (food) poisoning. Something he ate in Boston, he said. He lost eight pounds, missed eight games.

Benedict was back in December, but in his second game of his return, he went down again. Painful as it sounds, he got back up on his skates in short order, this time. He was playing brilliantly, by all reports, frustrating the Boston Bruins at the Forum, when he sprawled to stop Dit Clapper and took the puck full in the face. “Benny dropped,” the Gazette reported, “and lay still as if he had been shot dead.” He was unconscious on the ice, revived, repaired to the dressing room. With no concussion protocol or common sense to keep him there, Benedict returned to finish the game.

He was back in action three nights later, on January 7, at the Forum, against the Canadiens. This was the night his wife, Olive, was looking on from a seat just behind his first-period net, a reluctant witness who’d travelled from her home in Ottawa. It was the first game she’d attended in six years, and one of just a dozen or so she’d ever been to in the course of her husband’s lengthy career. It may have been, as one Montreal newspaper suggested, that she thought she brought him back luck, but it might just as well have been that she preferred not to see the dangers he faced every night on the job.

On this night, the game wasn’t yet a minute old when Howie Morenz swept onto Maroon ice and fired the puck. “A smoking shot,” the Montreal Star’s reporter called it; “got him straight between the eyes and smashed the bridge of his nose,” the Gazette detailed. “The impact of the drive could be heard in the far reaches of the building,” the Star said. Players from both teams carried Benedict to the dressing. There was a great mess of blood.

Damage Report: The Montreal Star headline for the game on January 7, 1930. Canadiens’ sporting gesture was tnot to rush sickly substitute Flat Walsh as he suited up in Benedict’s place.

While Benedict’s wounds were being tended, the Maroons dispatched a taxi to retrieve Flat Walsh, who was home in bed, recovering from a bad bout of flu. He arrived at the Forum wearing an overcoat over his pyjamas, changed into his gear, pulled on a cap. “He was almost tottering on his pins,” said the Star, “with his grave face showing a grey pallor beneath his upturned visor. Unsteadily he braced himself for a few practice shots, and then went on to stardom.” After a half-hour delay, that is, hockey resumed, with the Maroons winning by a score of 2-1, and thereby taking over first place in the Canadian side of the NHL standings from their Montreal rivals.

The Star checked in next day at the LaSalle Hotel, just east of the Forum on Drummond at St. Catherine, where Benedict was resting under his wife’s care. “An examination today revealed his nose badly broken with a V-shaped cut that required five stitches, and the flesh is torn all the way down the nose.” The next day, the couple left for Ottawa, where Benedict would spend his convalescence.

He’d miss 15 games this time, over the course of six weeks, with Flat Walsh and (for one game) Abbie Cox, lent by Montreal’s IHL farm team, the Windsor Bulldogs, standing in his stead.

Neither of them saw fit to protect their faces in the wake of Benedict’s injury. In the wider hockey world, discussion of the need for and practicalities of masks had been going on for years. Goaltending in the NHL has never been an easy way of making a living, but in the 1920s and 1930 it was particularly dangerous. Battered by pucks, scythed by skates, run into and over by barrelling opponents: the men who volunteered to man the nets were constantly being jarred, cut, knocked out.

They came to, groggily acknowledged their surroundings, were patched up: mostly, they finished a game they’d started. It happened all the time, in those years.

“I remember at least four times being carried into the dressing room to get all stitched up and then going back in to play,” Benedict said in 1962. “There were some other times, too, but I don’t remember them.”

Much of the mayhem has faded away from modern memory. For its part, the NHL doesn’t, at the best of times, display a nuanced or even particularly reliable memory of its own history, and when it comes to unflattering aspects of the historical game — extreme violence, concussions, other grievous injuries — it’s not as if the league is interested in curating … any of it.

When it comes to early NHL goaltenders, the league will occasionally highlight agony-adjacent events. The emergency foray that New York Rangers coach Lester Patrick made at the age of 44 into the New York Rangers’ net in April of 1928, for instance, is a polished gem of popular hockey history, even if the details of how he was called to duty aren’t always so well remembered. A shot from Nels Stewart of the Maroons caught the regular Ranger goaltender, Lorne Chabot, in the face that night. It was several days before doctors were satisfied that he wouldn’t lose his left eye. Guarding the goal for Montreal that night: Clint Benedict.

Was Canadiens goaltender George Hainsworth, in fact, the first NHLer to don a mask in January of 1929 after his nose was broken by his teammate Aurèle Joliat in a pre-game warm-up? I’ve delved into that possibility to some depth here; the short answer is probably not.

But something was building around that time. I’m not sure you can call it momentum, given how slowly the evolution of hockey masks progressed in the game’s early years. My friend Eric Zweig, hockey historian extraordinaire, has written about Ev Marshall in Calgary in 1899, who is (to date) the first documented goaltender to mask up.

There were others after that, though not many. Some who sought protection did so to safeguard the glasses they wore, and glass-protectors were common in amateur hockey (and in particular on U.S. college ice) through the years of the First World War and into the 1920s. (Not all historians allow that these qualify as masks.) In any case, as with hockey helmets, there was no organized effort to develop a purpose-built hockey mask.

In 1920, the Ontario Hockey Association did add a rule permitting goaltenders to wear masks. It’s possible that some judicious soul took advantage of that provision as soon as it was passed. What we do know with certainty is that during the 1926-27 season, Lawrence Jones did. A stopper of pucks for the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League, he was noted (in Ottawa’s Journal) as “one of the few net guardians in the sport who wears a baseball mask.”

That same year, suiting up for the women’s team at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, goaltender Elizabeth Graham famously donned a fencing mask.

In the unprotected NHL, pucks kept on hitting goaltenders in the face, which was bad for them, generally. More specifically, if they were injured seriously enough that they ended up missing games, that was bad for their teams which, in most cases, didn’t keep a full-time back-up on the roster.

Something had to change, and almost did, two months before Clint Benedict went down with the injury that ended up, finally, shifting the balance. Playing protagonist again in November of 1929 was Lorne Chabot. He was with the Toronto Maple Leafs now, gearing up with his teammates to open the season against the Chicago Black Hawks. The Globe described the mishap at the Leafs’ final pre-season practice at Arena Gardens:

The big goal-guardian was struck in the face by one of Charley Conacher’s terrific drives and was practically knocked unconscious. He quickly recovered, however, but it was necessary to put four stitches in the wound that was opened up in his cheek. He will play tonight, however, although he may present a bandaged appearance.

And so he did, helping his team to a 2-2 tie on a night that Conacher was making his NHL debut (and scoring a goal). Leafs GM and coach Conn Smythe, meanwhile, was working on a plan.

That same fall, the NHL had adjusted its “anti-defence” rules, hoping to speed up the game, increasing scoring opportunities and thereby, goals. To open up play (and specifically confound the packing-of-the-defence scheme perfected by Pete Green and his Ottawa Senators with their “kitty-bar-the-door” strategy”), the new rule stipulated that only three defenders (including the goaltender) were permitted in the defensive zone when the puck was elsewhere. This meant that forwards couldn’t precede the puck into their own zone: they had to wait to enter with the play.

Another rule barred goaltenders from holding pucks that came their way. Previously, they’d been permitted to hang on to a puck for three seconds before casting it away to a teammate or a corner. Now, they had to release the puck instantly, or pay the penalty of a punitive face-off ten feet in front of their net, with no defenders allowed on the ice between the goal and the puck-drop.

What all this meant for goaltenders, Smythe said, was more shots and more danger. (The league seemed to acknowledge this in its amended rules: where previously goaltenders were allowed ten minutes to recuperate from an on-ice injury, an extra five minutes was now added in the case that the goaltender had to be replaced.) The Gazette in Montreal explained Smythe’s position: “To prevent a serious accident,” Smythe wanted to mandate that goaltenders “be protected as much as possible by headgear and especially constructed masks.” To that end, he had a proposal he was going to present at the next meeting of the NHL’s governors that would compel all goaltenders to wear masks.

According to the Gazette’s report, Smythe had the support of “several managers in the NHL.” The problem was one of social stigma as much as anything else: goaltenders themselves were reluctant to be the first to take up a mask. “If all teams were compelled to do so,” the dispatch concluded, “it would be quickly adopted.”

Bright Idea: A Montreal newspaper reports on Smythe’s modest 1929 proposal.

There’s no reason to believe that Smythe didn’t follow through on this effort. If he did, details of the discussion didn’t filter out to the newspapers, and no decision on mandatory masks was taken. NHL President Frank Calder did oversee a meeting of league governors in mid-December in Chicago, but no mention of masks or mandates surfaced in the press that week. And Smythe, it seems, was in Montreal anyway, coaching the Leafs in a 3-1 loss to the Maroons and earning himself a fine of $50 for haranguing referee Dr. Eddie O’Leary.

As urgent as Smythe’s push for a mask mandate had seemed, it … evaporated? Maybe he did present his proposal to the league and failed to rally enough support. Could he have been persuaded in the interim that the goaltenders themselves didn’t like the idea? We don’t know.

And so the mask debate faded away into the background again … for a month. “Some day the league will authorize masks for netminders as baseball does for its catchers, and these accidents will be avoided.” That was the Gazette, in its original report of Morenz’s shot and Benedict’s resulting distress in January of 1930.

Baz O’Meara weighed in the following day in his Montreal Star column. “So far no mask has been made which gives the maximum of protection, and the minimum of discomfort,” he wrote. “Still someone with more sense than bravado will come out some night and set a new fashion in protection to eyes and noses — but it won’t be till someone invents a better mask than any that can be utilized at present.”

Masked Man: Clint Benedict poses with his mask in 1930.

Benedict was on the case, of course, commissioning a sporting goods firm to make him a sensible apparatus with which he could return to the Maroons net. The record hasn’t, over the years, had much more to say in the way of specifics than that.

According to several accounts, the firm was in Boston — that’s what Jim Hynes and Gary Smith report in their book Saving Face: The Art and History of the Goalie Mask (2008), though they don’t list a source. Another history, Douglas Hunter’s lavish A Breed Apart: An Illustrated History of Goaltending (1995), mentions Boston, but also notes a second possibility: that the Maroons’ trainer (not named, but it would have been Bill O’Brien) “modified a black leather face mask boxers wore in sparring by riveting a thick black bar across the front to protect Benedict’s nose and cheekbone.” Again, no sources are listed.

The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Benedict mask.

There is this famous contemporary photograph of Benedict showing off his mask. As Hunter points out, the Hockey Hall of Fame has in its collection another mask of a slightly different design that it says belonged to Benedict. Is that one a prototype, then, or an alternate mask? In 1932, Benedict announced that he was contemplating a hockey comeback with the aid of a whole new mask — maybe that’s what the Hall has?

One photograph I hadn’t seen until I came across it recently in the pages of a Montreal newspaper from February of 1930 must have been taken at the same time as the one above. Benedict has the same distant gaze in this new one, but his cap is off: you can see the head-strap that held the mask in place, or not — in at least one of the games in which the mask served, the strap failed and had to be taped.

Even more interesting than the photograph is the short article that accompanies it. It may not solve any of the small puzzles associated with Benedict’s mask — indeed, on a point or two, it stirs up new questions. There’s insight here, too, though, into the makings of Benedict’s mask that I haven’t seen before in my scourings of archival records.

That’s for another post, though, I think, on another day. Stand by.

 

normie himes: kingpin of the new york forwards, with all the aplomb of a regular goalie

If we’re going to talk about Normie Himes, then it’s worth mentioning that he was born in April of 1900, in Galt, Ontario, which is now part of Cambridge. It’s important to say, too, I suppose, that nobody played more games for the long-gone and maybe a little bit, still, lamented New York Americans than Himes did (402). Nobody scored more goals for them, either (106), or piled up more points (219). He was a centreman, except for those rare occasions when he dropped back and helped out in net — just twice, though that would be enough, as it turned out, to see him rated eleventh on the Americans’ all-time list of goaltender games-played.

The elongated Normie is a phrase that would have been familiar to readers of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the 1930s, wherein he was also described as the size of a slightly overgrown jockey (he was 5’9”). Articles calling him kingpin of the New York offence also sometimes mention that he was hard to unseat and refer to his dandy shot. For a while there he was, I also see, considered one of the shrewdest and trickiest forwards in professional hockey.

Ronnie Martin and Rabbit McVeigh played on his wings in 1932; in 1934, he often skated on the Amerks’ top line with Bob Gracie and Harry Oliver — though sometimes it was Oliver and Hap Emms.

Here’s the great Harold Burr describing a goal Himes scored in 1931 against Ottawa. Taking a pass from New York defenceman Red Dutton, Himes swooped in on Senators’ goaltender Alec Connell.

Himes’ first slam was fended by the Ottawa goalie, but the puck fell at his feet, so much dead rubber. Now Himes hasn’t kept very much of his hair, but he has all the gray matter saved. He pounced on the loose puck like a hungry cat after an old shoe and the Americans were leading again.

“I wouldn’t trade him for any centre in the league,” claimed Himes’ coach, Eddie Gerard, in 1931, a year in which Howie Morenz, Frank Boucher, and Joe Primeau were centres in the league.

His best season would seem to have been the year before that, 1929-30, when he scored 28 goals and 50 points to lead the Americans in scoring. That was the year he finished sixth in the voting for NHL MVP when Nels Stewart of the Montreal Maroons ended up carrying off the Hart Memorial Trophy. That same season and the next one too, Himes was runner-up for the Lady Byng (Boucher won both times. He also finished third on the Byng ballot in 1931-32, when Primeau prevailed.

Playing for the lowly Americans, Himes never got near a Stanley Cup: in his nine years with the team, he played in just two playoff games.

The boy in the baseball cap is from a New York profile of Himes 1931, and it’s true that like Aurele Joliat he went mostly hatted throughout his career as an NHLer, either because he was bald-headed (as mentioned in a 1938 dispatch) orbecause as a boy he wanted to be a professional ballplayer and roam the outfield grass (1930) — possibly both apply.

Shoeless Joe Jackson of the Chicago White Sox was Himes’ hero, pre-1919 game-fixing scandal. “I want to tell you I felt pretty mean,” Himes once told a reporter, “when the evil news about Joe broke.” Himes played shortstop for a famous old amateur baseball outfit, the Galt Terriers, and he was bright enough as a prospect that a scout for the ballplaying Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League tried to sign him before he opted to to stick to hockey. Himes didn’t think he was good enough with the ball and the bat.

His first stint as a goaltender came by way of an emergency in 1927, back when most NHL teams didn’t carry back-ups, and skaters were sometimes drafted in to take the net when goaltenders were penalized or injured.

Sprague Cleghorn, Battleship Leduc, and Charlie Conacher were others who found themselves employed temporarily in this way in the early years of the NHL. Mostly they went in as they were, without donning proper goaltending gear, and I think that was the case for Himes on this first occasion. It’s often reported to have been a December game against Pittsburgh, but that’s not right: the Americans were in Montreal, where their goaltender, Joe Miller, started off the night watching Canadiens’ very first shot sail over his shoulder in to the net.

Howie Morenz scored that goal and another one as well, and by the third period the score was 4-0 for Montreal. Morenz kept shooting. The Gazette:

The Canadien flash whistled a shot from the left. Miller never saw it. The puck caromed off his shoulder, and struck him over the right cheek just under the eye. Miller toppled over like a log, and had to be carried off the ice. Fighter that he is, the Ottawa lad soon revived in the dressing room and wanted to return to the fray. But Manager “Shorty” Green decided against taking risks and sent Normie Himes into the American net to finish out the game.

Comfortable in their lead, Montreal, it seems, showed mercy — “eased up in their shooting,” the Gazette noted. New York’s temp, meanwhile, looked to be enjoying himself.

Himes warmed up to his strange task and towards the end of the game was blocking shots of all descriptions with the aplomb of a regular goalie.

It’s not clear how many pucks came his way — fewer than ten — but he did repel them all. The score stayed 4-0.

Himes got his second chance in net a year later, when his coach, Tommy Gorman, got into a snit. With this outing, Himes would become the only NHL skater to play an entire game in goal, start to finish.

After helping the New York Rangers win the 1928 Stanley Cup, vagabond Joe Miller landed in Pittsburgh on loan from the Americans. The Pirates had (1) a new owner and (2) an unhappy incumbent in net. Roy Worters, one of the league’s best, was asking for double the $4,000 salary he’d received previously; owner Benny Leonard was offering $5,000. With Miller aboard, Leonard then signed Worters (for considerably less than he was seeking, according to the owner), intending to trade him.

The Americans were interested. Having started the 1928-29 season with Flat Walsh and Jake Forbes sharing duty in the nets, they now offered Miller and a pile of cash, $20,000, in exchange for Worters. Leonard wanted Himes or Johnny Shepard in the deal, so he said he’d go shopping elsewhere.

NHL President Frank Calder had his say in the matter, and it was this: Worters was suspended, and if he were going to play in the NHL, it would be with Pittsburgh. “He will not play with any other club,” Calder declared.

Calder refused to relent even after the Pirates and Americans went ahead with a deal that send Worters to New York in exchange for Miller and the $20,000. So it was that on the night of December 1, 1928, at Toronto’s Arena Gardens, the home team refused to allow the Americans to use Worters, though he was in uniform and took the warm-up, unless New York could prove that Calder had given his blessing.

New York couldn’t. Coach Gorman’s best option at this point was Jake Forbes, who was in the building and ready to go. But starting Forbes wouldn’t sufficiently express Gorman’s displeasure with Calder in the way that putting Himes in would. So Forbes sat out.

Himes did his best on the night — “made a fairly good fist of the goalkeeping job,” said The New York Times. It’s not readily apparent how many shots he stopped, but we do know that there were three did failed to stymie. Toronto Daily Star columnist Charlie Querrie said the Americans looked lost, not least because “they missed the said Himes on the forward line.”

The Americans had a game the following day in Detroit and who knows whether Gorman would have called on Himes again if Frank Calder hadn’t lifted the suspension and allowed Worters to begin his New York Americans’ career, which he did in a 2-1 loss. “I have no desire to be hard on anyone,” Calder said that week, “but rules are rules and must be followed.”

So Normie Himes closed his NHL goaltending career showing two appearances, a loss, and a 2.28 average.

Worters would be still be working the Americans’ net in the fall of 1935 when clever but agingwas a phrase that spelled the end of Himes’ NHL career. Himes didn’t even get as far as New York that year: by the end of the team’s October training camp in Oshawa, Ontario, teammate Red Dutton had decided Himes’ time was up. While he was still playing defence for the Americans, Dutton also happened to be coaching the team that year so it meant something when he deemed Himes surplus and gave him his release. One of the best defensive centres and play-makers in the league a few years agois a sentence dating to that period, closely followed by failed to keep pace with the younger players and left at once for his home at Galt. Himes was 35.

He did sign that year with the New Haven Eagles of the Can-Am league on the understanding that they’d release him if he could secure another NHL gig. He couldn’t, and so stayed on in New Haven, where he eventually took over as the coach.

When Himes married Ruth Connor in 1928, he gave his occupation as “Pro. Hockey + Golf.” He was good on the grass, I guess, and worked at it in the off-season. “When the cry of the puck no longer is heard in the land,” a slightly enigmatic column reported in 1929, “Normie retires to Galt, Ontario, where he is resident professional. He says hockey and golf are very much alike — in theory.” He was later, in practice, manager of Galt’s Riverview Gold Club.

Normie Himes died in 1958, at the age of 58. He was in Kitchener at the time, collapsing after a golf game with an old New York Americans’ teammate, Al Murray.

 

the man in the nhl’s first mask: not clint benedict?

hainsworth hopital

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. But is it 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.

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 stuck with the 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 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.”

hainsAt 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? Continue reading