perhaps some day: hockey’s early, battered goaltenders and the long wait for a better (non-baseball) mask

“All his teeth were loosened:” Not long after John Ross Roach posed in a baseball catcher’s mask in 1933, he was cut, contused, and concussed while going barefaced into the breach in the Red Wings’ net.

Last Friday was November 1 and therefore an auspicious anniversary in the history of hockey preventatives: it was 60 years to the day that Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender Jacques Plante decided that he’d played enough barefaced hockey in the NHL. Cut by a puck shot by Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers that night in 1959 at Madison Square Garden, Plante left the game bleeding badly. When he returned to the ice, he was wearing a mask over his stitches and bandages. Clint Benedict had experimented with a mask (or masks) back in 1930, of course, but it was with Plante that the practice of goaltenders protecting their faces became commonplace in the NHL.

That’s not to say that throughout the rest of hockey history goaltenders weren’t constantly thinking about mitigating the damage being done to their faces. Baseball’s catcher’s mask originated at Harvard University in the 1870s, and it makes sense that hockey players might reach for a handy one of those come wintertime.

Eric Zweig has written about Eddie Giroux experimenting in 1903 with just such a mask. Giroux would go on, in 1907, to win a Stanley Cup with Kenora, but this was four years earlier when he was playing for Toronto’s OHA Marlboros. A shot by teammate Tommy Phillips cut him in practice, and so he tried the mask, though it’s not clear that he wore it in an actual game.

Same for Kingston’s Edgar Hiscock, who had his nose broken playing for the Frontenacs in 1899. He was reported to be ready to don a “baseball mask” in the game that followed, though I haven’t seen a corroborating account from the actual game in question. Mentioning Hiscock’s innovation beforehand, a local correspondent weighed in:

This is a new idea, and one which, perhaps, will create some amusement among the spectators at first, but yet there is not the least doubt of it being carried into effect, as something should be worn by goalkeepers to protect the head from the swift shots of some hockey players.

Is Hiscock’s the earliest recorded instance of a goaltender sporting a mask? That I’ve come across, yes — but only so far, and not by much. A goaltender in Calgary donned a baseball mask in an intermediate game a couple of months later.

Hockey players and pundits were constantly discussing the pros and cons of masks throughout the early years of the new century. There was talk in 1912 around the NHA (forerunner to the NHL) that it might be time for goaltenders to protect their faces, though nothing ever came of it. In 1922, the OHA added a provision to its rulebook allowing goaltenders to wear baseball masks.

We know that Corinne Hardman of Montreal’s Western Ladies Hockey Club was wearing a mask a few years before that. And in 1927, while Elizabeth Graham was styling a fencing-mask while tending the nets for Queen’s University, Lawrence Jones was wearing a mask of his own to do his goaling for the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League.

“Keeping both eyes on the elusive rubber disk is a decidedly more difficult matter than watching a pitched or thrown ball in baseball,” the Globe explained in 1922 in noting that catcher’s masks weren’t generally up to job that hockey goaltending demanded from them. On that count, nothing had really changed since Eddie Giroux considered a baseball mask 20 years earlier. “He wore it at a couple of practices,” the Globe noted then, “but found it unsatisfactory owing to the difficulty in locating shots from the side.”

If you’ve dug into hockey-mask history, you’ll recognize that as a refrain. Goaltenders who, liked most of us, would rather not have exposed their heads to hurtling puck and errant sticks and skates chose to do so because nobody had invented a mask that would allow them to see well enough continue their puckstopping at the level they were used to.

I don’t know whether we can properly understand the bravery and hardiness of the men who tended the nets in the early NHL, much less the suffering. Hard as it may be to quantify, I’m ready to declare that the 1920s and ’30s were the most damaging era ever for NHL goaltenders. Lester Patrick’s unlikely turn in the New York Rangers’ net during the 1928 Stanley Cup finals came about because his goalie, Lorne Chabot, nearly lost an eye when Nels Stewart of Montreal’s Maroons caught him with a backhand. Chabot was back in net, mask-free, to start the next season.

It’s just possible (if not entirely probable) that in 1929, a year before Clint Benedict debuted his mask, George Hainsworth of the Montreal Canadiens tried one of his own after a teammate’s warm-up shot to the face put him in hospital. The history of goaltenders contused, cut, and concussed in those first decades of the NHL is as grim as it voluminous — and that’s before you get to the part about the frontline goalies, Andy Aitkenhead of the New York Rangers and Canadiens’ Wilf Cude, whose NHL careers seem to have been cut short by what might today be diagnosed as PTSD.

All of which is to say that goalies needed all the help the protection they could get in 1933, which is when this photograph dates to. At 33, John Ross Roach was a cornerstone of Jack Adams’ Detroit Red Wings, and while he was the oldest player in the NHL that year, he wasn’t showing any signs of flagging, having started every one of Detroit’s 48 regular-season games in 1932-33. He was still in his prime when a photographer posed in a mask borrowed from a baseball catcher. The feature that it illustrated does suggest that Roach did experiment with a similar set-up in practice, though he’d never tested it in a game.

Roach’s problem with the catcher’s mask was the same one that Eddie Giroux had encountered 30 years earlier: it obscured a goalie’s sightlines. Playing under the lights in modern rinks only compounded the problem. “The mask creates shadows under artificial lighting that do not exist in sun-lit ball parks,” Jack Carveth’s Detroit Free Press report expounded, “and Roach wants no shadows impairing his vision when fellows like Charlie Conacher, Billy Cook, Howie Morenz or dozens of others are winding up for a drive 10 feet in front of him. Perhaps some day in the not too distant future a mask will be made that will eliminate the shadows. Until such a product arrives, Roach and his fellow workmen between the posts will keep their averages up at the expense of their faces, having the lacerations sewn up and head bumps reduced by the skilled hands of the club physician.”

Detroit took to the ice at the Olympia on the Sunday that Carveth’s article ran. Montreal’s Maroons were in town for an early-season visit (which they ended up losing, 3-1). Other than a second-period brawl involving players and fans and police, the news of the night was what happened just before the fists started flying. Falling to stop a shot from Montreal’s Baldy Northcott, Roach, maskless, was cut in the face by teammate Ebbie Goodfellow’s skate, and probably concussed, too. “His head hit the ice,” Carveth reported, “and he was still dazed after the game was over.” Relieved for the remainder of the game by Abbie Cox, Roach went for stitches: three were needed to close the wound on his upper lip.

The Tuesday that followed this, December 12, is one that lives on in NHL history for the events that unfolded in Boston Garden when Bruins’ defenceman Eddie Shore knocked the Leafs’ Ace Bailey to the ice. The brain injury Bailey suffered that night ended his career and nearly his life.

Roach was back in the nets that very night for Detroit’s 4-1 home win over the Chicago Black Hawks. Any ill effects he was suffering weren’t mentioned in the papers. But two days later, on the Thursday, Roach was injured again when the Red Wings played in Chicago. This time, he fell early in the third period when a shot of Black Hawks’ winger Mush March struck him in his (unprotected) face. Once more, Roach was replaced, this time by defenceman Doug Young. Roach took on further stitches, seven to the lips, five more inside his mouth. “All his teeth were loosened,” the Chicago Tribune noted. He was checked into Garfield Park Hospital and kept there while his teammates caught their train home.

Roach ceded the net to Abbie Cox for Detroit’s next game, the following Sunday, but he was back in the Tuesday after that, shutting out the Americans in New York by a score of 1-0. But while he did finish out the calendar year as the Red Wings starter, playing three more games (losses all), that would be all for Roach that season. Just before the New Year, Detroit GM Jack Adams borrowed the aforementioned, yet unbroken Wilf Cude from Montreal, announcing that Roach was being given two to four weeks to “rest” and recover from his injuries.

No-one was talking about post-concussion syndrome in those years, of course. “He has given his best efforts to the club,” Adams said, “but he has been under strain and his recent injury in Chicago, when seven stitches had to be taken in his face, combined to affect his play.”

By the time Roach was ready to return, Cude was playing so well that Adams didn’t want him, and so the former Red Wing number one ended up the year playing for the IHL Syracuse Stars. Roach did make it back to the NHL for one more turn when, still unmasked, he shared the Red Wings’ net with Normie Smith. Adams would have kept Cude, if he’d been able, but he’d played so well on loan to Detroit that Montreal manager Leo Dandurand called him home to serve as Canadiens’ starting goaltender for the 1934-35 season.

Fashion Forward: Could it be that hockey players might one day actually protect their heads? The case for protection came into stark focus in December of 1933 after Eddie Shore ended Ace Bailey’s career. Modelling football helmets here are (left) centre Russ Blinco of the IHL Windsor Bulldogs and his goaltender, Jakie Forbes. At right, Forbes wears a modified (and just how puck-proof?) baseball mask.

 

leafs + canadiens meet in montreal: a february 9 primer

Chance of Flurries: Montreal and Toronto meets, circa the end of the 1950s (not on a February 9), and the action in front of Leafs’ goaltender Johnny Bower is torrid. The Richard brothers, Maurice and Henri attack, while Toronto’s Bob Baun and Carl Brewer defend. The referee is Frank Udvari.

As Toronto’s Maple Leafs skate out to face the Canadiens in Montreal tonight, would we note that this is the sixth time in the NHL’s 101-year history that a Toronto team has gone to Montreal on a February 9 to do battle with Canadiens? We would. And here’s some encouraging news for the visitors: only once has a Toronto team lost on this date in that city.

About those previous February 9 games, let’s note that they were played at four different rinks in Montreal, starting with the Jubilee Rink in 1918. The Mount Royal Arena saw two different games (in 1921 and ’24); the Forum (1985) and Bell Centre (2013) hosted the old rivals on one occasion each before tonight. Toronto’s team was the Maple Leafs for the previous two meetings, of course, but before that, in the ’20s, they were the St. Patricks. On that first February 9 game, during the NHL’s first season, they were the plain old Torontos, informally a.k.a. the Blueshirts. Four of the five games up have been played on Saturdays; in 1921, February 9 was a Wednesday.

Georges Vézina was Montreal’s goaltender the first three times Torontos and Montreals met, with (respectively) Hap Holmes, Jakie Forbes, and John Ross Roach guarding the far net. In 1918 (according to The Ottawa Journal), Montreal’s legendary backstop was “the saddest man in the rink.” His brother Pierre was in town, it seems, to watch the game, along with his Chicoutimi team, and Georges’ wife had made the trip, too, to watch her husband. But: “George [sic] fell down,” the Journal reported, “and played only a fair game.”

In 1921, when the St. Patricks skated to a 5-3 win, Babe Dye led the way with a hattrick that Reg Noble and Sprague Cleghorn padded with goals of their own. Newsy Lalonde scored a pair of goals for Canadiens.

Vézina finally got a February 9 win against Toronto in 1924; 5-3 was the score. Sprague Cleghorn got a goal in that one, but he’d switched teams since the last time, so it counted for Montreal, for whom Aurèle Joliat and Howie Morenz also counted. Babe Dye was still a St. Patrick, and he scored a goal in his team’s losing effort. Art Ross would soon have another job, managing, coaching, and generally inventing the Boston Bruins, but that was still in the future: on this night, he was the referee.

After 1924, it was 61 years passed before another Toronto team arrived in Montreal on February 9 to take on Canadiens, which gets us to 1985. Tim Bernhardt was in the Toronto goal that night, facing Montreal’s Doug Soetaert, as the Leafs won 6-2. Leaf winger John Anderson scored the decisive goal.

Leafs win in Montreal, 1918. Just a week earlier, they’d been schooled by Canadiens by a score of 11-2.

The last time the two teams met in Montreal on this date was in the lock-out marred 2012-13 season. The Leafs’ victory on that occasion was a lopsided one, 6-0. Three players who’ll feature tonight were on the ice back then, Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher for Montreal, along with Toronto’s Nazem Kadri. If you have a memory of that game, it may not be of James Reimer’s 37-save shutout; the big news, unfortunately, had to do with the allegation that Toronto winger Mikhail Grabovski bit his Canadiens counterpart Max Pacioretty.

Bruce Arthur wrote about the incident in The National Post, describing the “vigorous scrum midway through the third period, Max Pacioretty wrapped his ungloved forearm around the face of Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski and for a second, it was just one of the writhing arms in the mess, which happens in pretty much every game. Grabovski allegedly opened his mouth and clamped down, which does not. The Canadiens have reportedly sent the NHL a picture of Grabovski’s dental work imprinted on Pacioretty’s arm.”

In the thick of it, Grabovski got a roughing penalty and a 10-minute misconduct for his troubles. The NHL looked into it, later, but nothing came of that: whatever it was that Grabovski was doing with his mouth, the league decided there was no conclusive evidence of a bite.

little green

Born on this date in 1899 (when it was a Tuesday), Redvers was the younger of the Green brothers who played in the early NHL; Wilfred was three years older. They were Sudbury boys who started out skating for their hometown Wolves before they found a way into the big time in 1923 with the Hamilton Tigers, where they were known, respectively, as Red and Shorty. Red (pictured here, for some reason, on bare concrete) played on the left wing, Shorty on the right. Shorty was team’s captain in 1925, and he was at the fore when the players went on strike at the end of the season. They didn’t get the money they were angling for; instead, the NHL suspended the team and saw it sold to buyers in New York. Most of the former Tigers ended up there the following season, repackaged as Americans in star-spangled red-white-and-blue uniforms like the one Red Green is styling here.

Shorty ascended to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1963. For Red, his best night was back in Hamilton, in December of 1924, when he scored five goals on John Ross Roach of Toronto’s St. Patricks.

“The little fellow from the northland was tireless,” said the papers next day. Also: “Goalkeeper Roach never had a chance. These fleet Hamilton players were merciless. They just naturally beat the defense with the greatest possible ease, and when they let the puck go there was a zip and a sting behind it that spelled goal.” Final score: 10-3.

a more up-to-date building could hardly be imagined: on this day in 1924, the montreal forum made its debut

Works In Progress: Construction continues on Montreal’s Forum in September of 1924. Ground was broken on the new rink on Cabot Square in June of the year; Canadiens and St. Patricks first skated on regular-season ice there on the night of November 29. (Image: © McCord Museum)

It was 94 years ago tonight that Billy Boucher scored the first NHL goal in the history of Montreal’s formerly august Forum: it took the Canadiens’ winger just 55 seconds on the night of Saturday, November 29, 1924, to beat Toronto St. Patrick’s goaltender John Ross Roach. Boucher came back for more, too, completing a natural hattrick early in the second period as Canadiens went on to win the night 7-1.

Built in five months at a reported cost of a $1,000,000 — some $14.7-million in modern-day dollars — the Forum wasn’t, in fact, Canadiens’ primary rink in 1924 — they made their main home at the Mount Royal Arena until 1926. It was Montreal’s expansion team, eventually known as the Maroons, who were the key tenants that first year.

Still, Canadiens got first crack at the Forum’s new artificial ice, and in getting that —  well, as the Gazette reported, “two records tumbled.” The crowd of 9,000 was the largest ever to witnessed a game in the city which had, additionally, never seen a professional game played so early as November. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing, in the newspaper’s view: “As might be expected of hockey in November, the game was not a good exhibition,” their correspondent was sorry to say.

The building, on the other hand … “A more up-to-date building for sporting events could hardly be imagined.” An important innovation, for hockey: the new rink did away with “promenade” seats, right up along the boards. This, the Gazette felt, meant not only that spectators farther back would no longer find their views obstructed by promenade-folk standing up when a rush went down the ice; the new “arrangement also eliminates discomfort to the players, who have been frequently ragged and aggravated until they would lose their tempers, which results in arguments between spectators and players.”

On the subject of discomfort to players, an injury to Canadiens’ winger Odie Cleghorn did cloud the occasion. He stopped a foray by his Toronto counterpart Bert McCaffrey, who lost his balance. The Gazette:

In the words of Cleghorn, “quite by accident,” the tip of the stick of the falling player caught Odie in the eye and he had to be assisted from the ice. Medical examination showed that the under part of the eye lid had been cut, but that the eyeball had only been bruised.

The doctors wanted to wait for the swelling to recede before they decided a course of care. In the meantime, Cleghorn was “ordered to remain out of hockey for a few days.”

Sale Away: Canadiens played their last game at the Forum on March 11, 1996. Next day, the building hosted a public auction of famous bits and pieces, fittings and fixtures — possibly, also, an authentic splinter or two.

buddy maracle, in 1931: swept through everybody to leave cude helpless with a wicked shot

Lestermen: The New York Rangers line up in 1931. Back row, from left they are: Bill Cook, Butch Keeling, Frank Peters, coach Lester Patrick, Ching Johnson, Buddy Maracle, Joe Jerwa, Bill Regan. Front, from left: Bun Cook, Paul Thompson, Murray Murdoch, Cecil Dillon, Frank Boucher, John Ross Roach.

Out now in The Hockey News online and at the newsstand, paywalled in both places — my profile of Buddy Maracle and the case for recognizing him as the NHL’s first Indigenous player. He was 27 and a minor-league veteran when the New York Rangers called him up from the Springfield Indians. “Those who used to boo the Noble Red Man in the Canadian-American League can now boo him in the National Hockey League,” a column in The Boston Globe advised, “though, of course, it will cost more.” Maracle played his first NHL game in Detroit on February 12, debuting in the Rangers’ 1-1 tie with the local (pre-Red Wings) Falcons. He didn’t figure on the scoresheet that night, and also failed to score in New York’s next two games. Hosting the lowly Philadelphia Quakers on February 22, the Rangers cruised to a 6-1 win. Maracle assisted when Cecil Dillon scored New York’s fifth goal in the second period; in the third, Dillon returned the favour when Maracle beat the Quakers’ Wilf Cude to score his lone major-league goal. One newspaper accounts rated it “clever;” getting the puck from Dillon, Maracle “swept through everybody to leave Cude helpless with a wicked shot.”

He would notch two more NHL assists. In a March 3 game against Boston, he abetted Bill Regan on a third-period goal, the only one the Rangers scored in a 4-1 loss. March 17, he helped on another Dillon goal in the Rangers’ 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators. In four playoff games that year, Maracle registered no points, took no penalties.

Not all of his achievements were logged for the statistical archives. In a March 7 game against the Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens, his penalty-killing caught the fancy of the local cognoscenti. By Bert Perry’s account in The Globe, Maracle “gave quite an exhibition of ragging the puck while [Ching] Johnson was off, displaying stick-handling of a high order that merited the applause of the fans.”

(Image: New York Rangers)

brimful of broda

Talking Turk: He was Walter for a little while after his birth in Brandon, Manitoba, on May 15, 1914, but for most of his NHL career and beyond, he’d only ever be Turk Broda. Seen here with Toronto hatter Sam Taft in the latter years of his lengthy career as a beloved (and successful) Maple Leaf, Broda was originally signed by Jack Adams of the Detroit Red Wings. He was 20 in the fall of 1934 when he attended his first NHL training camp and, according to Ed Fitkin, acquired a whole other nickname: W.C. Fields, the Detroit regulars called him, “because of his nose, his rapid, jerky style of speech, and his habit of ending every sentence with the word ‘see’?” He was gullible, and “the Red Wing players worked gags galore on him.” For instance: Detroit’s veteran goaltender John Ross Roach offered to recommend young Broda for membership in the Goalminders’ Union. This was, Fitkin writes, “a mythical organization concocted by Alec Connell, Roy Worters, Roach, and other major league pranksters.” Broda was eager to pay his $25 in dues, and would have gladly done so, until Connell let him in on the jokery. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, f1257_s1057_it4390)

leo bourgault: it irked him to just defend

Newspaper accounts of Leo Bourgault from his days as an NHL defenceman sometimes — often, even — spelled his name Bourgeault, and called the town he came from Spurgeon Falls. Bourgault, who was born on this day in 1903 in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, near North Bay, died in 1978 at the age of 75.

He started his professional career with Newsy Lalonde’s Saskatoon Crescents in the old WHL in 1924-25 before leaping to the NHL, where he spent most of his eight-year career as a New York Ranger, he helping them win a Stanley Cup in 1928. He had stints, too, in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. As a Canadien, he was a close friend of Howie Morenz’s, and may well have been one of the Habs who wore a sweater numbered 99 during the 1934-35 season.

They said he had the heart of a forward. Harold Burr did, hockey correspondent for the old Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “He’s forever breaking loose from a tangle of players and streaking away on running runners,” he wrote in 1929. “It irks him to just defend.”

“The wide-spreading stocky little youth” is a string of epithets referring to Bourgault you might come cross, if you go searching: another is “stocky little blue-shirted meteor.” The damage he suffered as a hockey player included a 1929 lump on the face (courtesy of the Montreal Maroons) that Burr described as “the size of an Easter egg as vari-colored.” In 1927, a collision with Reg Noble of the Detroit Cougars broke his nose doubly, which is say two nose-bones fractured, and needed surgery.

In New York, he shared an apartment with goaltender John Ross Roach. Sometimes when he talked to a local reporter he said, “In the fall at home I go after moose — just another fellow and myself. We head in for a lumber camp in the heart of the wilderness, where they cut pulp wood, with just a blanket, paddle, and tent.”

“It’s a great way to keep in physical trim,” he told Burr — hunting, that is. The newspaperman lapped it up, filling a column with Bourgault’s off-season exploits “around his home in the far Canadian country,” where he enjoyed his “mother’s home cooking of juicy steaks, wild ducks, and big fat trout.”

Some other summers Bourgault spent at Jasper Park Lodge, in Alberta, where he had a job as manager of the transportation desk. I don’t know whether he did any hunting out west, but he was working out, certainly, and golfing. That’s him on the course here, negotiating a porcupine hazard in 1927. A year later, he met a black bear. Good to see that Bourgault was wearing his Rangers’ sweater.