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 theUpper 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.

 

face value

“We thought it was a joke,” Andy Bathgate said, later, recalling the mask that Jacques Plante donned for the first time in an NHL game 60 years ago today. It was Bathgate’s spiteful backhand, of course, that did the damage to Plante’s face on that Sunday in New York in 1959. There’s a fuller accounting of the hows and wherefores here; if nothing else, it confirms that the puck did not, in fact, decapitate Plante, despite what this graphic 1997 depiction, above, seems to suggest. It’s from The Man Behind the Mask, a 24-page comical retelling of the story of Plante and his mask written and inked by Michael Dixon. Publisher McClelland & Stewart was behind the True North Comics series that spawned it, teaming up with the CRB Foundation in support of the original run of Heritage Minutes, one of which — watch it here — famously dramatized Plante’s bloody night. The True North comics were handed out by the tens-of-thousands at McDonald’s restaurants across Canada. There were four volumes in all, with the others respectively recounting tales of Halifax’s 1917 explosion; Chinese migrant labour and the construction of the CPR; and Joseph Tyrrell’s 1884 discovery of dinosaur fossils in Alberta’s Badlands.

vladislav tretiak: no such thing as a bad-tempered goaltender

A birthday today for Vladislav Tretiak, who’s 67 now. Born on this date in 1952 (it was a пятница), in Orud’yevo, north of Moscow, Tretiak nowadays presides as president of Russia’s Ice Hockey Federation, but it’s as a supremely gifted goaltender that he’s best known. Asked in 1979, when he was 27, to say something about his fellow netminders, he shared this: “There is no harder job in sport than ours. I can tell you one thing: I’ve never met a goaltender who wasn’t a good chap. An unbalanced, unreliable, bad-tempered person, whatever sporting talent he might possess, would never be able to defend goal.”

doodle bug

Google Canada has been showcasing Jacques Plante today atop its search page, backing it up (here) a broad overview of his career that’s worth a browse, if mostly for the George Silk photographs that illustrate it. Those, from Life magazine’s archive, depict Plante as he looked (reversed Habs logo notwithstanding), which I’m not sure Google’s daily doodle quite manages. I’m not complaining — even in error (mask and bleu, blanc et rouge aside), Google’s gesture makes for a perfectly adequate salute to Chuck Rayner’s Hall-of-Fame career in the New York Rangers’ net.

jacques plante, 1970: no dizzy spells, no headaches, I don’t see double

Face First: In 1970, 11 years after he first wore a mask in an NHL game, Jacques Plante poses with a young goaltending colleague to show off the junior version of his new Fibrosport mask.

Fans in St. Louis sang “Happy Birthday” on this day in 1970 as Blues goaltender Jacques Plante celebrated his 41stwith a 20-stop 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings. Playing in his 16thNHL season, Plante had been named earlier that same week to the roster of the Western team for the NHL’s upcoming 23rdannual All-Star game. While that was a match-up that his team would lose, 4-1, to the East, Plante’s performance was immaculate: in relief of Bernie Parent of the Philadelphia Flyers, he stopped 26 shots in the 30 minutes, allowing no goals.

Plante would leave St. Louis that summer, signing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but not before he’d steered the Blues to their third successive Stanley Cup finals. The man who’d introduced the goaltender’s mask to regular NHL duty in 1959 only played a part in the first of the four games the Boston Bruins used in 1970 to sweep to the championship: a shot of Fred Stanfield’s hit Plante square in the mask, which broke. He was down and out and — soon enough — on his way to hospital, leaving Ernie Wakely and Glenn Hall to finish the series in the St. Louis nets.

“I feel great,” Plante said in June, up and at ’em and strolling around at the NHL’s annual summer meetings in Montreal. “I’ve had no dizzy spells, no headaches, I don’t see double.”

“But the doctor in St. Louis told me not to be afraid to tell everybody that if it wasn’t for the mask, I wouldn’t be here now.”

Even so, Plante had a new mask in hand, one that he’d been developing with the help of — well, as The Windsor Star had it in 1969, “moon workers” from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Plante been involved in the mask-building business for as long as masks had been mitigating the impact of the pucks that were finding his face in the NHL. Mostly he’d worked with Bill Burchmore, the young Montreal sales manager from Fibreglas Canada who’d designed Plante’s original mask.

Now Plante was launching a company of his own, Fibrosport, to develop and market face-protection for goaltenders of all sizes and skill-levels. That’s one of the junior models pictured above: they retailed for about C$12–$15 (about $75—$100 in 2018 money). Come the new season, the president of the company would be sporting the revolutionary professional model himself. One of those would set you back about C$22.50 ($150ish).

At the league’s June meetings in Montreal, Plante was ready to do some selling. While previously he’d been talking about NASA scientists — “They are experimenting with some new, lightweight material that can be poured right over your face,” he said in ’69 — the word now was that this new model had been developed in cooperation with the engineering department at the University of Sherbrooke. It weighed just nine ounces, he said, and fit the face better than any previous model known to goaliekind. Most important, it was superstrong. The secret? Resin and woven fibres. That was as much as Plante was revealing in public, anyway.

“We’ve been making tests with it,” he told reporters, “to see how much it can take and it didn’t even budge with shots at 135 miles per hour. That’s pretty good when you consider the hardest shot in the NHL is Bobby Hull’s. He shoots 118 miles an hour.”

The mask he’d been wearing when he was felled in St. Louis had resisted shots up to 108 mph, he said. The helmets astronauts wore, Plante happened to know, could withstand up to nine Gs of force. “After that, they can go unconscious. When I got hit with that puck, it was something like 12 or 14 Gs. That’s why I was knocked out.”

To prove the point (and sell the product), Plante arranged an exhibition of the new mask’s superiority. He’d brought along what the papers variously described as “a short-range cannon,” “an air-powered cannon,” and “a machine that fires pucks at 140 mph.” Set up in a conference room at a distance approximating Phil Esposito in the slot, it fired away at Plante’s newest (uninhabited) facade, which was firmly fixed to a stout backboard.

The Futuramic Pro was what Plante was calling the mask that Leaf fans would get to know over the next few years. (He’d don it, too, for subsequent short stints with Boston and WHA Edmonton.) It didn’t disappoint in Montreal that June, withstanding the hotel bombardment no problem at all.

Not so the pucks fired in the demo: in the press photos from that week, they appear misshapen and more than just a little ashamed.

Man of the Futuramic: During his final stop in the pros (with the WHA’s 1975-76 Edmonton Oilers), Plante wore a version of the mask he’d introduced at the NHL’s summer meetings in 1970.

 

blazer focus

Face Time: The WHA’s Blazers made a home in Vancouver for two seasons in the early 1970s, neither of which was particularly successful. (Pre-B.C., the franchise played a year in Philadelphia; afterwards, they transformed into the Calgary Cowboys for two final campaigns.) In 1973-74, the four goaltenders who shared the guard of the Vancouver nets included Pete Donnelly and George Gardner. In 1974-75, the man pictured here mostly took over, Don McLeod, playing a league-leading 72 games over the course of the season while allowing 233 goals (also tops among his peers). Nobody’s goals-against numbers were exactly stellar in the high-scoring WHA that year: Ron Grahame of the Houston Aeros led the pack with 3.03 average, while McLeod (3.34) finished tenth-best, just back of Edmonton’s Jacques Plante.

game face

Today’s a day (in 1976) that Clint Benedict died — Butch Keeling, too, as it happens (in 1984). Benedict, intrepid goaltender, hockey innovator, was 84. He spent his NHL years with Ottawa’s original Senators before departing, unhappily, for the Maroons of Montreal. He won four Stanley Cups, but those triumphs aren’t what he’s remembered for. In 1930, he was (almost without doubt, but not quite) the first goaler to wear a mask in an NHL game. He tried it for five games at the end of that season, but neither the mask nor Benedict was quite right, and the experiment ended with the latter, still shaken from puck-wounds, slipping out of the league. After a stint with the IHL Windsor Bulldogs, Benedict ended his playing days to take up coaching.