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.
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.
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.
Franklin Farrell was the third of his name, following after his father and his grandfather, but he was alone (I’m almost certain) in the family in taking up as a hockey goaltender. The original FF was a Connecticut iron tycoon whose son followed him into the business, just as his son would do, eventually, too. Both of the younger FFs attended Yale University, which is where the man we’re interested in here played made the varsity hockey team in the late 1920s and into the ’30s. Because he wore glasses off the ice and on, he was (of course) nicknamed Specs. Post-grad, as a 25-year-old, he would go on to backstop the U.S. Olympic team that played host at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. This was February of 1932, and it was there and then (as previously mentioned) that Specs Farrell seems to have become the first of his position to don a mask at an Olympic tournament. The idea of goaltenders protecting their faces from hurtling pucks wasn’t new, of course — just two years had passed since Clint Benedict had tried his on while defending the nets for the Montreal Maroons.
That’s Farrell’s protection we’re seeing here, in the two images above, if not all that straight-on or clearly. What’s evident is that his was expressly intended to protect his eyewear rather than offer any kind of comprehensive defence against facial injury. Four years later, Japan’s Olympic goaltender Teiji Honma would sport a full mask of a sort that a baseball catcher might be satisfied to wear (below); Farrell’s tackle left his nose and mouth and chin painfully exposed.
Farrell’s half-mask does seem to have caught on, at least in collegiate circles: later in the 1930s, George Mahoney (here below) had a similar set-up while guarding goals for Harvard.
At Lake Placid, Farrell’s U.S. team came as close as they ever had in the Olympics to toppling the repeatedly dominant Canadians. In the tournament’s opening game, it took two overtimes for the Canadians to beat their North American rivals, 2-1. Nine days later, the teams played three overtimes without the breaking their 2-2 deadlock. That was enough for Canada to take the gold, leaving the U.S. with silver.
Regarding Farrell’s half-mask, one more note might be worth a mention. Ahead of the Olympics, in January, Farrell would seem to have been the first masked goaltender since Clint Benedict to face NHL opposition on NHL ice.
It was only an exhibition game. A few days after naming the line-up he’d be taking to Lake Placid, U.S. Olympic coach Ralph Winsor took his team into the Boston Garden to meet the NHL Bruins in a Friday-night friendly that also featured a second game, between the minor-league Boston Cubs and Poland’s Olympic team. Fans did not “turn out to see a whizz bang contest,” the Boston Globe’s account of the evening observed; for the crowd, this was more about “being on hand as an expression of well-wishing for the sojourn in the Adirondacks.”
On the Tuesday of that week, Boston had lost at home to Chicago by a score of 3-2. Saturday, they’d go down 2-0 to the visiting Detroit Falcons. Friday night, Bruins’ coach Art Ross didn’t roll out his full line-up. Goaltender Tiny Thompson was excused, replaced by his sometime back-up, Percy Jackson; regulars Dit Clapper, Cooney Weiland, and Lionel Hitchman were likewise given a rest.
But Eddie Shore played, and so did Bruins’ captain George Owen, along with front-line forwards Marty Barry and Art Chapman. The latter scored four goals in a 5-1 Bruins’ win, with Frank Jerwa adding another. Ty Anderson scored the only goal for the Olympians in the second of the game’s three 15-minute periods — it was “the only really difficult shot Percy Jackson had to handle,” according to the Globe.
Farrell shared the net with back-up Ted Frazier, “both getting considerable experience in killing off hard drives.”
During his 38-year career with the Detroit Red Wings, Lefty Wilson did all the regular jobs hockey trainers do: stitched the cuts, wrangled the sticks, sharpened the skates. That’s him honing here, in 1959, at Maple Leaf Gardens, working the edges of 17 pairs for 17 Red Wings hitting the ice that night. “I do it before every game we play,” he said then; 45 minutes or so and he’d be all done.
Beyond taking care of everyday hockey chores, Wilson was also known for expanding his job description to include manufacturing masks and abusing referees. And he occasionally stepped in to tend NHL nets on an emergency basis — three times, in fact, wearing the sweaters of three different teams.
Wilson was born in Toronto, under the name Ross, but he was already Lefty by the time he took a job in 1945 as trainer and spare goaltender with the Omaha Knights of the old USHL. Gordie Howe was stopping in Omaha that year, on his way to the NHL, where he’d debut with Detroit the following season. Wilson served a stint with the USHL’s Indianapolis Capitals before following Howe to the Red Wings. He was an assistant trainer at first before eventually succeeding Carl Mattson as the main man. He was still on the job at 62 when, in 1982, a new Detroit GM dismissed him. Jimmy Devellano told him the team was looking for someone with more experience. “A medical-type person,” is what Devellano said he was after. “The Red Wings have not kept pace with the times in the dressing room.”
Wilson’s debut as a big-league goaltender came in Montreal in October of 1953 when he was 33. With Canadiens leading 4-1 in he third period, Red Wings’ starter Terry Sawchuk was cut on the kneecap in an unfortunate encounter with Rocket Richard’s skate. Wilson suited up for the game’s final 16 minutes, permitting no further Montreal goals.
In 1956, Detroit was home to Toronto when Leafs’ goaltender Harry Lumley twisted a knee. Wilson played 13 minutes this time, blanking the team that employed him, who won anyway, also by a score of 4-1.
Wilson’s final turn as an NHL goaltender came in 1957 in Boston when the Bruins’ Don Simmons went down mid-game with a dislocated shoulder. Bruins’ trainer Hammy Moore had played some goal, but it was nine years since he hadn’t had the pads on, so in went Wilson. This was his longest stint in the nets (he played 52 minutes) and, for the first time, he gave up a goal (Jack McIntyre was the scorer).
Wilson’s style reminded Boston broadcaster Fred Cusick of erstwhile Bruins’ goaltender Sugar Jim Henry: “the way he flopped around.” The game ended 2-2. The Bruins were grateful; GM Walter Brown gave him $150 and a wristwatch for his efforts.
Refereeing that night was Red Storey, with whom Wilson had a bit of a history. Back in 1954, during a game at Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto president and all-round roustabout Conn Smythe accused Wilson of insulting Storey from the Red Wing bench. “Storey, you’re yellow,” is what he said he heard, and the NHL’s referee-in-chief, Carl Voss, agreed that he’d heard it too.
“We’re not putting up with exhibitions of that nature,” Smythe fumed. “It calls for a $1,000 fine and I’m going to demand that he gets it.” Smythe also wanted Detroit’s Ted Lindsay sanctioned, for shoving Storey — “at least $50” would do for that, he said.
NHL President Clarence Campbell said he’d investigate and duly did, finding that Wilson had used Storey’s name in a disparaging manner nine times during the game. While Campbell didn’t agree to Smythe’s demand for a fine, Wilson was sort of suspended — “for conduct prejudicial to hockey.” This was the third time, apparently, that he’d reprimanded for yelling at referees, and Campbell said he had to stay away from the Wings’ bench during games for three weeks. (Lindsay went unpunished.)
It was in 1959 that Wilson started making masks, right around the time that Montreal’s Jacques Plante famously donned his face-saver for the first time in an NHL game. He felt that his were stronger than the ones that Plante was making. Wilson’s were cheaper, too: in 1960, when Plante charging $300 for his, Wilson sold his for $25. Most of his clients were Red Wings’ goaltenders, including Sawchuk and Roger Crozier.