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.
In Peterborough, Ontario, where I grew up in the 1970s and played a lot of road hockey in so doing, we took turns in the nets. David Bodrug had actual goalie pads, trapper and blocker, and the gearing up was the main attraction when the time came for me to be tending goal. That and the chance for nonchalant posing, Ken-Drydenate, with arms resting atop pillared stick while the tennis ball was down at the other end. As the action drew closer, you’d hunker back down at the top of the crease that wasn’t really there, wait for the shot. If it was the right one, you might kick out a leg while snagging the ball in your outstretched glove as ostentatiously as possible. For full effect, you’d hold the pose, as for a beat or three. Flashing the leather, the play-by-play men sometimes call this on hockey broadcasts, though on Roper Drive we had our own term: pulling a Rogie.
Born on this date in 1945 in Palmarolle, Quebec, Rogatien Vachon turns 73 today. He got his start in the NHL under that same name, distinguishing himself in the playoffs when starter Gump Worsley. By the time we were watching him in the ’70s, he was just Rogie, a King now, in Los Angeles. It was there that he spent the best years of his Hall-of-Fame career, wearing the number 30 that the Kings would later retire, and that tiny grin on his plum-purple mask. According to a 1972 profile by David Cobb in The Canadian Magazine, Vachon ended up in goal because, as a boy on the wintertime rink, he was small among bigger brothers and cousins. “A doctoral thesis might be prepared one day,” Cobb writes, “to assess the effect of childhood puniness on the formation of NHL goalies.” He could have strayed, in time, of course, but he chose to stay on. “You really have to enjoy it,” Vachon said, “to play goal for long.”