All you have to do is sit behind the net to fully understand why goaltenders wear masks. It’s not hard to figure out. They wear masks because they want to have a reasonably normal face to look at in the mirror. They also want to remain alive.
That little black rubber puck hurts. When you sit behind the net, you see that the thing explodes off sticks, ricochets like bullets off steel and often is virtually impossible to see. It’s like batting against Nolan Ryan, and every pitch is at your head. Yes, there’s no doubt about it. A puck can do serious damage to a goalie’s movie star good looks.
So imagine the time when goaltenders didn’t wear masks. It was a time when teeth were lost, cheekbones and noses flattened, and they lived in fear. It was rarely a problem when they could see the puck–they could handle that. It was the time when they couldn’t see it, when it was deflected or hard to find, that it became scary. Then, they knew the infirmary was only down the corridor.
But in 1959, one goalie, against his coach’s wishes, finally put the mask on, because he was sick of looking in the mirror and seeing blood and bandages. His name was Jacques Plante, and every goaltender of every age, in every rink in every town, should say a quiet thank you to the man.
Plante was a different kind of a guy, as goaltenders can be sometimes. He wasn’t particularly close to most of his teammates, and many wondered about his hobby. When Harvey and the Rocket and Boom Boom were playing poker and having beers, Plante was knitting scarves and sweaters. They would wonder about that. But they never had to wonder about him on the ice, because he happened to be one of the greatest of all time and he helped his team win. So they let him be with his knitting.
But coach Toe Blake was another matter. Blake didn’t like Plante or his individual streak. He hated when the goalie would roam almost to the blueline with the puck. He didn’t understand the knitting. And there was no way in the world this coach was going to let his crazy goalie put on a mask. No way. Too cowardly.
But Plante had been toying for awhile with different ideas and styles of facewear and would sometimes try one out in practice, probably when Blake wasn’t around. But during games, it would remain in the dressing room. It just wasn’t time.
Everything changed in 1959 when Plante and his team were in New York. The Rangers at the time had a sharpshooter named Andy Bathgate, who had perfected one of the first slapshots, and his was like a cannon, hard and heavy. In the game, Bathgate wound up and his shot smashed into Plante’s face. The goalie was helped off the ice, spent 20 minutes in the clinic, was stitched up, and then announced he was ready to go back out. Only this time, with his sweater caked in blood, he was wearing his mask. Blake let him be, and in the games following the one in New York –with his mask on– Plante was still a star, and the mask stayed.
Jacques Plante wasn’t the first to try the mask. Clint Benedict had put one on in 1930, but found it uncomfortable and quickly took it off. But Plante was the first to wear one on a permanent basis. He showed guts to defy his coach.
But pucks hurt, and this was a goalie who was tired of that.