Jacques Plante Thought It Would Be Nice To Have A Face

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.

3 thoughts on “Jacques Plante Thought It Would Be Nice To Have A Face”

  1. Goalies probably didn’t need masks too much before Plante. For one, the slapshot wasn’t around, and neither are those composite sticks we see now.

    The sticks were wood, and I don’t think they had much of a curve, so wristshots were kept down lower.

  2. It’s definitely nice to keep your face. And teeth! I like having my teeth (especially since I’ve never had a cavity). I took a rogue slapshot off the mask the other night in our floor hockey game. Even though it was just one of those light white hollow balls with the holes stuffed with bags, it made quite a noise and it could still sting (I got two imprints of it on my left arm). So thank you, Jacques. I didn’t really want those imprinted on my face. (It was actually the first time I ever put on a mask myself).

    Even though the sticks were totally not what they are today, and the shot wasn’t as evolved, goalies still faced the danger, still got knocked out, still got smashed, but a couple of them were pretty good at ducking away their head while still making the save. A few players had extremely hard shots. Most goalies in those old days had the same odd arrogance of “Mask? We don’t need no steenkin’ mask!” even after they got knocked out. (Though I can say the same for players without the helmets, just like now I say it for players without visors). I do not like seeing that portrait of Sawchuk, stitched up and swollen. Yuck!

  3. When I was a teen, my friends and I played pond hockey. I was in my boots — I couldn’t skate to save my life. I let an awkward slapshot (coulda been a wrist shot) go at the goalie, who wasn’t wearing a mask. Who wore masks in pond hockey in the seventies?

    The puck ricocheted off Carl Dicks’ stick and hit him square in the mouth.

    He couldn’t play the French Horn for three weeks.

    I fictionalized the event in my hockey suspense novel, Bad Ice.

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