On This Date in Sports November 1, 1959: Mask

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens begins wearing a mask after receiving stitches on a shot by Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers. The Canadiens goalie had a homemade mask he used in practice, and against the wishes of Coach Toe Blake wore in a regular-season game as the Habs beat the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. This would mark the first time a goalie began to wear a mask in the NHL.

Facing pucks made with hard vulcanized rubber at speeds up to 100mph, it is hard to imagine that goalie faces at one time were exposed and unprotected. Masks were considered to be beneath the game. The only player to use facial protection in the previously was Clint Benedict, and that was a tiny leather face guard to protect his broken nose while playing with the Montreal Maroons in 1930.

As the 1950s were coming to an end, the Montreal Canadiens coached by Toe Blake were the dominant force in the NHL. A significant factor in the Canadiens’ success was goalie Jacques Plante. He was born on January 17, 1929, in Quebec. Young Plante had asthma, leaving his mother to require him to wear heavy winter coats in the harsh winters. These coats restricted his movement on the ice, leaving him to gravitate to playing goalie. Jacques Plante first showed greatness in goal when he was 12 while playing in a league with boys two years his senior. After with a local factory team, Jacques Plante received an offer to play for the Quebec Citadelles. After two years in Quebec, Jacques Plante signed with the Montreal Royals a minor league affiliate with the Canadiens. Upon arriving in the NHL, Plante proved to be one of the league’s top goalies helping the Canadiens win four straight Stanley Cups.

Having won a record four straight Stanley Cup Championship, the Canadiens again looked like they were the best team in the league as they had gotten off to a 7-2-3 start. Facing the New York Rangers on a Sunday, Canadiens goalie Jacque Plante suffered a facial injury when he was struck in the face on a shot by Andy Bathgate. After receiving stitches, Plante retrieved a homemade mask that he had used in practice. At first, Coach Toe Blake was not going to allow him to use it, but after threatening to sit out the rest of the game, Blake allowed Plante to wear his mask, with the promise the mask would be gone when his face healed. It was thought at the time that masks would prevent goalies from seeing the puck, leaving them likely to allow shots to get by them. Jacques Plante stopped all but one shot after donning the mask as the Canadiens beat the Rangers 3-1. Plante would continue to wear the mask as the Canadiens continued to win, rolling off an 18-game unbeaten streak. By the time the streak was over, Toe Blake had warmed to the idea of his goalie wearing a mask, as Plante with facial protection was making more saves due to the ability to be protected.

The mask that Jacques Plante used was made with fiberglass and hugged the face tightly. It was a mask that he had developed a few years earlier after suffering a severe sinus infection. The goalie would use the mask in practice but had been barred by Toe Blake from using it in a game. When he began wearing the mask, Plante received catcalls from other players and fans across the league. When asked if using it made him a coward, Plante compared it to skydiving with a parachute.

Toe Blake asked Jacques Plante to not use the mask in a game against the Detroit Red Wings on March 8, 1960, in preparation for the playoffs. The Canadiens would lose that game 3-0. The following game and every game afterward, Plante used the mask as the Canadiens won a fifth straight Stanley Cup Championship after posting a record of 40-18-12.

Following the season, other goalies began asking Jacque Plante how to make their own mask, by the time the 1960s were over; nearly every goalie was using a mask. The last two goalies to not wear a mask was Gump Worsley, who retired with the Minnesota North Stars in 1974, and Andy Brown, who last played in the WHA with the Indianapolis Races in 1977.