Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Trail blazer

It was on November 1, 1959, that the face of goal tending changed forever.

That night, in a match between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers, Jacques Plante the Habs goaltender was struck in the face and retired to the dressing room for medical attention. Upon his return, Plante had donned a fiberglass mask, a rough looking creation, more in line with a horror movie prop than a piece of protection, but once it was on, it was never to come off. And as time would evolve in the NHL, the remainder of Plante’s fraternity would join him in the land of common sense.

Interestingly enough, while Plante is considered the barrier breaker when it came to hockey masks, he wasn’t the first to wear a mask in the NHL. That honour belongs to Clint Benedict of the Montreal Maroons in 1930, who wore a leather mask for a few games before tossing it back into the equipment bag forever. While he tested out the one day essential piece of player equipment, it would be Plante who battled those who felt that the mask had no place in the NHL.

He stuck to his decision and the rest followed his lead, the fact that the mask only became common equipment in the early sixties leaves you to wonder what took so long. As the mask evolved over the years we were treated to some unusual designs, from Gerry Cheever’s use of scar markings to the colourful on ice murals that protect the players faces today, the Mask has become a key piece of the goaltenders equipment. Not to mention its use by baseball players and horror movie villains and comedians everywhere.

Today it seems hard to believe that it wasn’t required issue from day one, the prospect of the danger that goaltenders must have faced in those early days, leaves you wondering why anyone would have taken on the position back in the day.

The legend of Plante and his mask has become almost mythical in its telling, from government vignettes to newspaper remembrances; it’s been a busy week celebrating a piece of fibre glass that made its debut forty eight years ago.

Jacques Plante-The Mask

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