Hockey's First Masked Man Had Guts -- Jacques Plante Donned Mask, Changed Game

PHILADELPHIA - It was 30 years ago last month, the fall of 1959. Nobody - not Jason, not anybody - wore a hockey mask back then.

Goaltenders really were sporting gunslingers, fearless and completely vulnerable. They talk about football cornerbacks having a lonely and difficult life when they're in single coverage; that's nothing compared to 6 ounces of hard rubber moving at 100 mph toward your naked face. Talk about indecent exposure.

``You generally get it in the hospital after you've been hurt,'' said the late Jacques Plante, the man who changed everything. ``The nightmare, I mean. It's like a movie, it's so clear. There's a sudden break for your goal. Someone takes a slap shot, but you're not ready because you don't see the puck until the last second. Then, it's a dark shadow coming at your face. You know it's going to hit you and it will hurt. Then you wake up, the cold sweat all over, and you're in the hospital and a nurse is mopping your forehead.''

Stitches were more common than shutouts; Plante got more than 150 of them during his career. The memory of Toronto goaltender Johnny Bower's taking a shot on the forehead, the blood gushing forth like an Oklahoma oil strike, remains vivid almost 25 years later. Even on a black-and-white television, it was a frightening thing for a kid to see.

The mask made too much sense to take so long. But it did. Why?

``Because nobody else had the guts to do it,'' said Bernie

Parent, who was a 14-year-old kid back then, a kid with an intense interest. ``Thank God, he did.''

Plante's Montreal Canadiens were playing the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The Habs had won four consecutive Stanley Cups. Plante had won four consecutive Vezina Trophies. He and they were the best in the business.

At 3:06 in the first period of a scoreless game, the Rangers' Andy Bathgate swooped in on Plante and backhanded a puck from about 15 feet out. Plante didn't get his hands up in time. The puck hit him on the left side of his nose and opened a gash down to his upper lip.

He stayed down on the ice for about 15 seconds before his teammates quickly helped him off the ice. Two policemen led him to the first-aid room. It would take seven stitches and 20 minutes to close the cut. In those days, teams carried one goaltender. So, everybody waited for the repairs to be made.

Finally, they were. Plante had been experimenting with a mask in practice for several years, starting with a welder's mask and making refinements. He had tried a fiberglass model during some exhibition games, but never dared to wear it in the regular season. One person especially - Montreal coach Toe Blake - wanted no part of a goaltender's wearing a mask. Remember, Blake once said, ``Cuts are souvenirs you can't buy.''

But, after they sewed up the cut, Blake relented. He told Plante he could wear his practice mask to resume the game if he wanted.

If he wanted?

``I told him that I wasn't going back on the ice without it,'' Plante said.

And so, he went out with the mask. The Garden crowd reportedly gasped, but Plante made 24 more saves that night, and the Canadiens won 3-1. Afterward, Blake said, ``Jacques can keep wearing the mask until his face heals, and maybe after that - if he's going good.''

That was definitely the mentality. Plante had already been a pioneer in the sport, the first hockey goaltender who wasn't nailed to his crease. When Plante left the net to move the puck, or to stop a dumped-in puck behind the net, the tactics were thought to be revolutionary. But that was one thing. This mask business was quite another.

Down at the other end of the ice that night in New York, playing goal for the Rangers, was another legendary figure, Lorne ``Gump'' Worsley. His was definitely the prevailing attitude.

``If you wear it in practice, you get to depend on it, and then you have to wear it all the time,'' Worsley said. ``I've tried 'em on, and you just can't see as well. Another thing - any guy who wears a mask is scared.''

Plante's response?

``If you jumped out of a plane without a parachute, would that make you brave?'' he said.

If Plante had flopped after he put on the mask, the whole concept might have been set back years. If it affected the great Jacques Plante, who else would have tried it?

Well, Plante went out and gave up only 13 goals in the Canadiens' next 11 games. The team went 10-0-1. They finished first for the fourth time in five years and won their fifth consecutive Stanley Cup. Plante also won his fifth consecutive Vezina.

The mask was here to stay.

By 1963, three of the NHL's six goaltenders were wearing one. By 1964, it was four out of the six. In the spring of 1970, Plante took a slap shot on the forehead during the Stanley Cup finals that knocked him out of the game and the series. ``But the mask saved my life,'' he said, and many who saw the shot agreed.

Over the years, there have been changes. Plante started with a grayish oval mask that had two eyeholes and a big rectangular mouth hole. He then went to a lighter model, olive green, made of fiberglass bars. He made many changes after that, as did the others.

Now, most goalies favor a helmet-and-cage setup that protects the entire head. During the '70s, the big thing was the flat fiberglass model, molded to the face, that was painted or decorated in an individual style. For example, every time he got conked on the face, Boston's Gerry Cheevers used to paint his mask with the stitches that might have been.

In '76, the Rangers' Gilles Gratton had his painted in the style of a jungle cat with fangs bared. Ed Staniowski, of the Blues, had his painted to look like one of the gentle aliens who you might have seen in the movie ``Close Encounters of the Third Kind,'' with a teardrop falling from the right eye. Gary Simmons, of the Kings, had a black helmet painted with a green cobra.

Through the '60s, some goaltenders held out, but not many. In the fall of 1970, there were three significant converts - Eddie Giacomin, of the Rangers, Bruce Gamble, of the Maple Leafs, and Les Binkley, of the Penguins. On the 12 NHL teams, that left only one bare face - Gump Worsley.

``I'm too old to change,'' he said, 11 years after that night in New York.

Growing up in Quebec and playing for a youth team, Parent quite naturally was following the Canadiens when Plante first put on the mask.

``It came at a funny time for me,'' Parent said Thursday night at the Spectrum. ``That very year, I had gotten cut a couple of times around my right eye. Then, Jacques Plante put on the mask, and it became more available. And that's when my dad told me, `You're wearing the mask or you're not playing anymore.' And that was that.

``For me, it was a great thing. At the beginning, everybody talked about how you couldn't see the puck at your feet with the mask, how you couldn't see that well. So, what happened was, every time time they would score on me, I never questioned my ability. I always blamed the mask. So, in that way, it helped my confidence.''

Parent now coaches goaltenders - Ron Hextall and Pete Peeters and Ken Wregget and Bruce Hoffort and whoever - who never have played a minute of organized hockey without a mask. For them, it has always been as essential a piece of equipment as their stick or their pads. A mask? Of course.

Plante predicted that, too. ``It will grow up with the kids,'' he said, and, of course, it did.

``Thank God, he had the guts to do it,'' Parent said. ``He saved so many cuts, so many injuries. Thank God, he had the guts.''