Stan Mikita introduced the curved hockey stick, but Jacques Plante made an equally important innovation: the goalie mask.  Imagine playing goalie in the NHL without a hockey mask.  They used to (squeamish beware on that link).

Rangers forward Andy Bathgate played a key role in this historical development:  Peeved at Plante for causing an earlier injury, he took a wrist shot at Plante’s face.  The rest is history

Plante headed straight to the dressing room for repairs. His nose was broken and he required stitches, but he desperately wanted to return to the game. And he wanted to do it under one condition – he would be allowed to wear a crude, homemade mask that he had been experimenting with at practice.

Canadiens head coach Toe Blake would have none of it and was furious at Plante for even making the suggestion, but his hands were tied as there was no backup to take over for Plante. Blake eventually relented, but told Plante that he would lose the mask as soon as his injuries healed.

After a 21-minute delay, Plante emerged from the dressing room sporting his new facial protection and forever changed the history of goaltending.  For those on the ice, the revelation was shocking.

“He had to go to his own dressing room and then all of a sudden he came out with this mask on,” recalled Bathgate.

“And we all looked at each other and said, ‘What is this?'”

The goalie mask is perfect for hockey.  Not only does it protect the goalie’s mug life, it reinforces the goalie’s uniqueness.    The goalie faces pucks shot in excess of 100 m.p.h., often from deflection (see Update below), so consequently the goalie is also the most well protected player on the ice through equipment and rules (if the goalie is in the crease, he cannot be checked, at least not on purpose).  The goalie never leaves the ice during gameplay, aside from being pulled late in games for an extra attacker, or during a delayed penalty.  The five other skaters jump on and off as long as play allows, which is truly one of the best aspects of the game, its flow, how play can continue uninterrupted for great stretches of time (this is sometimes referred to as “playoff hockey”), unlike in football or basketball which are both prisoner to the whistle, or baseball where it can be difficult to distinguish between gameplay and guys just standing around.  Hockey players are extremely protective of the goalie, at least the one on their team, making the goalie something of a Mother figure.  If hockey players think their goalie has been disrespected, gloves come off, benches may clear, no questions asked.  It’s core level.  At the end of a game, the players always hover around their goalie to pat him on the head or tap him with a stick.  And look out when, on those rare occasions, when the goalies fight each other.  That’s the etiquette.  Only goalies fight goalies.  I’ve always felt the NHL is the major sports league most likely to feature a woman.  As a goalie.

The best hockey mask story belongs to Gerry Cheevers of the Boston Bruins.  According to Wiki:

Cheevers’ iconic stitch-pattern goaltender mask came after a puck hit him in the face during practice. Cheevers, never one to miss an opportunity to skip out of practice, went to the dressing room. Bruins coach Harry Sinden followed him to the dressing room, where he found Cheevers enjoying a beer and smoking a cigarette. Sinden told Cheevers, who wasn’t injured, to get back on the ice. In jest, John Forestall, the team trainer, painted a stitch mark on his mask. Ever after, any time he was similarly struck, he would have a new stitch-mark painted on. The mask became one of the most recognized of the era, and the original mask is now on the wall of his grandson’s bedroom.

(Image credit: Calgary Herald Archive, Canwest News Service)

Update: I feel obliged to emphasize an important detail that I failed to mention.  A hockey puck is no baseball.  A hockey puck is a 1-inch thick, 3 inches in diameter circle of black vulcanized rubber that’s frozen for gameplay.  (I couldn’t pass on an opportunity to use the word “vulcanized.”).

A lot of times a goalie will never see the shot.  It just hits him.

Derek Bridges lives in New Orleans, trading in words and pictures. A carpetbagger of long standing, he grew up in the top right corner of IL and later went to college in the middle cornfield part. He has also lived in MS and FL, for educational purposes only, and was diasporized for a time in TX.

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