Joseph Jacques Omer Plante changed the face of hockey.
In the winter of 1927, Elizabeth Graham—the star goaltender for the Queen’s University women’s hockey team in Kingston, Ontario–had some dental work done. Wishing to protect his daughter’s teeth, her father insisted Miss Graham wear a fencing mask on the ice. On February 7, 1927, she led the Golden Gaels to a 3-2 victory over the Toronto Varsity Blues while becoming the first netminder in hockey history to wear a mask in a game. She never wore a mask again.
Clint Benedict was a goalie for the NHL’s Montreal Maroons in 1930. After stopping a Howie Morenz slapshot with the bridge of his nose, Benedict was out of action for six weeks. When he returned, Benedict adopted a crude leather facemask to protect himself, becoming the first goaltender in NHL history to wear a mask in a game. Mr. Benedict, who was later inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, was also the first goalie to drop to his knees to stop the puck along the ice, which was illegal at the time. The method earned him the nickname “Praying Benny” and led to the NHL’s first rule change, legalizing his playing style. “It was leather with a big nosepiece,” recalled Benedict. “The nosepiece proved to be the problem, because it obstructed my vision.” Praying Benny wore the mask for five games before permanently abandoning it.
Japan’s Teiji Honma wore a distinctive mask during the 1936 Olympic hockey tournament. Similar to a baseball catcher’s mask, the device was made of leather and had a wire cage to protect his face and glasses. Mr. Honma was 0-2 in net for Japan during the tournament, which was won by Great Britain.
In November 1959, Montreal Canadians goalie Jacques Plante was struck in the face by a shot from New York Rangers forward Andy Bathgate early in the first period. The puck opened a cut from the corner of his mouth all the way up through is nostril, requiring the future hall of famer to seek treatment in the dressing room. After 21 minutes and seven stitches, Plante returned to the Madison Square Garden [Daily Dose, 12/15/15] ice wearing a mask. Plante had worn the mask in practice, but Montreal coach Toe Blake [2/29/16] would not allow it in games, fearing it would obstruct his netminder’s vision. Plante gave his coach an ultimatum: “If I don’t wear the mask,” threatened Plante, “I’m not playing.” NHL teams did not have backup goaltenders in those days. Not wanting to forfeit the game, Blake obliged, and Montreal won, 3-1.
Plante continued to wear the mask–a piece of fiberglass contoured to his face—and the Canadians went on an 18-game unbeaten streak. Hockey purists called Plante a “sissy” while many questioned his dedication and bravery. Modern Man magazine wrote, “Crouched in the cage with the sun white glare of hockey rink floodlights carving his artificial ‘face’ into deeply shadowed eyesockets and a gaping hole of a ‘mouth,’ Plante looks like something out of a horror film.” Plante—who led Montreal to six Stanley Cup titles in ten years and was a four-time goaltender of the year—responded by likening tending goal maskless to a person skydiving without a parachute. The face-hugging fiberglass goaltender mask soon became the standard in hockey. Three years after Plante, Terry Sawchuk—still the NHL’s career leader in shutouts—started wearing one.
Legendary Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak [Daily Dose, 9/28/15] pioneered the helmet/cage combination in the 1970s. That gave way to the full fiberglass helmet and mask popularized by Dominik Hasek, a two-time Stanley Cup winner and holder of the highest save percentage [0.9223] of all time. The modern single-piece mask is made of fiberglass, carbon fiber or Kevlar and is better able to disperse the impact of the puck than did earlier versions. It has become fashionable for goaltenders to decorate their masks. It started in 1968, when Boston’s Gerry Cheevers would have Bruins trainer Frosty Forristall draw stitches on his mask every time Cheevers was hit in the face with a puck or stick. New York Rangers’ goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s helmet features an image of the Statue of Liberty while Brent Johnson’s featured Led Zeppelin graphics and lyrics during his playing days.
The advent of the mask changed the way goaltenders played. Before Plante, netminders stayed standing as much as possible in order to avoid concussions and lacerations. The modern mask allows goalies to make saves on their knees without fear of serious head or facial injuries. Hasek and Lundqvist have routinely used their heads to stop shots. The last goalie to play without a mask was Andy Brown, who was between the pipes for the Pittsburgh Penguins April 7, 1974. Nicknamed “Fearless,” Brown gave up six goals to the Atlanta Flames that night and set an NHL record for penalty minutes by a goalie  that year. He continued to play mask-less in the WHA, where he tended goal for the Indianapolis Racers through 1977.
The goalie mask is part of modern culture. Jason Voorhees wears a version molded from a Detroit Red Wings model in the Friday the 13th horror movie series, Casey Jones sports a face-hugging fiberglass mask in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Dennis Miles [aka D-Roc the Executioner]–guitarist for the heavy metal band Body Count–wore a mask on stage. Canadian realist Ken Damby’s At The Crease is an iconic painting from 1972 depicting a hockey goalie defending his net while an old-style fiberglass mask has been part of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks’ logo since their inception in 1993. Baseball catcher’s masks now resemble those of a hockey goalie. Charlie O’Brien pioneered the hockey-style mask while catching for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1996.
The National Hockey League has required all players to wear helmets beginning with the draft class of 1979. Surprisingly, the league has no rule forcing goalies to wear masks.
On this date in 1959, Jacques Plante wore a goalie mask in an NHL game, pioneering a revolution in ice hockey. Plante’s mask now rests at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.