The Montreal Canadiens of the late '50s already had won four consecutive Stanley Cups in the six-team NHL–for all of the right reasons.
Maurice Richard was there. So was his brother Henri. Jean Béliveau, Bernie Geoffrion and Dickie Moore had won scoring titles. Doug Harvey, arguably the best defenseman in NHL history, was the team's quarterback on the League's most feared power play.
Hall of Famers all, but when they and other high-quality players of that dynasty were asked to explain why this team was so dominant, a team that would go on to win an all-time record fifth consecutive Cup in 1959-60, the name most frequently heard was that of goaltender Jacques Plante. "Jake the Snake:" the eighth member, along with Tom Johnson, of that matchless team to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Plante was not the most popular man in the Canadiens room, largely because he danced to his own music. Now and then, he would frustrate coach Toe Blake by telling him after a practice his asthma was bothering him -- that he was uncertain whether or not he'd be able to play that night -- yet he rarely missed a game.
He was an innovator. So it was only fitting that Plante would become the first goaltender to wear a full-face mask after suffering a savage facial cut early in a Canadiens-Rangers game on a November 1 night 50 years ago.
Those who were there can likely still see Andy Bathgate's short shot slicing into Plante's face, opening a deep cut running from the corner of his lips through his nostril. They can still see a pool of blood forming on the ice even as Plante was collapsing downward. They probably can still hear the buzz from Madison Square Garden fans watching Plante struggle to his feet and heading slowly toward the Rangers clinic.
What they did not see or hear was Plante, his jersey spotted with blood and now wearing the seven stitches needed to repair his ugly wound, telling coach Blake in the Canadiens dressing room he planned to return to the ice wearing his cream-colored, plexiglass mask. He had worn it several times during practices, but up to that night there was never any question about wearing it during a game. Not when two points were at stake. Blake wanted no part of a goalie mask.
"If I can't wear it," Plante told him, "I won't play."
A coach's word always was the last word in those days. Not with Plante. Not at a time when teams didn't have the luxury of a backup goaltender. Blake's argument was that Plante would lose sight of the puck whenever it fell between his feet. But if, as threatened, Plante refused to play without a mask, what was Blake to do? He lost the argument to his goalie.
The teams were scoreless when the injury to Plante occurred 3:06 into the game. Play resumed after a delay of 21 minutes and, as you'd expect, Rangers players were astonished to see Plante wearing the mask. So were the Rangers. Few, if any, among them realized Plante was putting a new face of sorts on NHL history.
Players didn't wear helmets in those years, yet here was a goaltender wearing a full-face mask–the first to do so. For the record, Montreal Maroons goaltender Clint Benedict had worn a leather half-mask for a brief time in 1930, after a puck smashed his nose and cheekbone. But Benedict played with the half-mask for only a few games.
Nineteen seconds after referee Eddie Powers dropped the puck as the Nov. 1, 1959 game resumed at the Garden, the Rangers' Camille Henry drew the game's first penalty, a minor for hooking.
At 8:57, Canadiens defenseman Junior Langlois was assessed a high-sticking minor, but the game remained scoreless until the final minute of the period when Dickie Moore scored a power-play goal 62 seconds following a charging call on the Rangers' Jim Bartlett. Maurice Richard and defenseman Johnson assisted on the goal.
André Pronovost scored early in the second period on assists from Phil Goyette and Claude Provost. Then Geoffrion beat Gump Worsley late in the period, the assists going to Béliveau and Marcel Bonin. Henry finally scored on the masked man 10:36 into the final period. The final: Canadiens 3, Rangers 1.
Plante was the best goaltender of his time and perhaps of any time. No goaltender of that era knew more about the game. Nobody knew the opposition's strong and weak points as well as he did. Nobody analyzed a game better–or even as well. Plante was aware that the fewer shots he faced in a game, the better he had to be. And he was.
In New York, player-coach Harvey not only led the team to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, but also won the Norris Trophy a seventh time. It was a trade that stunned everyone. All of them, that is, except Plante, who was pelted with questions about the move prior to the start of the 1961–62 season.
"Now that Harvey is gone, how are you going to do without him?" he was asked.
"I don't have to tell you what Doug meant to the team while we were winning all those Stanley Cups," Plante promptly replied. "He was by far the best in the league and still is. Tell you what, though: I'm gonna win the Vézina this season without Harvey."
Even without Harvey, the Canadiens went on to finish first in the six-team NHL with 98 points, 13 ahead of Toronto and 23 more than third-place Chicago. But the Canadiens were eliminated in a stunning, first-round upset by the Blackhawks in six games. But, as promised, Plante won the Vézina in his first full season wearing a mask.