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Plante's mask stirred this goalie -- and many more

Friday, 10.30.2009 / 10:41 AM / 50 Years Behind the Mask

By Frank Brown - Special to NHL.com

Fifty years ago Sunday night, Nov. 1, Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante wore the first full-face goalie mask in a NHL game. To mark the occasion, NHL Network is airing a one-hour special, "50 Years Behind the Mask," Sunday at 7 ET (also streamed live here at NHL.com). NHL.com will join in celebrating the 50th anniversary with a week-long series of stories about Plante and the evolution of the goalie mask. In today's installment, NHL Vice President and long-time hockey writer Frank Brown talks about how Plante's goalie masks started future generations of goalie careers--including his own.

If you were a kid in the 1960s and adored hockey, a magazine called Hockey Illustrated was an absolute treat. It featured Technicolor cover shots of the NHL's greatest stars, along with screaming, tabloid-style headlines that sensationalized the most basic story lines. "Howe Will Shoot For 700 Goals!" one cover declared. Another shouted, "Exclusive: The Inside Story Of The Canadiens' Stanley Cup Victory!"

Exclusives and exclamation points were very important to Hockey Illustrated, and they became vitally important to me. Each issue cost 50 cents at the time and I would have paid multiples more for the sheer joy of studying every page. I raced to the newsstand just about every day after school to see if the new issue had arrived, and while I was good with the cover stories on Bobby Hull, Jean Beliveau, Dave Keon and all the other greats, few things were better than when the new Hockey Illustrated came out and there was a goalie on the cover!

I kept a scrapbook of articles from the 1964-65 season, and one Hockey Illustrated piece, entitled, "Goalies' Face Masks ... Five Years Later" was a particular favorite of mine. It still is. Forsaking the requisite exclamation points, it began, "History was made in the National Hockey League five years ago this season. For the first time a big league goalie skated onto the ice with his face protected by a mask. The innovator was Jacques Plante ... Plante made his history the hard way."

He made that history 50 years ago this Sunday night, at around 7:10 p.m., Eastern time, by using his bare face to stop an Andy Bathgate shot. And I promise you I will set an alarm to sound at exactly that moment so I can honor Plante for making me a goalie.

I was never any darn good in goal; that isn't the point. The point was, he got me out there. I learned to skate (so to speak) and made my own equipment out of pillows until I could afford the real thing, because nothing was cooler to me than Plante and his pads and his mask -- of course, it was all about the mystique, the intrigue of all those fiberglass bars on his face -- and nothing was going to stop me from at least trying to be like him.

You have to remember: This was the '60s. There was no ESPN, no CNN, no 24-hour anything when it came to media. There were no computers. No high-definition televisions. No Center Ice package. No NHL.com. If you wanted hockey, you read whatever you could find in the newspapers. You listened to games on the radio or you watched whatever games were available -- in black-and-white -- on TV. If you wanted hockey in color, you fixated on the cover of Hockey Illustrated.  If you were really lucky, you went to the occasional game -- which I did, with religious fervor, whenever I could get a ticket to watch Plante at the "old" Madison Square Garden.

He wasn't in New York for long. Plante was a Ranger for 98 games, all of them regular-season games as the Rangers were truly terrible during his tenure. The length of his stay didn't matter; he was magic to me and the days he spent in New York were a time of fascination. Because of Plante, I learned the joys of making a save -- any save. Because of Plante, I pursued the painful study of recovery after a puck had struck some very vulnerable parts of my anatomy. Also because of Plante, I avoided the agony of having a shot open my face from my lip to my nostril. Because of Plante, I entered and left my house-league hockey career with all my teeth, with my facial bones unfractured and my facial skin unstitched.

Today's goalies seem so confident. They act like they're bulletproof and they make that attitude obvious to the shooters. Some forward will take a full-windup slap shot from 15 feet away and the goalie will drop into a butterfly stance, defiant, as if to say, "You can't cut me. You can't bruise me. You'll need a perfect shot to score."

Much of the time, they're correct. Today's goalies are among the best athletes on the team and their equipment is the best that science can engineer. Any advantage orchestrated for the shooter -- lighter sticks, made of chemicals, that "slingshot" the puck -- have been balanced by the protection afforded goalies, from their toes to their heads. The leg pads are light and stiff -- and as hard as your front door. So are the pants and the belly pads and the arm sleeves that reject all those rocket shots.

And there are the masks; of course there are the masks -- which bear likenesses of recording artists, heads of state, national flags, landmarks, team logos, animals, historical figures and cartoon characters, among other things. The masks top off the entire package of menace and intimidation. As well, as Ottawa's Pascal Leclaire pointed out the other day, they also look great in those Hi-Def close-ups.

"It was hard at first being the only man with a face mask. But I'm glad I stuck with it ... if just for the kids."
-- Jacques Plante

"I don't worry about you," today's goalies tell the shooters. "You worry about ME."

Yesterday's goalies seemed confident, too. They simply weren't as convincing, armored as they were with leather leg pads, with quilted arm guards no thicker than your bedspread, with gloves that looked like oven mitts -- and their bare faces. As Hall of Famer Bernie Parent said last week, in those days, when Hockey Illustrated told you almost all there was to know, "A ('real') man didn't wear a mask."

Plante changed that, stood up to assaults on his face that were nothing compared to the assaults on his ears and his honor, even from his own coach, for being the first real man to challenge that conventional "wisdom." At 7:10 Sunday night, I will toast Plante's courage, I will venerate his memory and I will salute the final words of the article I have kept for more than 40 years. The magazine page, once white, is brownish now but the words read as clear as Plante's thinking:

"It was hard at first being the only man with a face mask," he said, "but I'm glad I stuck with it ... if just for the kids."

On behalf of several generations of kids, Jacques, thanks for what you did.

Quote of the Day

The old saying in hockey is 'weather the storm.' I put the notion in their heads that we don't want to weather the storm, we want to push just as hard and matched their work ethic. I thought our guys exceeded that in the first period.

— Edmonton Oilers coach Dallas Eakins after their loss to the Nashville Predators on Thursday
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