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NHL Centennial

Clint Benedict overshadowed, not forgotten

Hall of Famer was among great goalies in early years of NHL, first to wear facemask 87 years ago

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

MONTREAL -- Ask most hockey fans about the origins of the goalie mask and they'll name Montreal Canadiens legend Jacques Plante as its pioneer.

But if Plante popularized the use of facial protection for goalies, he was following in the skates of a man who had blazed a trail nearly three decades earlier.

Plante famously appeared on Madison Square Garden ice on Nov. 1, 1959, wearing a fiberglass mask to cover the cut he sustained from a shot by Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers in the first period. But on Feb. 20, 1930, Clint Benedict of the Montreal Maroons wore a leather face shield during a 3-3 tie against the New York Americans -- also at Madison Square Garden -- as protection for a shattered cheekbone.

"Clint looked as if he had stepped out of the Dumas novel 'The Iron Mask,' or in the modern manner, was appearing as a visitor from Mars," a newspaper report read, quoted by hockey historian Stephen Smith on puckstruck.com.

Benedict's name surfaces today less because of his mask but as a point of reference when a goalie has a remarkable performance or streak. He was prominently mentioned perhaps most recently in June 2008 after Detroit Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood had back-to-back shutouts against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final.

Osgood was the fourth and most recent NHL goaltender to have consecutive shutouts to start the Final. Benedict, a four-time Stanley Cup champion, was the first; he had three shutouts in the Maroons' four-game series victory over the Victoria Cougars in 1926.

He would be followed by Toronto's Frank McCool, who had three straight in 1945 vs. the Red Wings. In 2003, Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils shut out the Anaheim Ducks in the first two games of the Final.

Since 1927, NHL goaltending greatness has been rewarded annually with a trophy bearing the name of Georges Vezina, the tragic figure who played every game for the Canadiens from 1910-25 before he contracted tuberculosis. Vezina died on March 27, 1926, four months less a day after the disease forced him from the Montreal net during a game.

Benedict, a brilliant talent with his hometown Ottawa Senators, then the Maroons, didn't win the Vezina Trophy in his three final NHL seasons, the trophy having been donated to the league in 1926-27 by Canadiens co-owners Joseph Cattarinich, Louis Letourneau and Leo Dandurand.

Inexplicable is the fact that Benedict wasn't inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame until 1966, a decade before his death at age 84 and years after many early-era goaltenders with lesser credentials had been enshrined.

Maybe it's because Benedict's Senators and Maroons largely faded from public consciousness when they folded in the 1930s, slipping him through the cracks.

But Benedict had every reason to be in the Hall, both for numbers that stacked up impressively beside, and even dwarfed, those of the legendary Vezina and everyone else of the day, and for his role in shaping the life of goaltenders.

Born Sept. 26, 1892, Benedict played 443 games during an 18-season career spanning the National Hockey Association and NHL from 1912-30, with a record of 243-169-29, a 2.69 goals-against average and 61 shutouts. In 28 Stanley Cup Playoff games with the Senators and Maroons from 1919-28, he was 11-12-5 with a GAA of 1.86 and nine shutouts. His teams won the Cup in 1921, 1923 and 1926.

In 17 seasons, from 1910-26, Vezina played 328 games with the NHA/NHL Canadiens, finishing with a 175-146-6 record, a 3.45 GAA and 15 shutouts. The native of Chicoutimi, Quebec, had a 10-3 record in 13 Stanley Cup Playoff games from 1918-25, finishing with a 2.569 GAA and two shutouts. He won the Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1924.

Vezina is viewed in a more historic light than any of the goalies who played in pro hockey's formative years, pioneers who included Benedict, Percy LeSueur, Alec Connell, Roy Worters, Chuck Gardiner, Lorne Chabot, George Hainsworth and Paddy Moran.

Benedict and Vezina went head to head for eight NHL seasons; Benedict led or tied for the league lead in games played and shutouts seven times; five times, he had the most wins and lowest goals-against average.

Hard numbers don't begin to tell his story, however. Where Vezina played a conventional stand-up style that left his pads dry at game's end, Benedict was more like the Dominik Hasek of his time, flopping in his crease like a fish out of water.

Every modern-day goaltender owes a huge debt to Benedict, whose dropping to the ice bullied the new-born NHL to introduce a rule in 1918 allowing a goaltender to leave his skates, a practice that had been illegal in the NHA. Indeed, he had been nicknamed "Praying Benny" by sarcastic Toronto fans for his habit of falling to his knees, allegedly to thank the Lord during a scramble or after a save.

Like all goalies of the time, Benedict played hurt; one time he was injured so badly he barely had the use of a leg haplessly protected by a cricket pad. But it would be two pucks off the stick of the Canadiens' Howie Morenz that would both define and ultimately end his career.

Morenz's shot on Jan. 7, 1930, struck Benedict in the face, knocked him unconscious and sent him to the hospital. He remained there for a month with a shattered cheekbone and nose, injuries that clouded his vision.

Benedict returned six weeks and 10 games later, wearing a crude leather mask but then throwing it away after a handful of games when he was unable to see around the thick nosepiece. Another Morenz shot later in the season, this one in the throat, ended his NHL career.

Twenty-nine years later, Plante would wear a mask in a game and change goaltending forever. If Plante popularized facial protection, he did not father it; the credit for that goes to Benedict.

Indeed, there is mild argument that it was, in fact, Hainsworth who was first to wear a mask in an NHL game, foggy reports from 1929 suggesting that he had worn a heavy plaster bandage into action to partially cover his shattered face.

As you watch today's modern goalies shuffling, scraping and post-tapping superstitiously, consider that the market in goaltending kookiness had been cornered going on a century ago, and for that the 1930 mask pioneer deserves credit, too.

Benedict figured a little luck would hurt him less than a puck in the teeth. So this great innovator and arguably the greatest goaltender of his generation trusted his bare face to something more dependable than a mask.

He hung a horseshoe in the mesh of his net.

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