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New book delves deeper into history of mask

by Frank Brown /
Red blood seeps through the white tape on Jacques Plante’s nose, stains the left side of the bandage and streams down his left cheek to his chin.

Below Plante's chin is his jersey, which was pure white when Plante left the Montreal dressing room for the first period against the Rangers and was white speckled with scarlet when he returned. There are blood spatters everywhere: from the left shoulder to the right, on the crimson 'CH' crest, on Plante's padded belly.

Plante looked as though he had been shot, which was, in fact, the case. He was struck by Andy Bathgate's rubber bullet the night of Nov. 1, 1959, and the aftermath was preserved forever in the form of the iconic photograph that summarizes what goalies routinely went through until Plante made history that night 50 years ago.

The photo also serves as the cover of a fascinating book, Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed The Face Of Hockey, written by Todd Denault.

The book offers a variety of intriguing nuggets:

You know Plante was the first to wear a mask permanently in the NHL; you are reminded, in this book, that Boston's Don Simmons was the second.

You know the notion of wearing a mask full-time was a source of friction between Plante and coach Toe Blake, but Denault's recreation of that night asserts it was Blake who suggested to Plante, "Why don't you wear your mask for the rest of the game?"

You know it was Bathgate whose shot wrought such carnage on Plante's face, and that Bathgate has said time and again – most recently this week, to's John McGourty – that the shot he used was a backhand. Denault quotes a Bathgate interview from 2007 that declares: "It was actually a wrist shot."

Well, I wasn't there and Bathgate was, so who am I to argue? Details get fuzzy over time. The essential fact is that Bathgate's shot, and Plante's response to it, catalyzed a landmark moment in the game. And the book brings back, with crystal clarity, the insane risks that goaltenders took at the time. Plante summed it up in a 1959 interview quoted by Denault: "I may look like Frankenstein, but I'm not out there to stop pucks with my face."

Plante's words were prescient. In 1966, Life Magazine hired a make-up artist to execute a special assignment for its March 4 issue. The challenge was to recreate, on Terry Sawchuk's face, every facial wound the Hall of Fame goaltender had suffered through the hazards of his vocation. The result was chilling. Sawchuk's face literally looked sewn together. The image recalled a term Mary Shelley used to describe the frightening creature in her horror classic, Frankenstein. The term was "unearthly ugliness."

According to the Life photo's caption, the artist "ran out of room" before all the stitchmarks could be affixed. The Life piece said Sawchuk absorbed more than 400; Plante, in the book, mentioned more than 200.

Look at a goalie's face today and pretty much all you see is smooth skin and shiny smiles. The change would have come eventually; evolve or die, the saying goes. For goaltenders, the big change began 50 years ago when Plante put on his mask at the Garden and the photographer captured the image.

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