Until Nov. 1, 1959, every goalie played without a mask, exposing their faces to bone-crushing shots that sometimes left them bleeding and unconscious in the crease. Fifty years ago today, at Madison Square Garden in New York, Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens changed hockey.
Having suffered a nasty cut to the nose from a shot by Rangers star Andy Bathgate, Plante persuaded reluctant coach Toe Blake to let him go back in the game wearing the simple mask he had already been using in practices. Blake conceded and the rest is history.
On Sunday, when the Bruins play the Rangers, the NHL will celebrate Plante and his innovation. Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas recently told NESN.com how grateful and respectful he is of Plante and the masked and unmasked goalies that came before them.
“I don’t know how they did it,” Thomas said of those who would face blistering slap shots without a mask. “I remember this one clip of Johnny Bower (Toronto Maple Leafs) and he took like five shots in a row in the face and still kept playing. Guys were just so tough and it was different then. He and everyone that played that way had to be incredibly tough.”
While Thomas can’t ever envision himself facing a Zdeno Chara blast in practice without a mask, he does wish he had the ability to read such a shot the way the mask-less goalies of the past did. He would never trade the safety and security of the mask but understands why even after Plante started the trend, some — such as the legendary Gump Worsley — refused to cover their faces and heads.
“The one thing they did have was their vision. Being able to watch the puck must have been amazing because no matter what, any goalie mask, no matter how good it is, there’s going to be some sort of blind spot,” Thomas said. “If your head is tilted the wrong way, you’re not going to be able to see. That’s why I like mine because it has fewer [blind spots] than any others that I can find.”
Thomas’ mask is a hybrid of the '80s-style cage helmets that goalies wore back then and the newer masks of today. But while he wishes it had the vision that he could have without a mask, he will happily take the protection it offers.
“I don’t know how they stood there without flinching and bracing for every shot,” he said.
As Thomas pointed out, in the days of no masks, goalies didn’t practice much and just waited for games. He can understand why because even today with the advanced technology in equipment, he is still sore after a practice or game.
“I still feel it, I feel it enough that you can get in bad habits if you catch enough pucks in a bad way in a row,” he said. “Like [Ken] Dryden said, he never made a glove save in practice because it hurt so much and he just wouldn’t do it. Or I still hear the story about in preseason when Gerry Cheevers was diving in the net when Bobby Hull wound up for a slap shot because they didn’t get paid for preseason games.”
Thomas admitted he probably would’ve never been a goalie in the pre-mask and equipment era and has the utmost respect for those who were brave enough to stand between the pipes back then.
“To be honest, I don’t think I would’ve been a goalie back then,” Thomas acknowledged. “If you got knocked out, they just waited for you to wake up and put you back in. They didn’t really have another goalie dressed. Sometimes they had a goalie waiting in the stands, so imagine how many goalies must have been playing with concussions? I can’t imagine.”
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