A series about people, products and discoveries that changed the world.
The thing about hockey is that it's endlessly debatable.
Who's the best player? What's the best team? Where is the birthplace of hockey – Montreal? Kingston? Windsor, N.S.? Deline, NWT? Who invented the goalie mask – Jacques Plante? Clint Benedict? ... or was it Elizabeth Graham?
More from our Canada 150 series:
In 1967, the birth of modern Canada
Mr. Plante, of course, is the one who always gets credit for the goalie mask. There is even a charming Heritage Minute in which Mr. Plante, having been badly cut by a slap shot, tells his coach he won't go back out onto the ice without the strange-looking mask he'd been wearing in practices.
Mr. Plante's insistence that he be allowed to wear it – despite the protestations of Montreal Canadiens coach Toe Blake – not only changed goaltending, it changed the game of hockey.
According to Saving Face: The Art and History of the Goalie Mask, a 2008 book by Jim Hynes and Gary Smith, the first to wear one in hockey was Ms. Graham, goaltender for the 1927 Queen's University women's hockey team. Her father insisted she wear a fencing mask to protect her teeth.
The first professional hockey player to wear one was Clint Benedict of the Montreal Maroons. In January of 1930, the future Hall of Famer was knocked out by a shot by the Canadiens' Howie Morenz. When he returned on Feb. 22 to play the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, he wore a leather mask, perhaps a sparring mask from boxing, to protect his nose. He soon gave up on it.
For years after, many goalies – especially if they wore glasses – would play wearing a baseball catcher's mask. In the 1950s, minor-hockey goalies began wearing clear-plastic shields. But it wasn't until 1959 that the goalie mask truly arrived.
Owners were very much against covering up players' faces. But players were getting bigger, stronger, and shooting much harder. No wonder goaltender Glenn Hall threw up before every game. Frank McCool's nickname was Ulcers. Terry Sawchuk drank. Others burnt out early.
Bill Burchmore, who worked for Fiberglas Canada in Montreal, was a coach of kids hockey and a huge fan of the Canadiens. When Mr. Plante was cut in a playoff game, got stitches and came back, Mr. Burchmore began thinking about how such injuries might be prevented. He wrote to Mr. Plante and, over the summer, Mr. Plante agreed to sit while a mould of plaster of Paris was made of his face. Mr. Burchmore then built a mask out of fibreglass and attached straps.
Mr. Plante practised with it until Nov. 1, 1959, when the Habs visited the Rangers, and an Andy Bathgate shot hit Mr. Plante on the nose, cutting him for seven stitches. He refused to return to the ice surface without protection – and history was made.
Some goalies refused to change. "My face is my mask," joked the Rangers' Gump Worsley. But eventually even Mr. Worsley came around. Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Andy Brown was the last NHLer to go maskless, in a game against the Rangers on April 7, 1974. He lost and never played another game.
Boston goaltender Gerry Cheevers began applying "stitches" to his mask where pucks pinged off it. He joked to Mr. Hynes and Mr. Smith that it was the beginning of "mask art," now a highly sophisticated art form.
Goalies were still getting injured with the close-fitting fibreglass masks – after Mr. Plante retired, he manufactured and sold them – and they sometimes had trouble seeing through the eyeholes. In the 1972 Summit Series, much ridicule was directed at Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak for his "birdcage" mask, but it led to a great inspiration by Dave Dryden, goaltender for the Buffalo Sabres and brother of Montreal goaltender Ken Dryden.
"The first time Ken and I played each other in the NHL," says Dave Dryden, "we were both wearing 'Jacques Plante' masks."
Dave Dryden left the NHL for the World Hockey Association, and while with the Edmonton Oilers in 1976 had an idea. He was always working on his masks, always trying to see a bit better but cautious not to make the eyeholes big enough that a puck could do damage. He tried the European cage masks but it seemed to him the padding was all in the top: "Great if someone drops a concrete block on your head, but I don't get cut there."
Working in his bathroom, he built a new mask using fibreglass and solder and then fixed a cage. It seemed to work. He went to Cooper, the hockey equipment manufacturer, and an employee (and former goaltender) Greg Harrison got involved. Mr. Harrison made a mask just as Mr. Dryden had requested.
"I loved it," Mr. Dryden says.
So, too, did Mr. Harrison, who went on to have a fine career as a goalie mask artist.
"The Oilers held training camp in Sweden and Finland that year," Mr. Dryden remembers. "I took a slapper dead in the mask and went down … it didn't even hurt. This mask just made sense."
Now, goaltenders found they could "go down" with impunity. Some began playing entirely in the "butterfly" position – knees together, legs splayed on the ice. They could "fill the net" and make scoring more difficult.
"The Plante mask was a blessing; the hybrid mask was a miracle," Ken Dryden wrote last year in Legacy: How French Canadians Shaped North America, which was jointly edited by André Pratte and Jonathan Kay.
The traditional "stand-up" style of goaltending had always been a compromise between keeping pucks out of net and keeping pucks away from the head. With the new mask, no compromise was necessary. Jacques Plante had wanted to protect his nose; what he ended up doing was changing the game.
"Follow the chain of causality," Ken Dryden wrote, "from the innovation in goalie equipment design, to the frustration and ultimate transformation of goal scorers, to the changing face of hockey rosters, to the decline of the goon, and you find that, decades after Plante played his last game, his influence on hockey continues to be felt in all sorts of direct and indirect ways."
And, on that point, there can be no debate.