Saturday, October 31, 2009

50 Years Ago Tonight

November 1, 1959 is the date of my first and grandest hockey memory.

I was all of 7 years old and on this Sunday school night I was in bed with my radio tuned to a New York Rangers hockey game. The Rangers were playing the Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadians and I had recently discovered hockey on radio. It was my bed time but I’m sure I intended to listen for at least a period. Jim Gordon, who became all-time favorite hockey announcer, was calling the game.

Then the unthinkable happened.

Andy Bathgate, the star of the New York Rangers lifted a backhand shot into the unprotected face of Montreal goaltender Jacques Plante. Plante was badly cut and left the ice for repairs. In this era, National League teams only carried one goaltender. If a netminder was injured, the game was stopped until the player could be stitched up. If the goaltender could not continue, a house goaltender (usually an amateur player) or a team trainer would be pressed into action.

Plante was hockey’s premier goaltender of the 1950s. He was coming off his 4th straight Stanley Cup championship (heading towards his 5th) and his play had revolutionized the game. He was also eccentric and moody. And he was about to change the game in a way he could never imagine.

Plante had been practicing with a mask and had vowed to start wearing it in games. Montreal coach Toe Blake was adamantly opposed to Plante’s mask. On this night though, Plante said he would not return to the game without his protective mask. Blake objected, but eventually relented. Jacques Plante was about to become the first goaltender to wear a full face mask in a National Hockey League game.

Back in my bedroom, I was listening intently as Gordon was talking about the historical significance of what was happening. I didn’t know that much about hockey or masks but I did know enough to realize that the first goaltender ever to wear a mask in a game was a big deal. Big enough to yell to my dad that he need to come upstairs right away.

My father loved hockey. He grew up in Brooklyn and played high school hockey. He was also a short track speed skater and had won a number of medals in Sliver Skates competition at Madison Square Garden. His love of hockey is how I was exposed to the game at such a young age and came to be such a passionate fan.

Dad came up and sat on the end of my bed as we listened to history being made. My father was a big talker and what I remember is that on this night is how quiet he was. Reflecting back, I know that it surely was important.

Plante, repaired with 7 stitches and still wearing his bloody jersey came back and played. And he played well. The Canadians built a 3-0 lead and long after I fell asleep; they gave up a meaningless goal to Camille Henry. Hockey had been changed forever.

Simple flat face protectors soon gave away to oversized masks that protected much more of the head and throat area. Ultimately, the form fitting mask was phased out in favor of today’s helmet mask that covers the goaltenders entire head and allows them excellent vision through a caged eye opening.

Over the next 15 years, every goaltender in the league began to wear a mask. On April 7, 1974, Andy Brown was the last NHL goaltender to appear in a game without a mask. Now the thought of playing goal without a mask is incomprehensible.

At the time, I didn’t know enough about hockey to understand what this all meant or how it would change the game forever. But what I do remember is what I said to my father when Plante came back wearing the mask. “The Rangers (who were a very bad team in the late 1950s) are going to win for sure” or something close to that, I told my father. He replied, “I wouldn’t be so sure”.

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