Fed up of continually sustaining injuries through being hit in the face by the puck, Canadian ice hockey goaltender Jacques Plante changed the face of the game forever on November 1st, 1959.
Playing for professional ice hockey team Montreal Canadiens, Pante had risen to become one of the sport’s top goalies. But while the rest of his body was heavily padded, his face remained open to being struck by the puck – a three-inch wide, one-inch thick disc of hard vulcanised rubber weighing around six ounces.
As goaltender, Plante’s job was to stop the puck, which could be travelling at more than 100mph after being struck by the opposing team’s forwards. Unfortunately, he and other goalies too often stopped it with their unprotected faces.
Sick of cuts, stitches and broken bones, Plante developed his own protective mask, crudely made from white fibreglass, and started using it during practice sessions. However, Canadiens team coach Toe Blake, a notoriously difficult man, refused point blank to let Plante wear it during games.
On November 1st, the Canadiens were playing Rangers at Madison Square Garden when, barely three minutes into the game, a close range backhand shot cracked Plante across the face, splitting his lip from the corner of his mouth up into his nostril. Blood was everywhere and after a few minutes Plante retired to the locker room to get the wound stitched.
When he returned after about 20 minutes he was wearing the home-made face mask, much to the surprise of fans on both side. Coach Blake was livid and ordered him to take it off, but Plante (pictured after that game) put his foot down and refused to go back on the ice without the mask. Since Blake had no substitute goalie he was forced to back down and agreed on condition that Plante stop wearing the mask as soon as the cut healed.
Blake had been convinced the mask would hamper Plante’s performance by limiting his vision, but when the Canadiens won that match and continued winning, the outspoken coach became less vocal. After an unbeaten 18 game streak, Plante reluctantly agreed to Blake’s request to discard the mask for a key game against Detroit. When the Canadiens lost 3-0, the mask was back for good from the next game onwards, the Canadiens going on to win their fifth consecutive Stanley Cup.
Teammates, opponents, fans and sports reported mocked Plante mercilessly about the mask, but he retorted: “I already had four broken noses, a broken jaw, two broken cheekbones and almost 200 stitches in my head. I didn’t care how the mask looked.”
He stood his ground, and got away with it because he was such an outstanding goalie. He won the National Hockey League’s (NHL) goaltending prize seven times, including every year from 1956 to 1960, and won the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 1962. The Canadiens won the Stanley cup six times during his tenure in the goal
Over the next few seasons more and more goalies began emulating Plante by wearing full-face protective masks, many of them designed and produced by Plante himself. Soon they were being mass produced by sporting goods manufacturers, with Plante personally endorsing the bestselling line.
The Plante-style mask dominated the game until the end of the 1960s, when cage-style masks favoured by Soviet teams gradually became more popular by offering better visibility. Now it is mandatory for ice hockey goaltenders to wear a protective face mask at all levels of the game.
Sales of the Plante-style mask also enjoyed a bizarre resurgence after it featured in the hit American feature film franchise “Friday the 13th”, where it was worn by sinister serial killer Jason Vorhees in the long-running movie series.