On November 1, 1959, Montreal Canadien Jacques Plante becomes the first NHL goaltender to wear a full facemask. Montreal Maroon Clint Benedict had worn a leather half-mask for a brief time in 1930, after an errant puck smashed his nose and cheekbone—but it blocked his vision, he said, and he took it off after only a few games. By contrast, Plante wore his mask from then on. A few seasons later, his idea began to catch on, and soon almost every keeper in the league wore a mask.
Plante had been practicing in his white fiberglass mask all season, but the Canadiens’ coach, the legendarily difficult Toe Blake, wouldn’t allow him to wear it during games. But on November 1, Plante simply put his foot down. Barely three minutes into that night’s game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, ace right winger Andy Bathgate wound up and fired a backhand shot from only a few feet away. It cracked Plante across the face, splitting his lip from the corner of his mouth up into his nostril. Blood was everywhere. He kept playing for a few minutes, and then went into the locker room to get stitches from the Garden’s Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa (who, reporters said, could “stitch a wound, smoke a cigar, and play gin rummy all at the same time”). He was gone for about 20 minutes—an unusually long time for locker-room stitches at a hockey game—and when he returned to the ice he was carrying his cream-colored mask. Blake had pitched a fit about it, the newspapers reported, but Plante insisted. “If I don’t wear the mask,” he said, “I’m not playing.”
Teammates, opponents, fans and reporters mocked Plante mercilessly about it, but Plante didn’t care. “I already had four broken noses, a broken jaw, two broken cheekbones and almost 200 stitches in my head,” he pointed out. “I didn’t care how the mask looked.” And the truth is that Plante was such a good goalie that it almost didn’t matter what he did. (Case in point: Plante always knitted his own underwear and stocking caps, saying that knitting was the only thing that truly soothed him. “Someday,” he said wistfully, “I’m going to learn to knit with my feet.”) He won the Vezina Trophy, the NHL’s goaltending prize, seven times, and he won it every year from 1956 to 1960. He was the NHL MVP in 1962. He was named to the All-Star Team seven times, and his team won six Stanley Cups.
Once it caught on, most goaltenders wore Plante-designed masks until the end of the 1960s, when Soviet goalies introduced cage-style masks that made it easier to see. And his insistence on protecting his face probably extended Plante’s career—he played in the NHL until 1975.