November 1, 1959 Game Face

For NHL hockey, the face mask became standard equipment on this day, in 1959. I’m not sure if goalies are any prettier these days, but they have a lot more teeth.

Stanley Cup

In the Netherlands, modern ice hockey began sometime in the 16th century.  North Americans have played the sport since 1855.   For all that time, flying hockey pucks have collided with the faces of goaltenders.  The results have not have been pretty.

The name of Montreal Canadien goal tender Jacques Plante is engraved five times on Lord Stanley’s cup, once for each of five consecutive championships between 1956, and ‘60.  

For a lifelong Bruins fan, that isn’t easy to say.

Jacques Plante Putting on Mask
Original caption: 11/1/1959-New York, NY- His face and shirt bloodied, Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante puts on a special plastic mask after being treated for a facial cut received in the opening period of the Rangers-Canadiens hockey game. Plante suffered a severe gash on the left side of his face when he was struck by a shot off the stick of Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers. After donning the mask, which he had designed himself, Plante returned to the game. November 1, 1959 New York, New York, USA

Plante literally wrote the book on NHL goal tending. He was the first to take the position outside of the crease, making himself the third defenseman. He was the first to take the puck behind the net and the first to bring anything even vaguely resembling stick handling, to the position. Before Plante, a Goalie’s job was pretty much to deflect the puck and let the defenders take it from there.

On this day in 1959, Jacques Plante decided he’d had enough. It was three minutes into a game with the New York Rangers when he took a puck to the nose on a shot fired by Andy Bathgate. The puck broke his nose, opening a wound requiring seven stitches to close.  When Plante returned to the ice, he was wearing a fiberglass mask.

Coach Toe Blake was furious. He had allowed the mask during practice, but this was regulation.  Nobody wore a mask.  Coaches believed they cut the goaltender’s field of vision, and, besides.  These were supposed to be the “fearless” guys, who jumped in front of the puck.

Easy for him to say.  It wasn’t his face.  Plante was adamant, and Blake wasn’t about to bench the best goalie in the NHL. There would be one more game when Plante played without the mask, the only game the Canadiens lost in that series, and that was the end of it.  

For Jacques Plante, the mask had now become standard equipment.

In 1966, Life Magazine published an image of Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Terry Sawchuk, “a face only a hockey puck could love“. “Re-created here, by a professional make-up artist and a doctor” read the accompanying article, “are some of the more than 400 stitches he had earned during 16 years in the National Hockey League. Terry Sawchuk’s face was bashed over and over, but not all at one time. His wounds healed. The scars weren’t easily seen – except for a few of them. The re-creation of his injuries was done to help show the extent of his injuries over a span of years”.

During a 1968-’69 season playoff game against the Boston Bruins, a puck fired by Phil Esposito hit Plante in the forehead, knocking him out, cold.  He later said that the mask had saved his life.  He’s probably right.

Gerry Cheevers, who played for the 1970-’72 Bruins, famously had his mask marked up with stitches. That started when a puck hit him in the face during practice. When Bruins coach Harry Sinden followed Cheevers to the dressing room, he found the goalie enjoying a beer and smoking a cigarette. Sinden sent Cheevers back out on the ice and John Forestall, the team trainer, painted stitches on his mask. Every time Cheevers was hit after that, he would have new stitches painted on. The mask became one of the most recognizable symbols of the era, and now hangs on the wall of his grandson’s bedroom.

Gerry Cheevers
Gerry Cheevers

Jacques Plante wasn’t the first NHL goaltender to wear a face mask.  Montreal Maroons’ Clint Benedict wore a crude leather mask in 1929, to protect a broken nose.

clint-benedict
Montreal Maroon’s goaltender Clint Benedict, 1930

It was Plante who introduced the face mask as everyday equipment, now a mandatory fixture for all goaltenders.

I’m not sure if NHL goalies are any prettier these days, but I bet they have a lot more teeth.

September 26, 1995 Last Skate

There was nothing but potential in that rookie year, but that bright future was never meant to be.

Having come of age in this part of the world, it’s hard to imagine anyone over forty never having been to the old Boston Garden.

Originally built as a boxing venue, “The Garden” was then known as the Boston Madison Square Garden.

President Calvin Coolidge flipped a switch at the White House in November 1928, turning the lights on at the brand new arena.  Three days later, a crowd of 14,000 watched Dorchester native Dick “Honeyboy” Finnegan take the World featherweight championship away from French boxer Andre Routis, in a ten round decision.

From the earliest days, the Boston Garden was the site of political conventions, tennis matches, roller derbies and bike races.  There you could hear the sounds of a Christian revival one night, and a dance marathon the next.

FDR, Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower all delivered speeches from the floor of the Garden.  Legend has it that JFK mapped out his political strategy for the 1960 Presidential election, while watching a Bruins game.

I saw my first big-time rock concert, when Aerosmith played the Garden in 1975.

The Boston Celtics played to 16 championships on the old parquet, along with 19 Conference and 15 Division titles.

boston-garden-t-kolendera
Boston Garden is a painting by T Kolendera

Five times did the Bruins hold Lord Stanley’s Cup aloft on the home ice of the Garden, adding to 19 Eastern Division championships, two Conference championships, and a President’s trophy.

In the end, obstructed seats and a lack of air conditioning spelled the end for the Boston Garden.  On this day in 1995, Cam Neely scored the final goal in a 3-0 victory over the arch rival Montreal Canadiens.  There would be no more.

Many of the Greats of Boston hockey were there that night, to take a final skate around the Bruins’ home ice.   Johnny Bucyk was on-hand, along with Milt Schmidt.  There was Phil Esposito, Ray Bourque and Bobby Orr, and possibly the greatest, though few will remember the name of Normand Léveillé.

032013orr1

A first-round draft pick in 1981, Léveillé scored 33 goals in his first 60 games with the Bruins.  There was nothing but potential in that rookie year, but that bright future was never meant to be.

On October 23, 1982, Boston was playing the Canucks in the ninth game of his second season.  Léveillé complained of feeling dizzy, and lost consciousness during trainers’ examination .  An aneurysm had burst inside of his head.  The delicate filaments of his brain were being torn apart, as a spider’s web is destroyed by a garden hose.

Emergency brain surgery was followed by three weeks in a coma.  At 19, Normand Léveillé would never play hockey again.  He was lucky to be alive.

boston-garden-finalBound to a wheelchair after thirteen years and barely able to stand without aid of a walker, Normand Léveillé came back to the Garden twenty-three years ago tonight, to skate there one last time.

Let sports reporter Brent Conklin finish this story:

“For the final skate, an ecstatic Léveillé held his cane in front of him, while Bourque, facing Léveillé, pulled him around the ice; the crowd clamored in approval as eyes throughout the Garden filled up with tears.

Léveillé’s girlfriend, Lucie Legare, said at the end of the ceremony: “He said the biggest emotion wasn’t to put on the (Bruins) sweater again, but to have his fellow men there, caring. I cried. It’s just too much.”

“It was the highlight of the day,” Orr said.

Thus ends a long chapter in the history of sports. And although the luxurious Fleet Center becomes the center of attention on Oct. 7 — when the Bruins open their season versus the New York Islanders — to the very last second of the post-game ceremony, memories were still being made and dreams realized at rickety old Boston Garden”.

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