With Halloween quickly upon us, it is that ghoulish time of year to reflect on the creation of the spookiest item in all of sport: the hockey goalie mask. This essential piece of apparatus for today’s netminders (and creative hockey fans) was popularized by Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame goaltender Jacques Plante, after being struck in the mouth with a wrist shot by New York Rangers Center Andy Bathgate. The incident happened one day after Halloween in 1959 at Madison Square Garden.
After Plante left the ice to get his face stitched back together, the game was delayed because teams did not carry back up goalies in those days. At first, Canadiens’ Head Coach Toe Blake would not allow Plante to return to the ice wearing his novel piece of equipment. But in the end, facing the option of a forfeited game, Blake relented to Plante’s protestations. When Plante returned to the ice with his belated Halloween costume, the legend of the NHL goalie mask was born.
Although several efforts were made to incorporate the goalie mask into the game prior to Plante, it never caught on with the league. The main complaint from the players would be that of limited visibility, forcing them to discard the apparatus rather quickly. Of course, not helping matters was the image of hockey being a macho sport, thus wearing a mask would be perceived as a sign of cowardliness or weakness.
To this day, that first mask worn by Plante ranks as one of the creepiest ever. Even Jason, of ‘Friday the 13th’ fame, would be envious of the face guard worn by Plante to prevent the puck from permanently rearranging his facial features; which it almost succeeded in doing on that fateful night in New York City.
Plante’s original mask was constructed from plexiglas and was an actual mold of his facial features. It consisted of three rather large slits (two for the eyes and one for the mouth) and was a repulsive color that no interior designer would ever dream of using. Comparisons of Plante wearing the mask have ranged from some alien creature to the Hannibal Lecter character. Since many thought Plante was crazy for even wearing the mask, the Lecter comparison is rather appropriate. Ironically, a goalie would be considered insane today for not wearing a mask.
In fact, modern day masks are more like customized helmets with intricate shapes and designs. To this day, Plante’s legacy of horror remains, with many goalies decorating their headgear with elaborate scary airbrush designs. Hey, since the horror concept worked quite well for Plante during his Hall of Fame career, why not keep the superstition going? Players are always looking for any kind of psychological intimidation tactic which could help strike fear and terror into the hearts of the opposition.
Just think how different Halloween (and Friday the 13th) would be without Plante’s innovation of the hockey goalie position. So a bloodcurdling boo! goes out to Plante this Halloween for exhibiting no fear as a trailblazer who changed the face of hockey (and pop culture) forever.