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Behind the mask

Sunday, 01.11.2009 / 5:13 AM / Features
By Stephanie Maniago
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Behind the mask

The night Jacques Plante made goaltending history

At approximately 7:10 p.m. on Nov. 1, 1959, 'just another game' turned into one of the landmark moments in NHL history.

The streaking, first-place Montreal Canadiens (8-2-3) were playing the struggling New York Rangers (2-7-2) at Madison Square Garden when at 3:06 in the first, a series of historic events unfolded.

Stan Fischler, who was covering the contest for The Hockey News and The New York Journal-American, vividly recounted the play:

"A Montreal attack was blunted and the Rangers counter-attacked. Andy Bathgate, the Rangers’ hardest-shooting forward, got the puck in the Canadiens' zone. Andy had been notorious among NHL goalies for his slapshot, but this time Bathgate went to his backhand, using a screen. Like Rocket Richard, who was playing for the Habs, Bathgate had a menacing backhander and this one caught Plante square in the mug. Since the old MSG press box hung from the mezzanine, my seat was practically on top of the ice.

"I watched Plante crumble to the ice in a pool of blood. It was obvious that this was serious stuff and the Canadiens’ trainer skidded out to the crease,” Fischler added. “With a trail of blood behind him, the goalie was escorted to the Montreal dressing room.”

Red Fisher of the Montreal Gazette, who has covered the NHL for more than 50 years, describes the scene after Plante was struck.

“He had been struck in the face and it opened up a cut from the corner of his mouth all the way up through his nostril,” the dean of NHL writers said. “Try and imagine that – the pain that he was going through.

“I rushed down to the dressing room and there was Plante, looking in the mirror and separating the cut and looking at it. ‘Pretty ugly,’ he said to me. I said ‘Yeah, well you had a good start Jacques.’

“Then he laid down on the table and was stitched by the doctor.”

After a 21-minute delay, Plante returned to the Canadiens’ bench. Hall of Fame center Jean Beliveau recalled the players’ reaction when Plante spoke to Coach Toe Blake.

"Jacques came back to the bench and told Toe, 'I'm ready to go back in but I have to wear my mask,' " Beliveau said. "[Plante] had worn it in practice but Toe never liked the mask until this incident in New York."

“When [Plante] came out with the mask, you could feel and hear the buzz of the crowd,” Fischer recalled.

That November night saw the Canadiens prevail 3-1 over the Rangers, and a goalie change the face of the game forever.

THE MAKING OF THE MASK

With Jacques Plante suffering from asthma attacks, the Canadiens decided to call up a back-up goaltender: Canucks alumnus Cesare Maniago, who had been playing with Spokane.

“When I arrived in Montreal Jacques told me that he was going to have a mask made and asked if I wanted to get one too,” recalls Maniago. “I said yes and we both went to the Montreal General Hospital where they made molds of our faces.”

The masks arrived and both Plante and Maniago first donned the new equipment during a practice. Following the warm up skate, Maniago pulled his mask over his head in preparation for the first shot he was about to face.

“[ Head Coach] Toe Blake skated up to me and asked what I was wearing,” said Maniago. “After a short conversation he told me ‘If I were you I wouldn’t wear that.”

Trying to break into the League, the young keeper decided to put away his mask, at least for his time being with the Canadiens. But Plante stood his ground and continued to wear his mask.

THE TURNING POINT

After his days with the Montreal organization, Maniago brought his mask out of retirement. After a series of losses with the piece of equipment while playing for the New York Rangers, superstition overrode safety and the mask came off, but only temporarily.

It was while he was playing for the North Stars that Maniago witnessed a terrible event to his teammate, forever changing his opinion of the mask.

Gary Bauman was in net when he took a Bobby Hull slapshot to the throat. Severely injured, Bauman’s airway was blocked and he began to turn blue.

Knowing he would have to take to the ice, Maniago turned to one of the trainers and asked that his mask be brought to him. The trainer rushed down 15 flights of stairs and grabbed the mask for keeper.

“There were times in my career that I knew if I hadn’t been wearing a mask, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” says Maniago of the slapshots he faced.

From that point on, Maniago followed in the footsteps of Plante and wore his mask until the conclusion of his career with the Canucks in 1977.78.

THE REACTION

“It’s not manly,” “I won’t be able to see the puck clearly,” “fans won’t be able to identify who you are” were all excuses muttered in an attempt to prevent goaltenders from wearing the mask.

It seems almost inconceivable today that goaltenders ever played without protecting their faces.

Jacques Plante forever changed the dynamics of hockey when he made a simple yet strong statement when he chose to protect himself with a mask. He was able to resist the scrutiny and pressure to adhere to a “macho code” perhaps, in the long run, helping to save the lives of goaltenders that followed. The first of November marks the day that the ‘face of hockey’ changed forever.