Jacques Plante had had enough.
Plante, goalie for the Montreal Canadiens, had taken the last puck off his unprotected face in an NHL game.
It was November 1, 1959.
Earlier in the season, Plante—who was the most innovative goalie in league history—had been experimenting with a crude form of a hard fiberglass face mask in practice. At the time, every goalie in the six-team NHL played without any facial protection. It was like racing cars without a seat belt, but there you have it.
During team practices, Montreal coach Toe Blake begrudgingly allowed Plante to wear the mask, which was a creepy-looking, haunting thing with a mouth hole that resembled the “Scream” masks of today.
But Blake forbade Plante to wear the mask in an actual game, fearing that the protection would cut down on his goalie’s span of vision.
Finally, coach and goalie had a showdown. It came during the Canadiens’ tilt with the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Plante suffered a broken nose when New York’s Andy Bathgate, who had one of the hardest shots in the league, blasted a puck off Plante’s bare face.
The six-team NHL employed six goalies in those days. There were no backups. Plante knew that, and he leveraged that fact to his advantage.
As he was getting stitched up to return to the game, Plante told Blake that he was going to wear the mask. The coach disagreed. Plante said that if he wasn’t allowed to wear the mask, he wasn’t getting back onto the ice. Blake seethed but he relented in the face of Plante’s hockey blackmail.
What happened next reminds me of what is happening to San Diego Padres pitcher Alex Torres these days.
Torres is getting grief for donning MLB’s new protective hat for pitchers. The bulky head gear is designed to cushion the blow in case a pitcher takes a line drive off the noggin. In some cases, the hat could be a life saver.
But safety took a back seat to mocking, as the sight of Torres in the oversized hat—and granted, it takes some getting used to—spawned a furor on social media and even in the broadcast booth.
They were laughing at Alex Torres and his big hat, heartily so.
Some have even questioned Torres’ manliness.
This is not unlike what Plante faced as he returned to the ice at the Garden that November night in 1959, wearing his goofy-looking mask.
Plante was derided by the fans, who hooted and hollered at him as he took his place in the goal crease. The players weren’t exactly supportive, either.
As in Torres’ case, Plante’s courage was called into question.
No goalie wore a face mask!
But Plante did a lot of things that no goalie prior to him had done.
Plante was the first netminder to confidently handle the puck outside of the crease with his stick. He was the first to shout instructions to his defenseman. Plante is also credited with being the first goalie to raise his arm, signaling his teammates that icing was being called. He was the Thomas Edison of hockey.
Of all of these innovations, the goalie mask by far is Plante’s legacy.
Plante didn’t care what the fans thought of the mask. He didn’t care what his coaches, teammates and the other players in the league thought. The only thing Plante cared about was his own well-being.
As it should have been.
Coach Blake told Plante he could wear the mask until the broken nose’s cut healed.
But Plante and his mask didn’t lose. The Canadiens beat the Rangers, 3-1, on November 1, 1959 and what followed was a 12-game unbeaten streak, all coming with Plante’s face protected.
One night, against Detroit, Blake ordered the mask off and the Canadiens lost. The next night, the mask was back on Plante’s face and Montreal won.
Not that hockey people are superstitious or anything.
Like Plante was with his mask in 1959, Alex Torres is steadfast in his intent on continuing to wear the oversized baseball hat.
While with Tampa Bay a year ago June, Torres was summoned into the game after teammate Alex Cobb was drilled in the skull by a liner off the bat of Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer.
The incident shook the lefty Torres to his core.
“When I came into the game, (Cobb) was already on his way to the hospital,” Torres told FoxSports.com. “That was a really tough moment, after the pitching coach [Jim Hickey] said I was going to pitch after that happened.
“I was really shaking. My legs were shaking. It’s not easy to take that off of your mind, especially when you’re there. It was a really bad moment. A really bad situation.
“I don’t want to spend three or four months on the disabled list, or to not be able to play baseball again.”
Makes sense to me.
Plante’s mask idea didn’t catch on right away. After he debuted the mask in 1959, goalies continued to go bare-faced for almost a decade before the protective mask became a league staple.
Today, if a goalie dared to play without a mask (it’s against league rules anyway) he’d be mocked just as much as Alex Torres is being today for wearing the protective baseball hat.
Torres believes that the big hat will eventually be accepted.
“In the future, you’re going to see a lot more pitchers in the big leagues wearing it,” Torres was quoted on MLB.com recently.
Granted, Torres’ big hat isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing thing a baseball player can wear.
And Jacques Plante’s original mask was, by today’s standards, rather hideous.
Yet today the goalie mask reflects the wearer’s personality and creativity. The paint jobs on them are amazing in their detail and in their flair.
It could be presumed that MLB’s protective hat for pitchers (or anyone else who wants to wear it) will evolve. It might not look, five years from now, like it does now on Torres’ head.
This isn’t a fashion statement, anyhow.
“I don’t want to wait for someone to hit a line drive right to my head before I start wearing it,” Torres says of his big hat. “I don’t want to lose two or three months because I got a concussion. Why not wear it if I have it right now?”
In the great press box in the sky, Jacques Plante is grinning broadly.