Jacques helped me save face

(Catching up: A version of this appeared in The Sault Star Nov. 7)

Last Halloween I wore my old “Jacques Plante” goalie mask while dishing out treats at one of my kids’ houses.

I worried that the tiniest tots might be frightened, but they took it in stride. Perhaps because Halloween turns their whole world upside down, a masked man is just one more strange thing on a strange night.

But one smart seven-or-so-year-old (well not that smart, because he was dressed as Toronto Maple Leaf) figured it out.

Vintage goalie mask: not for sale. Vintage goalie: Not worth selling.

“That’s a really old goalie mask,” he said. “Why are you wearing it?”

“Because I’m a really, really old goalie,” I told him.

I’m also a really old humour columnist. And a couple of days earlier I’d run into someone who thought my goalie mask had something to do with that. 

This friend, legendary in local oldtimer hockey circles, is a delightful man who tends to speak using the upper case characters on the number keys.

“Too many pucks in the f – – – ing head, that’s why you’re so f – – – ing funny,” he theorized for the edification of me and a sizeable number of f – – – ing shoppers within earshot.

I truth, I’ve taken a lot of pucks to the head, f – – – ing or otherwise, in my goaltending career, which has lasted as long as the half-life of a disposable water bottle. 

Still do. You might think getting it up would be a challenge for guys as old as those I play against, but they manage to tattoo my mask while aiming for the bottom corner stick side.

Modern goalie mask technology leaves me relatively un-concussed.

Sadly, modern goalie mask technology didn’t exist when I was a kid. We used baseball mask technology. I wore a catcher’s mask until I was in my early teens (along with an infielder’s glove until they made me don a goalie trapper that employed pieces of 1/8-inch doweling in a largely symbolic attempt to prevent wrist damage).

But in the era just before me, goalies didn’t wear masks or headgear. Watch a clip of National Hockey League action from the 1950s and you’ll shudder at the spectacle of bare-faced goalies diving in front of pucks and skates and sticks with no protection above the flimsy quilted arm and chest protectors they wore.

Jacques Plante changed all that on All-Saints day 60 years ago. 

Of course, the legendary Montreal Canadien changed the whole style of goaltending by roaming from his crease to play the puck and challenge opposing forwards. He also solidified the notion that goalies are flakes by knitting his own undergarments and toques.

On that monumental Nov. 1, 1959, Jake the Snake Plante was flooding the ice with blood after stopping an Andy Bathgate backhand with his mouth.

“I rushed down to the dressing room and there was Plante, looking in the mirror and separating the cut,” recalled legendary sportswriter Red Fisher. 

“‘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.”

Plante agreed to return to the ice, but only if he wore a mask he used in practice. Next game he said he wouldn’t play unless he could wear that mask in every game. 

NHL coaches, none of whom had tended goal, thought wearing a mask would make a goalie a sissy. But Plante prevailed.

My own antique mask is almost as old as Plante’s, probably dating back to 1962. It was second-hand; until my mid-teens I was not aware that hockey equipment could be new.

It was constructed of some sort of fibreglass material, based on a mold of the user’s face. The guy I bought it from had a big nose, so when I wore it I had to listen to opposing forwards mock me for a giant schnoz I didn’t actually possess.

But I did like to stick my nose into things on the ice, so fair game.

Today that mask reminds me of how enthralled a much-much-younger me was with hockey and how thrilled I am to be able to stumble onto the ice a couple of generations later. 

Funny thing, it’s sort of become my signature; I use it as the author photo in my book of humour columns. 

And thanks to Jacques Plante the face behind the mask isn’t quite as funny-looking as it might be.

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