It was 59 years ago this week that the game of hockey was changed forever.
Up until Halloween night, 1959, the only mask an NHL goaltender wore was when he went trick-or-treating with his kids.
But the following night, in a game between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers, an event took place which would alter the course of the sport’s history.
Early in the contest, the Rangers’ Andy Bathgate wound up and took a slap shot which caught Canadiens’ goalie Jacques Plante squarely in the face.
Blood gushed out of the netminder’s nose like a fire hose.
After a between-periods intermission, Plante returned to the ice wearing a crude-looking mask, something straight out of the Friday the 13th movies.
But damn if the thing didn’t work.
Slowly, the mask caught on.
Some 15 years later, Pittsburgh’s Andy Brown became the last goalie to play in an NHL game without a mask.
Today, mask/helmets are quite sophisticated. The design and cushioning are expertly crafted.
Yet goaltenders are still suffering concussions, not only from 100-mile-an-hour shots but from errant elbows, sticks, etc.
So the NHL has initiated some more research on ways to make the situation better, at least as far as withstanding the blunt force of pucks bouncing off plastic.
This comes on the wings of a decision to reduce the size of goalie equipment this season, in a rather questionable way to improve scoring perhaps.
The Flyers’ Brian Elliott has been dinged by so many shots to the arms, shoulders and chest that he’s basically opted out of the Flyers’ morning skates before games.
At the same time, he might be taking a few less dings to the old coconut.
Does Elliott believe some good can come of this latest attempt to perfect head/face protection?
He says he’s been fortunate not to have been seriously affected by a shot.
“Knock on wood,’’ he says. “I really haven’t experienced that from a shot. I don’t know if it’s helmet choice, where you get it (strike point) or how it (the mask) fits.
“There have been some helmets that have ended guys’ careers, but that was in the ‘90s. I don’t know about this particular research, as far as that goes. I’m just happy that mine has been doing the job for me.’’
Elliott says he probably gets more blows to the head from direct contact with players standing in or near the crease.
“You probably get more of those concussions from getting bumped into,’’ Elliott says. “When you turn in and there’s an elbow there, rather than a shot. I think they do a really good job of the puck glancing off the mask from that design.’’
General manager Ron Hextall played more than a decade in the NHL and took his share of pucks to the face. He says he’s in favor of any research which can better the health of the guys standing in net.
“If that is the case (goaltenders still getting concussions), then the masks aren’t good enough,’’ Hextall says. “The foam. . .something is missing there if you’re getting concussed by the puck.
“I got hit. It probably happens once every four or five games. Masks weren’t as good in those days (1986-1999). I’m in favor of whatever they can do now.’’
In the past year or so, several prominent goaltenders have had to go through NHL concussion protocol, including past Stanley Cup winners Matt Murray of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks and Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins.
Last Feb. 20, the Flyers’ Shayne Gostisbehere rocketed a shot off the mask of Montreal’s Carey Price, forcing him to sit out a month.
According to an article by TSN’s Frank Seravalli, there were a combined 189 man-games lost due to goaltender concussions last season. The most missed in any of the previous five seasons was 53.
The current standards, writes Seravalli, are not that high. Masks must only pass a safety standard test, which was established in 2014-15. But that test only measures how a mask physically holds up to pucks shot at 75 miles per hour or collisions, not the impact of shots on the head.
As is the case regarding the helmets of NHL position players, who also have a noteworthy concussion rate, something needs to be done with the goalie masks. The folks at the control switch of technological research must continue to spend many a midnight burning the oil.
Around the NHL
Most pleasant surprise of this Flyers’ road trip, which stood at 2-0 going into Saturday night’s game at San Jose, has to be the play of left wing Oskar Lindblom. Not only is he deft at putting the puck in the net, but he helped set up Nolan Patrick’s winner in Anaheim and another key goal by Wayne Simmonds in a victory at Los Angeles. There were some who wondered in training camp whether Lindblom might start the season at Lehigh Valley. That seems like a long time ago now. . .
From this viewpoint, the surprise team of the early going has to be the play of the New York Islanders, who walloped the Flyers last Saturday and then put back-to-back losses on Sidney Crosby and his Penguin crew. We knew general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz (both past Stanley Cup winners) would get things turned around eventually but not this quickly and without the services of blown-the-coop John Tavares. . .
As someone who’s covered four Winter Olympics (Salt Lake, Torino, Vancouver, Sochi), I was encouraged to hear Crosby come out in favor of the NHL going back to the Olympics in 2022 at Beijing, China after skipping the 2018 event in South Korea. “I hope we can find a way,’’ he said on TSN television. “It’s crazy, you think that’s so far away but it comes pretty quick. I’ve had great experiences in the past and it’s a pretty unique event.’’ Crosby scored the gold medal-winning goal for Canada at Vancouver in 2010.