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Hockey notes

Never forget who that masked man was

By Kevin Paul Dupont
October 25, 2009

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Next Sunday, when the Bruins are in Manhattan to face the Rangers, Andy Bathgate’s No. 9 will be hanging in the Madison Square Garden rafters as an eternal tribute to the former Blueshirt.

When in New York, every NHL goalie should take a moment to ponder Bathgate’s number and utter a silent thanks, not necessarily for his body of good work at center (1,069 games, 973 points), but for the one shot he took that proved to be a powerful agent of change for the entire sport.

It was that Bathgate shot, taken 50 years prior to next Sunday’s game, that opened up a seven-stitch gash on the nose and upper lip of storied Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante. Whisked to the dressing room for a 20-minute suture job, Jake the Snake refused to reenter the action unless Habs coach Toe Blake permitted him to wear the plastic facemask that Plante had been experimenting with since training camp.

Blake didn’t have much choice. Backup goalies in those days weren’t a luxury. They didn’t exist. Note Plante’s résumé for that 1959-60 season: He played in 69 of the Habs’ 70 regular-season games, posting a record of 40-17-12. His understudy Charlie Hodge, a true understudy, played in only one game all season.

Up until Nov. 1, 1959, Blake feared that by donning a mask, Plante wouldn’t have a clear view of the puck and would either allow more goals or be at greater risk of injury.

But Plante, tired of the stitches and scars, held his ground. Blake relented, and Plante resumed play as the first masked goaltender in NHL history. He also finished with 27 saves in a 3-1 Montreal victory.

Like virtually all other hockey equipment, the mask has evolved dramatically in the last half-century, and today they are as much fashion statement as they are high-tech protective gear. NHL goalies sometimes spend thousands of dollars for their mask and the glitzy paint jobs that adorn them.

Check out the Canadian website tsn.ca, where you’ll find a poll to vote for your favorite mask.

For hockey fans of a certain age around here (read: old, like your faithful correspondent), the No. 1 goalie mask of all-time is the Gerry Cheevers model, basic white with mock stitches scribbled all over with black felt-tip marker. Who needs a poll when you know the winner?

The Cheevers mask was both macabre and whimsical, a piece of art that spoke of the damage a 100-mile-an-hour slapper could inflict, chronicling the averted hurt in faux catgut.

Imagine the pain and scars that goalies have been spared the last 50 years because of Plante’s innovative mind, his stubbornness, and his temerity. Imagine the plastic surgeons in those Original Six cities who had to look for moonlighting work.

Imagine shooters like Bathgate, and the thousands that followed him, who learned over time, contrary to what Blake believed, that a goalie with a good mask is a whole lot harder to beat.

A REVIEWABLE CALL
Kelly firing finally comes under scrutiny
Gotta love this whole NHLPA mess.

Thanks to some dogged legwork by Chris Chelios, player representatives early last week authorized a four-member committee - Mark Recchi, Rob Blake, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Chelios - to conduct a detailed review of the current Players Association administration and leadership (loose use of the term).

Their main mission will be to determine what led to the Aug. 31 ouster of Paul Kelly (above) as executive director. They also will want answers to such things as why Kelly’s e-mails were cracked and copied, and why some of that private correspondence ended up as public fodder in the now infamous Roy McMurtry report, which the current administrators initially brandished as validation that Kelly was fired with just cause. A report, by the way, that cost union members (read: dues payers) some $40,000.

High price to pay, considering the union distanced itself from the report hours after it leaked it to selected media members, once it found out (insert laugh track here) that McMurtry had close ties to Alan Eagleson in the days when Eagleson was committing the nefarious acts that ultimately led to jail time for his crimes against the NHLPA.

We’ll find out this week if the existing NHLPA confederacy of dunces pays Kelly upward of the $2 million he is due on his deal, or if they want to continue their self-immolation by trying to arm-wrestle him on the “just cause’’ issue in a courtroom.

Kelly, by e-mail Friday, limited his comments to, “I applaud the players for taking this initial, but important step of forming an investigative committee of veteran and respected players. I welcome a complete review of what transpired at the NHLPA and the reasons behind it.’’

ETC.
New coaches take it right from the top
As of Friday morning, the top six teams in the league were: 1. Pittsburgh (coached by Dan Bylsma), 2. Colorado (Joe Sacco), 3. New York Rangers (John Tortorella), 4. Edmonton (Pat Quinn), 5. Calgary (Brent Sutter), and 6. Phoenix (Dave Tippett). Not one of those coaches started last season behind the bench of that team. Supply your own interpretation. Change is a good thing? Anyone can run an NHL bench? It’s more about the players than the coach? Early-season statistical oddity?

Ice sculpting
We should learn more details this week about what’s planned at Fenway once the NHL’s $2 million portable Winter Classic ice sheet is installed no later than Dec. 18. Public skating is in the mix, along with a Bruins alumni game, aimed at bringing back many members of the 1970 and ’72 Cup teams. League ice guru Dan Craig will be on site when the hardware arrives Dec. 10, and the build-out process should take 5-7 days. To avoid damaging Fenway’s emerald lawn, the ice sheet will be raised a few inches above the grass, creating what amounts to a vapor barrier for oxygen flow. Wonder if field maintenance expert Dustin Pedroia will offer advice on the science of grooming the infield?

One-track mind
Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov sounded genuinely unimpressed last week upon learning that he was named the NHL’s first star of the week. “I don’t care, really,’’ said the Russian-born backstop, who just two years ago was a waiver-wire acquisition by the Desert Dogs. Prodded a bit more by an Arizona Republic reporter, Bryzgalov explained, “I don’t like to run in front of the train because the train at some point can run over you.’’

Penner is mightier
Ex-Maine Black Bear Dustin Penner, after two seasons of indifferent, nearly anonymous play in Edmonton, woke up Thursday with a career night (2-3 -5, 11 shots on net) in a 6-4 win over the Blue Jackets (whose Rick Nash posted a 0-0 -0, minus-3, 0 shots). The line of Penner-Sam Gagner-Ales Hemsky rolled up 13 points for the night. Penner averaged only 42 points, and just over two shots a game, his first two years in Edmonton, after being hired away from the Ducks in a controversial free agent signing that trigged verbal volleying between general managers Brian Burke and Kevin Lowe. Penner will be at the Garden with the Oil for a Saturday matinee this week.

His kind of town
Chelios, by the way, hooked on last week with the Chicago Wolves, hoping to keep his legs fresh for another NHL stint later this season. The New York Post reported late in the week that the Rangers, carrying only six defensemen, wanted Chelios to stay ready with their Hartford affiliate, but he turned the offer down to remain in his hometown Chicago.

Getting his bearings
Mike Smith (left) finally earned a win last week in the Tampa net, his first W since missing most of the second half of 2008-09 with post-concussion syndrome. Rare for goalies to suffer from PCS, because they aren’t subjected to regular body checking or high-speed crashes into boards and ice.

Outside the rings
With Milan Lucic and Marc Savard out of the lineup for most, if not all, of November, their chances of getting Team Canada gigs for the Olympics are almost nil. Still can’t figure why Savard wasn’t asked to attend Canada’s orientation camp in August. GM Steve Yzerman’s eye should be sharp enough to know that Savard would deliver more mail than the ever-erratic Jason Spezza.

Loose pucks
Might Peter Laviolette get another kick at the can behind the Islander bench? Possibly . . . When the Islanders finally won a game last week, edging the Hurricanes in a shootout, the then-0-6-1 Leafs became the only winless team in the league. The record of season-opening futility, by the way, remains 15 games, held by the 1943-44 Rangers (what was then a 50-game regular season) . . . I’ve seen enough. The Bruins really miss Aaron Ward on the back line. More than I thought possible. More than the Boston front office projected . . . League GMs will meet in Toronto Nov. 10-11, the two days following Hall of Fame induction weekend. No hot-button issue on the agenda, but it’s a good bet they’ll spend some time on the definition of tampering, in light of the kerfuffle surrounding Leaf coach Ron Wilson’s remarks, pre-July 1, about Toronto’s interest in Vancouver twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin, which led the league to assess a $25,000 fine . . . Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis were reunited on the same line last week by Tampa coach Rick Tocchet, who must have somehow stumbled across the phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,’’ carved into the home bench at the St. Pete Times Forum . . . Even an ardent Boston University fan (read: Eagle hater) can’t find it easy to stomach Kenny Ryan’s decision to pack up at Boston College last week, thumb his nose at his scholarship and teammates, and join the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires. Just the wrong thing to do, even if Ryan figures it’s the right thing for his career. The 18-year-old winger was Toronto’s second pick, 50th overall, in the June draft . . . To clarify the note here last week about Boston’s first-round picks and how many are no longer in the league: It referred to the Bruins’ top picks each year, not all of their first-round picks. Mea culpa . . . Not sure what’s gotten into P.J. Axelsson (left), who totaled a modest, if not pacifist, 276 penalty minutes during his 797 regular-season games with that Spoked-B on his chest. Back in Sweden, playing again in Frolunda, he totaled 29 PIMs in his first 10 games. What’s up with that? Either Swedish home cookin’ is spicier than we imagined, or Ax was sitting much too close to Lucic the last couple of seasons.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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