One night in Madison Square Garden, back in 1959, the hapless New York Rangers were playing the Montreal Canadiens, the symbol of Canada’s National Hockey League supremacy. Naturally, the 12 players on the ice wore cups to block any pucks that might sail toward groin regions. As for their teeth: They were safely stored in their lockers.
But you could see their faces, often flattened noses, maybe even count the stitches. None of the players wore a mask or a helmet to protect their heads, not even the goaltenders, who could expect to be peppered with 20 to 30 shots on goal.
And then something weird happened. The Canadiens’ goalie, Jacques Plante, got smacked in the face with the puck. Teammates picked him up off the ice, and helped him skate off. Twenty minutes later, he returned after getting seven stitches. But he was wearing a mask. No one ever wore a mask during a game back then, and someone in the Garden crowd yelled, “Hey, Plante, Halloween’s over!”
There were lots of yucks about that. Plante had actually been wearing a mask during practices, but never in a game. Didn’t matter that he could be whacked in the face. The team’s coach, Hector “Toe” Blake, had warned Plante that if he put on the mask during a game, the other teams would make fun of him.
The next morning’s New York Times had a photo of the masked Plante in goal. The caption under the picture began with one word in boldface: “Bizarre.”
And that is the way many of the sportswriters and hockey establishment saw it. The culture of the times mandated that athletes get hurt, and take it. They even were objects of derision if they were injured and showed it. The time was before players’ unions, in any sport, and injuries could mean the end of a career, or a demotion to the minors, or a loss of a starting position.
I believe that many of my fellow sportswriters went along with the macho aspects of the pro sports back then, not because we were insensitive brutes but simply because it made good copy. I enjoyed quoting a player who told another, who was hit in the head with a stick, “Tape an aspirin on it.” And I remember a sign in a team’s locker room, “You’re no good to the club in the tub or in the pub.” So drinking was equated with getting hurt and soaking yourself in the whirlpool—each was bad.
Of course, teams didn’t have any physicians traveling with the clubs, for the most part. Of the major team sports, pro hockey probably was the most insensitive. It was a game composed entirely of Canadians, only six teams, only 120 players. If you made it to the big time, you did not want to go back. You were a national figure. You probably also were a high school dropout. In Plante’s time, only one-fourth of all the players had high school diplomas. The reason was that they all played junior hockey, which had a schedule of about 50 games, and what kid wants to study, or has the time to study, when he’s got a game that night?
Once in a while, a European would try out for an NHL club. Usually, it was a Swede, who wore a helmet. Teammates laughed.
Things began to change as players in all sports got smarter, unions became the norm, and teams hired trainers who were college-educated. Then in the 1980s, researchers studied the effects of concussions—nothing, really, had been done about them for most of the 20th Century—and new paradigms for sports injuries were forged.
Pro football and hockey led the way after a number of retired name players died after suffering Alzheimer’s-related symptoms. The NHL eventually mandated helmets, but allowed players who had come into the league some years earlier to play without them. It was an odd ruling: The league was saying you had better wear helmets for your own safety–except those of you who are accustomed to going bareheaded.
Some of the hockey players who eventually succumbed to brain injuries were noted “enforcers,” guys who were proud of their reputation for fighting or for being overly aggressive. Now, every team in professional sports has its own medical staff on hand, and stadiums and arenas routinely have X-ray equipment. Helmets even have sensors that record the forces of hits to the head. Today’s players don’t return to a game after a concussion. And they aren’t laughed at, either.
Ironically, for all the attention paid to players seriously hurt in team sports, pro boxers still go into the ring unprotected. Even Muhammad Ali’s long decline as the result of symptoms similar to those of Parkinson’s Disease haven’t led to the end of boxing.
It’s no longer a laughing matter, yet newspapers still cover boxing as if it were just another divertissement–as if one guy battering another is fine, not even as bad as a pitcher throwing at a batter’s head.