NHL 100: Hockey has come a long way in 100 years

Jacques Plante is shown in photos without a mask and with two of the masks he wore in his career. The photo at right is 1960, the other two photos are from 1969. It was Jacques Plante of the Canadiens who popularized face protection when he stood his ground against reluctant coach Toe Blake to start wearing a mask full-time in 1959. (CP/AP)

If there had been no change in the NHL over the past 100 years, thinly padded players with one-piece wooden sticks would still be trying to bully through defences without passing the puck forward or winding up to blast a shot.

Happily, the sport has had its share of innovations.

Some were designed to make the sport more entertaining, some to make it safer and others, perhaps unfortunately, to prevent the best teams and players from making their inferiors look bad.

In the latest edition of NHL 100, a weekly series from The Canadian Press, we examine innovations that have marked the league’s history so far.


Clint Benedict of the Montreal Maroons wore one for five games in 1930, but it was Jacques Plante of the Canadiens who popularized face protection when he stood his ground against reluctant coach Toe Blake to start wearing a mask full-time in 1959. Plante’s face had been cut for several stitches by an Andy Bathgate slapshot and he said “no more.” It still took a while to become universal. Pittsburgh’s Andy Brown was the NHL’s last maskless man in 1974.


Several players, including Bathgate and Bert Olmstead, claimed to have bent their blades before Chicago Blackhawks stars Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull got the idea while practising their shots in the late 1950s. Some derided the “banana” stick, but the curved blade gave Hull the hardest shot in the league. The NHL eventually restricted the amount of curve a player could use, but advances in technology, including today’s composite sticks, have given nearly every player a Hull-like shot.


Boston’s George Owen was said to be the first to wear one in 1928, and head protection became an issue when Toronto’s Ace Bailey nearly died after being slammed into the ice by Boston’s Eddie Shore. But it took Bill Masterton’s death from a 1968 brain injury to make players at least start thinking seriously about them. Finally, in 1979, the league ruled all new players must wear a helmet. The last still playing bare-headed was Craig McTavish for St. Louis in 1996-97.


When hockey started, there was no forward pass. Blue lines were added in 1918, allowing forward passes in the neutral zone. In 1927, you could pass ahead inside the defensive and neutral zones. In 1928, you could pass across the opponent’s blue line. A year later, you could pass anywhere, but across lines was offside. In 1943, the red line came, so passes could be made all the way to centre ice. Since 2005, the “stretch” or two-line pass took it to the opposing blue line. Each time, the aim was more offence.


At first, minor penalties lasted three minutes before being reduced to two in 1921. The penalized player had to serve the full two minutes. But on Nov. 5, 1955, Jean Beliveau scored three goals in 44 seconds on the same power play. The powerhouse Canadiens scored 26 per cent of all the league’s power-play goals that season. So in 1956, a new rule said the penalty ends if a team scores a power-play goal. The vote was 5-1, with Montreal voting against.


There was overtime in the NHL until 1942, but was canned due to wartime curfews. It came back in 1983 as a straight five-minute OT. In 1999, the NHL went for 4-on-4 OT to try to produce more winners. After the 2004-05 lockout, the shootout was introduced to eliminate ties forever. But there still was deemed to be too few goals, so they went to 3-on-3 OT, followed by a shootout if necessary, in 2015.


Coach Jacques Lamaire is commonly credited/blamed for the stifling defensive system his New Jersey Devils used to win three Stanley Cups. The trap, and its variations, has teams clog the neutral zone to force turnovers. It took a hit in 2005 when the league allowed the two-line pass and cracked down on obstruction fouls, but the use of shut-down systems and the challenge of busting them are an ongoing struggle.


What other player changed the sport quite as much? There may not be an Erik Karlsson or P.K. Subban today if Orr hadn’t shown that a defenceman can be a deadly offensive weapon on his own. In an era when defencemen were supposed to stay back, Orr charged up the ice, weaving through defences and piling up points from 1966 until his knees gave out in 1978. He is the only rearguard to win the scoring title, which he did twice. An eight-time Norris Trophy winner, he changed the game.

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