Quick, who was the first goaltender to wear a mask in an NHL game? If you answered Jacques Plante, you’d be wrong. While Plante popularized the mask, it was Clint Benedict who first tried it out in the NHL near the end of his career. Benedict was born in 1892 in Ottawa and would stay loyal to his hometown by starting off with the Ottawa Stewartons and moving on to the Ottawa New Edinburghs. After going undefeated with the Edinburghs in 1911-12, Benedict attracted the attention of the NHA’s Ottawa Senators. Benedict had the benefit of playing on an extremely strong Senators team and played for the Stanley Cup in 1915, when the team lost to the Millionaires.
Benedict again stayed true to his hometown in 1917 when the Senators joined the NHL, but unfortunately had a rough season. The Senators were much more dominant in 1918-19, but lost to the Canadiens in the playoffs. As if not to be let down again, Benedict somehow turned it up another level in 1919-20 and dominated the league’s goaltending category, leading in GAA far and away with 2.66. The next best GAA was on Jake Forbes, who played as the extra goaltender for the Toronto St. Patricks and played just 5 games. Forbes had a GAA of 4.20. That difference still holds as the greatest gap in NHL history.
The Senators beat the Seattle Metropolitans in 1920 and beat the Millionaires in a game of revenge in 1921 to win their second consecutive Cup. The Senators continued to dominate and rely on Benedict’s reliable netminding and won another Cup in 1923, their third in four years. After an unsuccessful playoff run in 1924, Benedict was sent to the Montreal Maroons just prior to the 1924-25 season.
Unlike the Senators, the Maroons were not a well-developed team, having a rough season in the prior year, their first in the NHL. The Maroons struggled mightily in the 1924-25 season, despite their new all-star goaltender. Others recognized this and Benedict finished 3rd in voting for the Hart trophy in it’s 2nd year of existence. Benedict would prove their votes right the next year with a dominant year and led the Maroons to their first Stanley Cup in 1926. The Maroons would prove to have a very weak offensive team in 1926-27, as Benedict led the NHL in GAA with 1.42, but still had a losing record.
Things picked up for the Maroons in the following year and despite being 35 years of age, Benedict played a full 44-game season without faltering, though the Maroons would falter in the Stanley Cup Final, falling to the New York Rangers in a full five games. The Maroons would again falter in the 1928-29 season, despite Benedict’s heroics, but would run into one problem in the 1929-30 season that even Benedict couldn’t solve: injuries.
Benedict had been hit by a Howie Morenz shot in the nose and miss a good number of games. Upon returning, he came with a unique leather mask to protect a portion of his face. The mask was problematic because the nose portion interfered with his vision. Benedict fiddled around with it for five games at which point he abandoned it after being hit in the face during a scramble in front of the net which caused him to bleed profusely. Benedict later took a shot to the neck and ended the season with just 14 games. At 37 years old, it was clear that his career was nearing an end. He played one more season for the Windsor Bulldogs, the farm team for the Maroons and led them to the championship before finally retiring.
When Benedict left the NHL, he was second in career shutouts (58) and first in career wins (190). His mark in wins wasn’t passed for three more seasons until John Ross Roach passed him, needing many more games to do so. Benedict also had an effect on the rules of the game, as when he first joined the NHL, he had a habit of “accidentally” falling on the puck, a maneuver that was disallowed in the early days of the NHL. The League eventually changed the rules to allow it. Benedict was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1965.