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Andy Bathgate: the slap shot that changed hockey forever

Baseball historians refer to Bobby Thompson’s dramatic home run in the 1951 National League playoffs as ‘the shot heard around the world’. His 9th inning home run sent the New York Giants to the World Series.

In hockey circles, a single slap shot a few years later changed the course of the modern game, particularly for goaltenders.

Back in 1976, I was a young guy working his way into the world of broadcasting. I had no “experience” and unlike some, did not have a degree in journalism from a respected college such as Fanshawe or Ryerson. I had to prove myself even more.

The only advantage I had was that I was willing to work for nothing. My first radio job paid exactly that, as did my first “television” gig.

Now, I should be clear that by television I am referring to local cable television. Back in the mid-70s, they would give airtime to almost anyone with an idea and promises of local content. I approached the people at the then Mississauga Cable television with the idea for a sports interview show. After some discussion the show was born.

I worked with other young people looking for experience in the technical areas (lighting, make-up, camera stuff) all hoping to turn the experience into paying jobs in ‘the business’. Some older, local folks were involved on the production side for the pure enjoyment of the work.

I co-hosted the show with my friend Paul Harris, who went on to be an educator for many years in the Toronto and Peel (Mississauga, Ontario) school boards.

Back then, as now, Paul enjoyed sports, but mostly he was giving his time to help me build what I hoped would be a career.

We interviewed a range of celebrities over the course of several months. The only catch was there had to be some connection to Mississauga, to provide a local angle.

One of my favorite recollections is our interview with Andy Bathgate, an ex-Leaf who scored the Cup-winning goal in Game 7 of the finals for Toronto in 1964 (a story for another day). Bathgate owned a golf driving range in Mississauga, so that counted, at least in my mind, as local content.

Bathgate had been retired for a few years, but in his earlier life had been a legitimate star in the National Hockey League, particularly with the Rangers in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He had one of the hardest shots in hockey, and along with “Boom Boom” Geoffrion and Bobby Hull, was probably the most feared of players who utilized the new trend back then, the “slap shot”.

Bathgate was so good that he was, at least once, as I recall, voted in ahead of Gordie Howe as the league’s all-star (end-of-season, when it mattered) right winger. He also, I believe, led the league in scoring one season.

Well, on this night in 1976, as we chatted with Andy, he shared some wonderful stories and comments. I was amazed that he still worked on his shot, he said, years into his retirement. (Bathgate was known for being able to put the puck where he wanted to, which will mean even more as you read on.)

I asked him, for example, about the 1966 Stanley Cup finals, when his Red Wings (he had been traded from Toronto the summer prior for Marcel Pronovost and others) had won the first two games of the series against the Canadiens, right in Montreal. Wings coach Sid Abel took the team to Toledo for a few days of rest (and to bet on the ponies, it was reported at the time) as the League had scheduled four days off between the Tuesday night game in Montreal and the U.S. national broadcast game on Sunday afternoon in Detroit.

Detroit went on to lose four straight after spending that time in Toledo. When I asked Bathgate what happened during the team’s four-day break, he said, “I think people go to Toledo to die…”. His comment broke me up. Whatever the reason, the Wings lost their momentum during their fun “break”, and Montreal came back to win the series in six games.

However, the most astonishing thing in the discussion was this nugget, which I had never heard before, which Andy said at the time he had never told anyone. (He has since, I know, repeated the story - recently to and perhaps others.)

We’ve all heard about the night back in the fall 1959 when Montreal’s All-Star goalie Jacques Plante was hit in the face by a shot from Bathgate at New York’s Madison Square Garden. That he left the ice a bloody mess. That he went to the trainers’ room, was stitched up, and told the Montreal trainer that he was not going back out to play unless he wore the protective face mask he had been wearing in practice.

His Coach, Hall-of-Famer Toe Blake, had steadfastly refused to allow Plante to wear his mask in games. It simply wasn’t done in those days. He felt Plante couldn’t see well enough while wearing the mask. Blake finally relented that night, after initially protesting vehemently. In addition, Plante wore the mask for the rest of his career, which continued into the mid-1970s in the old World Hockey Association.

Well, here’s the twist in the story. As Andy told the story of that night in 1959, he recalled that it always bugged him that Plante, who was considered the first of the “roving” goalies, would constantly come out of the net to stop the puck behind his net to set it up for his defenseman.

But what really disturbed Bathgate was that, as Bathgate would skate in behind the net to try to retrieve the puck, Plante would stick his butt out and give Bathgate a hip check to throw him off-balance.

So Bathgate decided that, some day, he would extract his revenge.

The night he did so, in turns out, was that famous night back in 1959.

As the story goes, as Bathgate crossed the Montreal blue line in full flight, he aimed his patented slap shot – at Plante’s face.

And he connected.

The rest is hockey history.

I remember laughing out loud when Bathgate told the story. But unless he was pulling our leg, and it was not the kind of situation where he would, he had just revealed quite a story. The story about the night he exacted revenge on the world’s finest goalie.

You couldn’t admit that kind of thing today without being suspended. Perhaps that’s why Andy did not share that story publicly for almost 30 years, and after both he and Plante had retired.

However, while intentionally inflicting that kind of pain on a fellow player may seem cruel, Plante was fine although banged up, and the incident enabled him to play the rest of his career with the mask.  He likely would have retired much sooner otherwise.

And as years went by, the face mask became standard protection for every goalie around the hockey world.

It was great story from a great player, told to a young, aspiring reporter on a small local cable TV station.

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