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Seth Martin’s mask

Updated: Feb 4

The Trail Museum’s recent acquisition at auction of an original Seth Martin goalie mask got me wondering: did he start wearing a mask before or after Jacques Plante did the same in the NHL? And in any event, when did Martin first wear his?

The newly-acquired Seth Martin mask in the Trail Museum.

Martin, who died in 2014, is best known as the brilliant netminder of the 1961 world champion Trail Smoke Eaters, but his on-ice career stretched from 1950 to 1973.

He played junior hockey in Lethbridge, then joined the senior Smokies, with occasional call-ups to professional teams in Vancouver, Spokane, and Portland. He also played for Rossland and Spokane in the WIHL and was Glenn Hall’s back-up

when the St. Louis Blues debuted in the NHL in 1967.

While Murray Greig’s book, Trail on Ice, discusses Martin’s mask, it doesn’t specify when he first started wearing it.

Plante, as is well known, donned a fibreglass mask for the first time in an NHL regular season game on Nov. 1, 1959 after being hit in the face by an Andy Bathgate shot. After being stitched up, he returned wearing a mask he had been using in practice. Plante had been ready to wear the mask since the start of the season, but coach Toe Blake discouraged him from doing so.

Seth’s wife Bev told me he started wearing a custom-made mask around the same time Plante did, but she wasn’t sure who was first. However, she knew its genesis:

They were playing for the Smoke Eaters and he was in Rossland for a game. His defenceman ducked and the puck hit him square in the face. He broke everything. It took him a while to recuperate from that. They got Seth to the hospital. Dr. Jack Colbert sewed him right up. He really was quite a mess. It took a little while to heal. He went back and played, but somewhere along the line he decided to start making masks.
He started with a plaster of Paris mold. Dr. Colbert fixed that up. And then he started making them from that mold. Did most of that in the fire hall when he was on night shift. He came up with two or three different models. Each time he wore one, he had to improve it. Mainly the eyes. He had to get them down so he could see everything. The first one was very short, and then there was another one and another one. He perfected what he ended up wearing.

Finding the exact date of the injury was easier than determining when Martin first donned his mask. From the Trail Daily Times of March 11, 1959:

Through with hockey for the rest of this season is Trail Smoke Eater goalie Seth Martin who is in Rossland hospital after being hit in the mouth by a puck during last night’s game between the Smokies and Rossland Warriors. Martin ... lost some teeth, while his lips and gums were badly cut when he was struck by a slap shot he didn't see. Hospital authorities said this morning that he had spent “a comfortable night.” Dr. John H. Muth of Rossland is looking after Seth.
... Martin was hit in the mouth with the puck early in the second period and was carried off on a stretcher to hospital for an overnight stay. His teeth were shattered and the inside of his mouth and gums were badly cut ...

However, Martin did not immediately adopt a mask when he returned to action the following season. It took some effort, but I finally pinned down where and when it happened: at the Civic Centre in Nelson on Jan. 29, 1960. The Smokies and the Maple Leafs played to a 5-5 tie.

The following day, a Trail Daily Times caption reported: “Seth Martin … became the first netminder in the history of Western International Hockey League to don the mask for a regular season encounter … Seth, who has been testing the pinkish colored mask in practices, noted after last night’s game that ‘it’s here to stay. It doesn’t hinder my movements in any way. There are a few kinks to be taken out, but we’re working on that right now.”

Elsewhere sportswriter Fred Collins added: “Seth Martin, donning a mask for the first time in the WIHL, easily kicked out Red Koehle's long shot from the blueline ... Martin, whose mask will undoubtedly cause some controversy, handled 23 shots ...”

Thereafter, Collins often referred to Martin simply as “The Mask.” There was no explanation why Martin chose to start wearing his mask in this particular game. Perhaps the prototype was simply ready, or maybe there was another close-call I have overlooked.

Coincidentally, Martin was coming off a high-profile exhibition match two days earlier between a WIHL all-star team and the Moscow Selects, which packed more than 5,000 people into the Cominco Arena. But there was no indication he wore his mask in that game.

Early on, the mask proved its worth. Collins wrote in the Times on Feb. 13, 1960 of another game against Nelson: “Martin was thankful for the ‘Plante’ mask in the late minutes of the final session. A back hand shot off the stick of Red Koehle caught the youthful netminder square in the face. Play was stopped but Martin was only shaken by the impact of the puck.”

Thereafter, Martin usually wore the mask, but not always. The Smokies made the Allan Cup final against Chatham that year, and the Ottawa Citizen of May 2, 1960 reported that in the fifth game of the series Martin was “playing for the first time since mid-December without his flesh colored face mask.”

As we’ve seen, he didn’t actually start wearing the mask until late January, so perhaps mid-December was when he began testing it in practice. There was no explanation why he took it off in that game.

When the Smokies embarked on their European tour prior to the 1961 world championship, Martin’s mask was expected to be a point of interest.

Ottawa Citizen, Jan. 26, 1961

(I haven’t been able to locate the patent alluded to above in any Canadian or US database.)

Asbury Park (New Jersey) Press, Feb. 7, 1961

But while the opposing players seemed interested, the European media did not.

Owen Sound Sun-Times, March 11, 1961

A game against Sweden had to be stopped several times because snow kept getting lodged inside of Martin’s mask. He still made 56 saves.

A story in the Spokesman-Review credited Martin’s mask with turning him “from a passable goalie to a netminder highly regarded internationally behind the protective device.”

That might be a stretch, as Martin was already a top-flight goalie before adopting the mask. I don’t know if he ever commented on whether it improved his play, but he did later recall that Russian, Czech, and Swedish players were eager to follow his lead:

When I made my first trip to Europe in 1961 with the Trail Smoke Eaters, I wore a mask that I had designed myself. It had a spring-steel grid-like opening around the mouth to allow air to circulate. There seemed to be a lot of interest in it but I never realized how much until I toured Europe again in 1963 with the Canadian national team. Everywhere we went I saw exact copies of the mask. And almost all of the goalkeepers had one in the world tournament.
Actually, it was quite funny because I had redesigned my mask just prior to the tour and was wearing a fibreglass job very similar to that which I now use.

When Martin returned to Europe again for the 1964 Olympics, all of the goaltenders were wearing copies of the new mask. While he tried other models, including Plante’s, he still preferred his own. “It’s not the strongest or most rigid of them all, but I think you can see with it better than any of the others,” he said.

By 1968, Martin had sold about 25 masks to European players for $45 each (about $360 today). He also made them for Spokane’s Dave Cox, who seemed to play better without one, and St. Louis’ Glenn Hall, although Bev Martin says Hall wasn’t comfortable with it. Reportedly, he still has his.

Spokesman Review, Dec. 1, 1965

Martin himself, however, did not save any. “I have no idea why he didn’t keep them as he went along and hang them up,” Bev says.

So the museum didn’t have an original to display, although they had a couple of replicas. This year they bought one at great expense in an online auction. Although its provenance is unknown, it bears a Team Canada paint scheme.

Incidentally, neither Plante nor Martin was the first masked goaltender. That distinction goes to Elizabeth Graham of Queen’s University, who wore a fencing mask in 1927 at her father’s request. In 1930 Clint Benedict became the first to wear a mask in the NHL to protect a broken nose and cheekbone. However, he felt the nosepiece blocked his vision so he didn’t stick with it. Teiji Honma became the first goalie to wear a mask at the Olympics, playing for Japan in 1936.

Seth Martin case in the Trail Museum.

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Another great article Greg. I forwarded it on to my buddy, Trent Colbert, the doctor's youngest son.

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