Evan Weiner | NHL.com correspondent
Jan 20, 2007, 10:05 AM EST
Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams once said hitting a baseball was the toughest thing to do in sports.
Ted Williams, who was a fighter pilot in two wars, never played goal in the six-team NHL. Playing goal is not easy, and being a goaltender in the six-team NHL meant playing without a mask and with equipment that pales to the suit of armor that 21st century goaltenders use.
Even with 21st century equipment, it’s still not easy playing goal. Goaltenders stand on skates on ice and are asked to stop pucks that sometimes they can’t see traveling at high rates of speed.
The most amazing record in sports belongs to Glenn Hall who tended goal in 502-straight games in the 1950s and 1960s. The last goaltender to play in every minute of every game in a season was Boston's Ed Johnston in 1963-64. He was in net for all 70 Bruins contests. Johnston was a tough guy. He apparently broke his nose three times within a six day period during the season, but never missed a minute of game action although he did end up in the hospital following the third broken nose because his eyes were swollen shut and the Bruins trainer decided that Johnston really needed some medical attention in a hurry.
Johnston, the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins executive, got relief after being treated with leeches.
"Well, I broke it in Boston on a Sunday, I broke on the following Thursday in Montreal and I broke it again on the following Saturday night (in Toronto) and when I got off the plane both my eyes were shut and (Bruins trainer Don Canney) took me to Mass General Hospital and at that time they used to use leeches to open your eyes up. I come up the next game and shut Chicago out 2-0," Johnston recalled.
So the doctors opened up Johnston's eyes and he was ready for the Blackhawks and Bobby Hull’s slap shot. But let's not forget what Johnston breezed past -- the doctors used leeches in their treatment to relieve the swelling.
According to the website Leech Therapy, "a leech is a worm like creature that sucks blood and leeches can relieve blood pooling around a muscle or skin flap better than drugs or other treatments."
Johnston gets to Massachusetts General Hospital and he was immediately told that he was going to get leech therapy to open his eyes.
"Our trainer brought me over there because both my eyes were shut at the time, they told me what the procedure was, so I laid there for about an hour or so, they opened it up and that was it," said Johnston. "I looked (at the leeches), it was kind of ugly.
"I never thought about it. They said it was the procedure, I just did it. Like I said I broke my nose three times and it was just a matter of getting my eyes open so I could play the next night."
Three broken noses in six days and two eyes swollen shut would probably keep most athletes from playing for a while, but things were much different in the old six team league in the 1950s into the 1960s. Teams had just one goaltender and those goaltenders were tough, proud individuals. Hall in Chicago, Terry Sawchuk in Detroit, Johnny Bower in Toronto, Jacques Plante in Montreal and Gump Worsley in New York. All five of them are in the Hockey Fame of Fame. They seemingly never missed a game and with good reason according to Johnston.
"Back then there was only one goalkeeper playing and you were afraid to lose you job, so you made sure no matter what happened to you, you had to play," he said.
Goaltenders like Johnston never ever thought of wearing a mask in those days. Plante put on a mask in 1959 and that did not endear him to coach Toe Blake. Johnston had grown up without a mask and never wore one during his minor-league tenure. He ended up in Boston in June 1962 after being acquired in the Inter-league draft from the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League. Johnston was nearly 27 when he got his chance at the NHL and he wasn’t thinking about donning a mask at that time.
“I never wore a mask then. No money, no brains,” he laughed.
But Johnston had to play and somehow protect his busted up nose. “They used to stick those little plugs up my nose and I had some stitches over my eyes. Back then, there was one goalkeeper on a team, only six goalkeepers in the league with the six teams, you were afraid to get out of there. Somebody could come in and take your job,” he said.
“We never had a mask back then. I got up the next morning, my eyes were open. We played Chicago and beat them 2-0, evidently it work. If it wasn’t for the leeches, I would have not been able to play, (the doctors) would have had to slit them like they do to the boxers and pop them open.”