This photo made it to Uni Watch today as there is something definitely not right about seeing Paul Henderson, member of the Red Wings, wearing a surgical mask. NHL players have historically been innovators when it comes to wearing facial protection and masks - Jacques Plante becoming the first full-time masked goaltender to Pat Lafontaine's protective addition for his broken jaw as a Sabre to Herb Raglan's half-cage while with the Nordiques. Never, though, have I seen a surgical mask on a player while on the ice as a member of an NHL team.
I decided to do a little searching about Henderson's choice of facial covering. There are many theories, apparently, as to why Henderson was wearing this mask in a game against the Maple Leafs.
I discovered Howard Berger had a tidbit about Henderson's mask on the HockeyBuzz website. Berger, who has a personal tie to the game, writes,
"There was also some personal irony in taking my son to his first Leaf game on Saturday. It just happened to be exactly 39 years to the night my father first took me to see the Leafs play - Sat. Dec. 3, 1966 - against Detroit in Maple Leaf Gardens. That game was shown on LEAFS TV sometime last year, as part of the station's popular "Sunday Night Classics" series, and I now have it on videotape. Paul Henderson, still playing with Detroit, skated around that night looking rather ridiculous in a surgeon's mask - the result of a virus he had contracted. Henderson wasn't yet wearing a helmet, so you could see the bands of the mask tied off on the back of his head. It must have taken some courage on his part."So we have a day and year when this photo was taken, and that will certainly help our cause in finding out why Henderson took to the ice in his chosen facial wear.
Mark Askin, Leafs TV’s Senior Broadcast Producer, was interviewed on the Leafs' website, and he had this theory:
"Paul had allergies and asthma. He thought there was something in the air in Toronto that affected his breathing. He decided to wear a surgical mask. He’s playing the game, with no helmet and he would be one of the first to use a helmet. I remember sitting in the crowd saying, ‘what is that on his face’? That is so weird.’ He played the whole game with it. If that happened today, it would be on every sports show on the planet."Interesting, but I need a story to corroborate this account, especially when you considered that Henderson didn't play with the mask on when he was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Askin also had the wrong year in which this photo was taken, so I'm not believing that asthma and/or allergies was the factor that led to the mask.
A Sports Illustrated article written by Gary Ronberg actually provided some good evidence. In fact, Ronberg went to Henderson himself and got the story from the guy wearing the mask:
"Like every other club, the Red Wings expect their share of bruises, sprains, stitches and even a few-broken bones. But until Paul Henderson, the crew-cut left wing who was leading the team in scoring, started coughing violently every time he stepped on the ice, nobody around Olympia Stadium anticipated the exotic ailment tracheitis. 'I coughed all the time,' said Henderson. 'I even wore a surgical mask in games to warm the air I was breathing.' Finally the Red Wings shipped him to Arizona so that the hot desert sun would bake the inflammation from his windpipe."I'm going to say that this is pretty reliable information considering the sources. The strange thing is that it actually reminded me of a newspaper article I had read when looking for some information about Paul Henderson.
The article, found in the December 10, 1966 edition of The Windsor Star, pretty much confirms the story written by Mr. Ronberg above. The affliction that Henderson had come down with was "tracheitis", an inflammation of the trachea through a bacteria infection.
Tracheitis is most commonly caused by bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, the same bacteria that can cause staph infections, and presents itself most often as a dry irritated airway. This is a commonly-diagnosed problem in infants and children, not athletes of NHL caliber. So what exactly was Henderson dealing with, and how does sending him to Arizona help?
The treatment is normally to humidify the patient's surroundings, but the Red Wings opted to send Henderson to Arizona for the hot, dry air to bake out the infection - something that should have actually worsened his affliction! Instead, he was back on the ice without the surgical mask after a week in the desert. The curious case of Paul Henderson raised my eyebrows, but all's well that ends well, I suppose.
That's the story of the first man to wear a surgical mask during an NHL game. Paul Henderson has a number of lofty achievements credited to his name, but his surgical mask game is a highlight for this hockey fan!
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!