June 05, 2014

Praying Bennie: Clint Benedict

Many fans today automatically assume Georges Vezina was the first great goaltender, after all his name lives on with the trophy that honours the best goalie in the NHL each year. But many would argue Clint Benedict of the Ottawa Senators and later the Montreal Maroons was the better netminder. And if it were not for Vezina's tragic death, goalies today could very well be dreaming of winning a Benedict Trophy.

Yet you would be hard pressed to find a fan who knows who "Praying Bennie" was.

Clint Benedict greatly influenced goaltending as we know it. He was responsible for a significant rule change that allowed goalies to leave their feet to stop the puck. Originally, and unthinkable to today's fans, goalies would be given a 2 minute penalty for falling on the ice to make a save. But Benedict made an art out of the accidental fall on the puck, admitting that "if you did it a bit sneaky and made it look accidental, you could fall on the puck without being penalized." These comments made NHL rule makers aware of the problem and from that point on goaltenders were allowed to fall to the ice to stop pucks. He spent so much time on the ice he quickly earned the nickname Praying Bennie!

Also influencing the position was his rudimentary mask. Jacques Plante is inaccurately portrayed as the first goalie to wear a mask. While Plante was the first to regularly wear one, Clint Benedict was the first to wear a mask in a game. Benedict was hit in the nose by a rifle-like shot by Howie Morenz. Benedict wore a tailor made mask in an attempt to protect the wound, but after just one game, a 2-1 loss against Chicago, with the leather mask he decided not to wear as he felt it obstructed his vision and would lead to more losses.

Born in Ottawa in 1892, he played for 17 seasons, four of which were on Stanley Cup winning teams -- three with the Ottawa Senators and one with the Montreal Maroons.

Born in Ottawa in 1892, Clint Benedict would star with the original Senators. He apprenticed for 5 seasons with the Sens in the National Hockey Association, the forerunner to the NHL, guiding his team to an unsuccessful Stanley Cup appearance in 1915. An equally notable lacrosse player, Benedict was a solid goaltender on the verge of stardom. Wearing his trademark cricket-style leg pads that he would wear beyond Pop Kenesky's creation of the modern goalie pads, the ill tempered Benedict was already establishing himself with opponents as an unfriendly and combative foe.

Benedict reached his prime as the Senators joined the newly minted National Hockey League. Led by the goaltending of Benedict, superstars Cy Denneny and Frank Nighbor, and the clutch playoff scoring of Jack Darragh, the Senators were the NHL's first dynasty, winning three Stanley Cups in the four seasons between 1920 and 1923.

Based on the rudimentary statistics of the era, Benedict was undisputedly the NHL's top goalie. He led the NHL in wins in 6 of the 7 seasons with Senators, and lead or shared the lead in shutouts and GAA in each of those 7 seasons. In fact, in his most impressive season (in 1919-20) his 2.66 goals-against mark was 2.13 goals better than the league average. However there was no such thing as a Vezina trophy back then to honour the best goalie each season. Under the original Vezina trophy rules of best GAA, Benedict would have had owned the trophy.

In October 1924, the cash-strapped Senators sold off Benedict and scoring ace Punch Broadbent to the Montreal Maroons in exchange solely for cash. His six seasons with the weaker Maroons were not quite as dominant statistically, yet he was honoured as Montreal's best player upon his arrival. A year later in 1926, Benedict, with a puny 0.75 GAA, led the Maroons to the Stanley Cup, giving him the the distinction of being the first netminder to backstop two different NHL teams to Stanley Cup championships.

Clint Benedict was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1965, two decades after Georges Vezina and Charlie Gardner, the two goalies among the original 12 inductees. Benedict himself suggested this was a blatant example of how political the hockey world can be, for some reason the powers that be kept Benedict out of the Hall, instead inducting the very worthy Hugh Lehman, Percy LeSueur and George Hainsworth as Hall of Fame goaltenders before finally inducting Benedict.

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