Posted by: cedarsurf | March 10, 2010

Jacques Plante

Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey

By Todd Denault (McClelland & Stewart)

The life of Jacques Plante is a reminder that the efforts and work of any innovator are often met with derision. While Plante is remembered most for being the inventor of the goalie mask and the first to wear it in a NHL game his list of accomplishments are numerous including: being the first goalie to leave the net to clear and handle pucks, the first to point out the necessity of a two-goalie system, the first to go behind the net to stop the puck for his teammates to retrieve it, the first to raise his hand as a signal to his teammates that the officials were making an icing call, which soon became commonplace,he also wrote the first instructional manual detailing how to play goal. Oh and did I mention he knitted his own socks and underwear that he wore in NHL games-how cool is that?

But Plante had other traits that were less appealing. He was stubborn, sometimes criticized his teammates, was terribly cheap and was considered a hypochondriac. He was a difficult character. Plante fought Canadiens Coach Toe Blake for years before Blake would allow him to wear a mask in a game.

But if Blake was reluctant to see Plante don the mask members of the goaltending fraternity were even more harsh in their criticism. “ I thought he was a wimp,” recalls Glenn Hall of the Chicago Black Hawks. And this from Gump Worsley at the time “ How the hell can the mask protect you when it’s hit flush against the face. My objection to the mask is that it is not necessary. Why, all of a sudden, after, hockey has been played for seventy years, do we decide we should wear masks?” One wonders how Worsley would have responded to the wheel in its time.

And this from Terry Sawchuk: “I’ve been a pro goalie for more than a dozen years and I’ve never worn a mask in a game. I don’t see any reason to start now.”

Eventually all three all-star goalies would wear a mask – although Worsley would only wear it in his last season in the league.

Despite or perhaps as a result of his determined nature, when lists of all-time greats are compiled, Plante’s accomplishments as a goaltender and innovator always place him high.

The 1997 ranking of the top 100 N.H.L.ers of all time by The Hockey News listed Plante as the thirteenth greatest, second among goaltenders behind his contemporary Terry Sawchuk.

Plante won the Vezina Trophy (best goalie) five straight times, seven in all, which is a record. He backstopped Canadiens to their record five straight Stanley Cup championships and won six overall. He was awarded the Hart Trophy (Most Valuable Player) in 1962, which no goaler had won in eight seasons and none would win it again until Dominik Hasek in 1997.

Plante was born into a hardworking family of ten in Shawinigan ,Quebec (the home of some guy named Jean Chretien). His father was a machinist for the Aluminum Company of Canada Limited. Jacques was the oldest in the family and responsible for many chores. His chores included scrubbing floors, cooking and changing diapers. With not much in the way of extra money, most of his clothing was handmade and Jacques became proficient with a needle, some thread and yarn. These were skills he carried into his adulthood and contributed to his legend.

Plante was a scientist of the game. A skill he learned early. “Nobody ever taught me to play goal,” recalled Plante.

Like many boys growing up in Quebec Plante dreamed of playing for the Montreal Canadiens. Although his family could not afford a radio a renter upstairs could and Plante would listen to the broadcasts through the ceiling.

At the age of 12, Plante managed to land the goaltending job on a high school team stocked with boys 17 and 18 years old. This was his first step to the big leagues. At the age of 15 Plante was playing goal in thre different age levels simultaneously: midget, juvenile and junior.

In the Fall of 1947 Plante was invited to the training camp of the Montreal Junior Canadiens of the Quebec Junior Hockey League. The Canadiens made an offer for Plante . A dream come true. But not so fast. The Quebec Citadels operating in direct competition with the Canadiens were offering $85 a week for Jacques to star in Quebec City, $50 more than the Canadiens offer. Plante who would never forget his working class roots took the Citadels up on their offer. He quickly established himself as the best goalie in the league and for the first time began to rove from the net.

Plante quickly established himself as the best goalie in the Quebec Junior Hockey League.After three years playing there and then for the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Senior Hockey League Plante got the call to play for the Montreal Canadiens. He would be part of a legendary run of five Stanley Cup wins in a row with the Canadiens. Still he was not without his critics some said that Plante owed his success to that of legendary defenceman and teammate Doug Harvey.

It was another Canadiens teammate, Bernie “Boom Boom” Geofrion who would accelerate the necessity of the mask. Geoffrion invented the slapshot and it changed everything. “ I had skated in on goal,” Geoffrion recounted in his autobiography, “and released a wrist shot but missed the net. I t always upset me when that happened but this time I blew up and began wildly slapping my stick at the puck as if to give a psnaking. I connected and the puck moved so fast it went through the net. I couldn’t believe it! When I saw the puck come out the other side I thought to myself, this is omething that goalies are going to be afraid of for a long, long , time.”

And for every action there is a reaction –the mask. Actually it was a wrist shot by New York star Andy Bathgate that brought the mask into the game. Bathgate was seeking revenge on Plante for a poke check that sent Bathgate sprawling into the boards behind the net. “I t was a wrist shot,” recalled Bathgate.” It wasn’t a hard shot but I tried to give to him the same as me and I caught him. It was a shot with feeling in it, it wasn’t a blast, and I wasn’t trying to score because the angle was really bad, but his head ws sticking out and I decided if he wanted to play those games…”

The puck had struck Plante directly in the face, opening a cut from the corner of his mouth up through his nostril. Plante had the wound repaired at Madison Square Garden. He also came prepared he had his goaltending mask with him. He had been carrying a mask with him for the past few years. He was not going on the ice without it.

When Plante stepped back onto the ice with his mask covering his injured face and skated towards his crease, the crowd let out a gasp of shock and amazement. “ I already had four broken noses, a broken jaw, two broken cheekbones, and almost 200 stitches in my head. I didn’t care how the mask looked. The way things were going, I was afraid I would look just like the mask.”

The mask and Plante would slip into history and he would not play without it. In three years every goalie in the league would be wearing one except Worsley.

A few years later knee injuries would take their toll on Plante. Surgery was required and Charlie Hodge served as his substitute. Plante ws traded to New York where he had two mediocore seasons. He retired for three seasona nd then returned to St. Louis with the expansion Blues. He shared the duties with Mr. Goalie Glenn Hall. Plante was 40 and Hall was 37 they became the oldest goaltenders to win a Vezina Trophy.

After the Canadiens were eliminated for the third straight year in the first playoff round during the spring of 1963, there was mounting pressure for change from their fans and media. Growing tension between Plante and Blake because of Plante’s inconsistent work ethic and demeanor caused Blake to declare that for the 1963–64 season either he or Plante must go. On June 4, 1963, Plante was traded to the New York Rangers, with Phil Goyette and Don Marshall in exchange for Gump Worsley, Dave Balon, Leon Rochefort, and Len Ronson. Plante played for the Rangers for one full season and part of a second. He retired in 1965 while playing for the minor-league Baltimore Clippers of the American Hockey League. His wife was ill at the time, and he required surgery on his right knee.

Upon retirement, Plante took a job with Molson as a sales representative but remained active in the NHL. In 1965, Scotty Bowman asked Plante to play for the Montreal Jr. Canadiens in a game against the Soviet National Team. Honoured to represent his country, Plante agreed, and after receiving permission from both the Rangers (who owned his rights) and Molson, he began practicing. The Canadiens won 2–1, and Plante was named first star of the game.

At the beginning of the 1967–68 NHL season, Plante received a call from his ex-teammate Bert Olmstead seeking some help coaching the expansion Oakland Seals. Plante coached mainly by example, and after the three week training camp he returned home to Montreal. Rumours swirled that Plante was planning a comeback.

In June 1968, Plante was drafted by the St. Louis Blues and signed for $35,000 for the 1968–69 season. In his first season with the Blues, Plante split the goaltending duties with Glenn Hall. He won the Vezina Trophy that season for the seventh time, surpassing Bill Durnan’s record. While playing for the Blues in the 1969–70 playoffs against the Boston Bruins, a shot fired by Fred Stanfield and redirected by Phil Esposito hit Plante in the forehead, knocking him out and breaking his fibreglass mask. The first thing Plante said after he regained consciousness at the hospital was that the mask saved his life. That game proved to be his last for the Blues, and he was traded in the summer of 1970 to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

At the age of 42 He led the NHL with the lowest goals against average (GAA) during his first season with the Maple Leafs. At season’s end, he was named to the NHL’s second All-Star team, his seventh such honour. He continued to play for the Leafs until he was traded to the Boston Bruins late in the 1972–73 season. He played eight regular season and two playoff games for the Bruins to finish that season, his last in the NHL.

Plante accepted a $10 million, 10-year contract to become coach and general manager of the Quebec Nordiques of the World Hockey Association in 1973. He was highly dissatisfied with his and the team’s performance and resigned at the end of the 1973–74 season. Coming out of retirement once more, Plante played 31 games for the Edmonton Oilers of the WHA in the 1974–75 season. Plante retired during the Oilers’ training camp in 1975–76 after receiving news that his youngest son had committed suicide.

Plante had a well-earned reputation for his ability to analyse the game of hockey. He began shouting directions to his teammates during games in his first stint in the minor leagues (the goaltender usually has the best view of the game). He kept extensive notes on opposing players and teams throughout his career. He made his debut in the broadcasting booth during his first retirement in the 1960s as a colour commentator for broadcasts of Quebec Junior League games alongside Danny Gallivan of Hockey Night in Canada fame. Radio Canada, the French language branch of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, brought Plante aboard as on-air analyst for its television broadcasts of the 1972 Summit Series between the national team of the Soviet Union and a Canadian team made up of professional players from the NHL. Plante was one of the few North American analysts who dissented from the widely held belief in the superiority of the Canadian team.

Plante also wrote extensively on hockey. He wrote hockey columns starting early in his career and was published in La Voix de Shawinigan, Le Samedi, and Sport Magazine. He alienated local reporters by writing a column for the local paper during his time as coach of the Quebec Nordiques. His seminal work, Goaltending, was published in 1972 in English, with the French edition (entitled Devant le filet) published in 1973. In his book, Plante outlined a program of goaltender development that included off-ice exercises, choice of equipment, styles of play, and game-day preparation. He also advised on best coaching methods for both young and advanced goaltenders. His book remained popular with coaches and players and was reprinted in both French and English in 1997, 25 years after it was first published.

Starting in 1967, Plante was one of the instructors at École moderne de hockey, a summer hockey school for young players. His reputation as a teacher spread, and he traveled to Sweden in 1972 at the invitation of the Swedish Hockey Federation, teaching the top goaltenders in the country and their coaches and trainers. During his first and second retirements, Plante also coached goaltenders and consulted for several NHL teams, including the Oakland Seals, Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens and St. Louis Blues.

Plante finally retired from hockey in 1975, after the death of his youngest son..He moved to Switzerland with his second wife, Raymonde Udrisard, but remained active on the North American hockey scene as an analyst, adviser and goaltender trainer. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978. In the fall of 1985, Plante was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. He died in a Geneva hospital in February 1986 at the age of 57 and was buried in Sierre, Switzerland. When his coffin was carried from the church following the funeral mass, it passed under an arch of hockey sticks held high by a team of young hockey players from Quebec, visiting Switzerland for a tournament.
Jacques Plante is a well researched book with utilitarian style writing, that is more than compensated by an extraordinary story to tell.

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Responses

  1. You run one bad news blog!!

    Plante is dead? He was only 57. I am almost 57 for crying out loud.

    Who is next? Bower? Worlsey?

    No one tells me anything.

  2. Uh, Worsley is dead. Bower still stands tall between the pipes.

  3. Johnny Bower…Legend

  4. Thanks!


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