How Jacques Plante brought brinksmanship to the NHL
On and off the ice the Montreal Canadiens’ wandering goaltender seems perpetually on the verge of disaster. Sometimes it’s a question of whose nerves will give out first: his or his supporters’
One night in November 1954, the New York Rangers were playing the Canadiens in the Montreal Forum. Early in the first period, Jacques Plante darted out of the Canadiens’ net to beat the Rangers’ Nick Mickoski to a rolling puck. Plante cleared the puck off to the side, but the aggressive Mickoski skated right into Plante and upended him with a bodycheck. The Forum was in bedlam as Plante struggled to get up off the ice and the open net yawned. “Vite, vite.1’’ the French-speaking fans implored him while their English-speaking compatriots yelled: “(jet back, get back!” Plante managed to scramble up and hurry back into position before the Rangers could get possession of the puck.
In a seat on the cat-walk, which is press row in the Forum, was Tom Meany, the noted New York sports writer. Tom took off his hat and mopped the moisture from his forehead with a handkerchief. He had never seen Plante play before.
“Whew!” he said. “Why doesn’t that Plante stay planted?”
In the years that have elapsed since then, that question has been asked innumerable times in every arena in the National Hockey League. Plante knows it and there must be times when he has doubts about himself, but he has to conquer them alone because goalkeepers are essentially “loners.” They rarely pal around wdth the other players. They have no teammates to compare notes with, as the others have. They seldom get advice because coaches hesitate to tamper with their styles. There is no question about the mental pressure on them; they worry a lot and they are all nervous. If they can’t get out from under the pressure, they crack up. Even the most fortunate and relatively serene of them are subject to varying forms of neurosis.
Plante’s special sufferings include sudden asthmatic attacks, which have sometimes been severe enough to force his coach to make a last-minute change in goalkeepers. In Toronto he does not stay at the Royal York Hotel with the rest of the team. There is something in the hotel that he is allergic to. and he beds down at the Westbury, a block or two from Maple Leaf Gardens. He used to find relaxation in knitting, an activity hardly associated wdth professional athletes. More recently he has given up knitting for another unlikely hobby: portrait painting.
Plante is lean, hollow-checked and serious: his look is almost melancholy. He eats five meals a day and sleeps between fifteen and sixteen hours, yet he loses twenty pounds over a season. Possibly as an escape from “goalkeepers’ loneliness” and with the instinctive feeling that he needed help, he married when he was only eighteen.
Plante will never wdn a popularity contest because he seems compelled to blurt out exactly what he thinks, even if it means wounding his teammates. Nor is it likely that he will win immortality as a goalkeeper. There is a tendency to minimize his true worth because he has a team in front of him that includes many of the NHL's superstars. In addition, the Canadiens have had great goalkeepers in the past like Georges Vezina. for whom the Vezina Trophy, the Holy Grail of the goalers’ craft, was named; George Hainsworth, who scored twentytwo shutouts in one forty-four game season; and Bill Durnan. who won the Vezina Trophy six times and made the National Hockey League All-Star team six times too.
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Jacques Plante continued from page 16
Durnan suffered a nervous breakdown in the playoffs with the New York Rangers in the spring of 1950 and asked to be replaced "for the good of the team.' He was succeeded by Gerry McNeil, who suffered a breakdown in the playoff scries with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1954. The Canadiens were behind in the series, three games to two. and coach Dick Irvin called Plante up from the minorleague Buffalo Bisons. He helped Canadiens beat the Black Hawks in the sixth game. 3-0. and the team went on to win the Stanley Cup. During the final series with Boston. McNeil returned and performed well, but the recuperation of his nerves proved only temporary and Plante took over as the regular goalkeeper at the start of the next season.
At first, the cognoscenti weren t sure whether Plante was a clown or a genius. Some ridiculed him. but Dick Irvin, then coach of Canadiens, believed in him implicitly. Plante hadn't played more than a dozen games in the National Hockey League before Irvin w'as asked why he didn't make Plante give up his already well-developed habit of wandering out of the net. Irvin gave this prophetic answer:
"It's excotomg for the fans to see Plante go after the puck. He'II revolutionize goaling"
"Why should I? It makes him a better goalie. It s exciting for the fans to see him leave his net and go after the puck. 1 tell you this fellow is going to revolutionize goal-tending.”
Another who was quick to endorse Plante's unorthodox style was Turk Broda. former star goaler with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who became a confirmed Plante fan.
"Possession of the puck is nine tenths of hockey law," Broda pointed out. "Leaving the net is one way the goaler can keep possession for his team. Sure, it often looks silly when Plante skates out of his goal to make a stop and there s nobody near him. But by doing it he’s making sure a teammate gets the puck, instead of an enemy player. And, since the other guy can't score without the puck, think of all the pressure Plante is taking off himself.”
Recognition that Plante was both an outstanding goalkeeper and a revolutionary one was gradual. After his second season in the league, Lynn Patrick, the general manager of the Boston Bruins, said he believed that all goalers would have to copy Plante's style to a degree.
"On the power play, we used to shoot the puck into the defending team's zone and pick it up," Patrick said. "With a man like Plante in the other net, you have to put the puck where he can't reach it."
The man who was to change the whole conception of goaling was born in Shawinigan Falls, P.Q., twenty-nine years ago and is the oldest in a family of eleven children. He has five sisters and five brothers, a fact which contributed to his development of a skill almost as early and even more unusual than keeping goal.
"My mother didn’t have time to knit for ali of us, so she taught each of us how to knit,” Plante explains in his unaccented English. "I can knit a pair of sox in a day. I have knitted a tuque in three and a half hours, and I knitted a three-quarter-length coat for my wife in a week by knitting all day long.”
He thinks he was about three years old when he first started to play hockey. His father, a machinist, carved a goaler’s stick from a big tree root and gave it to him. When he was six his father replaced the whittled root with a regulation stick.
“As little kids we used to play hockey in the street without skates,” he recalls. "We used a tennis ball for a puck. It would get wet from contact with the snow and ice. Then it would freeze hard and it hurt when you got hit with it. l ater when I went to school and learned to skate, 1 stopped tending goal for a while. I switched to defense because it gave me a chance to skate. Then one day the goaler on the big team at the school got angry over something and quit. The teacher who was coaching the team asked if there was anybody who wanted to play goal. 1 volunteered because I wanted to make the team, and Eve been a goaler ever since.”
He wore one of his own hand-knitted tuques to keep warm when he was playing on outdoor rinks around Shawinigan Falls. He wore it as a junior player in Quebec City and he was still wearing it when he came up to the Montreal Royals, the Canadiens’ farm club in the Quebec Hockey League.
"The minute they saw it they said, ‘Vezina, he used to wear one,’ ” Plante said. " ‘Keep on wearing it.’ But Dick Irvin told me to discard it when the Canadiens sent me to Buffalo. He said, ■Jacques, suppose you have a bad night. The fans will start to boo you and they'll pick on that tuque. They’ll call you a farmer.’ ”
Johnny Gottselig, former player and coach of the Chicago Black Hawks, wishes Plante had ignored Irvin's advice. Now public-relations director for the Chicago club. Gottselig was discussing Plante during the Stanley Cup playoffs in Boston two years ago.
"He is one of ihe most colorful players in the game today,” he lamented. "That tuque would have been the real habitant touch and would have been his hallmark. There aren't enough individuals in the league. Too many of the guys look like peas in a pod.”
Plante, one of the few conspicuous exceptions to this gloomy truism, declares that no one ever taught him anything about goaling; he learned from his own mistakes and from observation. He developed the habit of leaving his net when he was playing for the Quebec Citadels nine years ago. He explains it this way:
"We had one defenseman who couldn't skate backwards, and another who couldn't pass the puck up to the blue line. The other two could only turn one way. Somebody had to clear the puck and 1 started to do it myself. It worked well and Eve been doing it ever since.”
Besides being the most unorthodox, Plante has the added distinction of being one of the sickliest, most injuryprone players to break into the National League in recent years. Ele has been injured so often that he now wears a mask in the practice sessions. He had one cheekbone broken in the warmup before a game, and had the other cheekbone and his nose broken in practice. That’s when he took to wearing the mask.
"One day 1 thought my timing was off and that the mask might be interfering with my vision,” he says. "I told myself that I wouldn’t use it again after this practice. Just then Boom Boom Geoffrion took a shot. It came so hard it broke the mask at my forehead. I changed my mind right there and kept on wearing it.”
He has a grim humor that comes as something of a surprise. “A goalkeeper has the best job of all. The only place he can get hurt is in the face,” he’ll tell you. Or, “I have the best job in hockey —all I have to watch is the puck.”
Taunts in the Forum
Plante is what is known in sport as a "holler” guy. To Jean-Guy Talbot, he may shout, “En arrière! En arrière!’’ To Tom Johnson, an English-speaking defenseman. "Watch out behind!” Says Plante: "After all, I have a better view of the action than they have. When 1 don't shout they ask if Em feeling all right."
If he has a weakness, it’s on long blooper shots. They look soft, but the erratic bounces they take after they hit the ice make them extremely difficult to handle. Plante has been victimized by a number of these shots in the Forum, whose fans are the most vociferous, rabid and partisan in the league. Plante has often felt their sting.
“Réveille-toi!” they will yell at him. "Wake up!" Or, “On vent Hodge!’’ "We want Hodge!” a reference to Charlie Hodge, who has filled in for Plante on occasions when the latter was injured or ill.
"It’s always been like that,” comments Toe Blake, who succeeded Dick Irvin as coach of the Canadiens. "They even yelled at Bill Durnan. They yell at a goalkeeper because if he makes a mistake. it results in a goal and everybody sees it.’
Plante’s teammates firmly believe that he is the greatest clutch goalkeeper in the game today. He has had off nights— they all have them—but when the money is on the line he is the fellow they want minding their net. It is even a source of gags in the dressing room. For instance, there was a night late last September when the Canadiens played an intra-squad game in the Forum. Some five thousand fans paid their way in and the management, anxious to provide them with more than a practice scrimmage, told the players that the winning team would split five hundred dollars. One of the players h¿td a bright idea: "Plante's on our team. Just wave that money at him before the game starts and we're in.”
When Jacques came to the Canadiens he brought an asthma problem with him. "In those days it was about seventy-five percent physical," says Bill Head, the Forum physiotherapist. But before the deciding game of last year’s .Stanley Cup playoff in Boston he needed injections to hold down his asthma enough to play —which he did brilliantly. "That night,” Head says, “his asthma was ninety percent emotional. After the game there wasn’t a thing wrong with him.”
After his courageous display in that game, Plante was asked if the victory had provided him with his biggest thrill in hockey.
"No,” he said without the slightest hesitation. "My biggest thrill came in the last game of the regular 1956-57 season. Before the game 1 was trailing Glenn Hall of Detroit by two goals for the Vezina Trophy. Detroit played in Toronto that night and we played Chicago in the Forum. 1 kept watching the scoreboard. We shut out Chicago, 3-0. while Detroit beat Toronto, 5-3, and I won the trophy. It meant two thousand dollars to me. That’s a night 1 will never forget."
Although he has won the Vezina Trophy, which goes to the goaler with the fewest goals scored against him, three years in a row, he has made the AllStar team only once. Coach Toe Blake was upset when Plante missed out at the end of last season.
"It’s high time the voters woke up to the fact that he's the best goaler in the league," Blake said heatedly. “He’s been the best for several years, but they call him a showboat because he leaves his net and because he hollers all the time. Why don't they look at the record?"
Still, a coach might be prejudiced. Referee Red Storey offers this opinion why the All-Star voters overlooked Plante last season: “I think it was probably because of Doug Harvey. He stops almost as many shots as the goalkeeper and he’s such a great defenseman they figure a goaler shouldn't be scored on with Harvey in front of him.”
This opinion was relayed to Plante, who asked bluntly: "Why don't you ask Harvey?" So the question was put to Harvey.
"They don't realize that Jacques takes about fifteen percent of the load off the defense,” Harvey replied. ‘"He saves us a lot of trouble by going after the puck when they dump it into our end. We’d really get reefed in the corners if he didn't do it. He’s a fast skater—as last as some of the forwards.”
Plante has played a number of games besides hockey: baseball, badminton,
tennis and golf. He once won the championship of the Shawinigan Falls Badminton Club, but the only game he plays now in the off-season is golf. Bill Head, the Canadiens' physiotherapist, wasn't surprised to learn that Plante had been a good badminton player.
"He's big-boned and loose-jointed,” he observed. "That accounts in part for his fast reflexes.”
When he was playing junior hockey in Quebec City a decade ago Plante married Jacqueline Gagne, " the first girl I ever went out with." They now have two boys: Michel, seven, and Richard, three. They have their own home in I aval des Rapides, which m a half-hour drive from the Forum.
Plante's wife has helped him immensely in his career, he says. "She taught me not to bring the game home with me. 1 used to worry a lot after a game we lost. She finally convinced me that there was nothing 1 could do about a game once it was played.”
He believes it’s healthy for him to wear wool next to his skin. Although he’s dropped knitting as a major recreation, he still knits the tight, vest-like garment he wears under his shirt because "you can't buy them in the stores.” After he stopped knitting, he took up portrait painting and finds it very relaxing. He has painted portraits of a number of the players’ wives, and one of himself in a Royals' uniform.
“I took a correspondence course from a school in Washington," he says. "Maybe some day 1 11 be good enough to paint professionally." He is also half-owner of a profitable beauty parlor in the north end of Montreal.
Plante wouldn't be the Canadiens’ goalkeeper today if he hadn't gambled on a wa ist operation in 1952. As a child, he was playing on a park slide in Shawinigan Falls w'hen a companion pushed him off a ladder and he fell twenty feet, breaking his left wrist. Later the injury prevented him from turning his left palm outward.
"I knew 1 couldn't hope to be a top goaler unless I did something about it," he observes. “I couldn't catch the puck with my left hand, or block it or knock it down. I used my thigh to try to block it. but that meant a rebound.”
After he decided on the operation, he asked for a local anesthetic of the wrist and arm because he wanted to “see what was going on.” Part of a bone in the wrist was removed, and when the wrist came out of the cast he could move his hand freely.
Great goalkeepers like Bill Durnan, Gerry McNeil and Detroit's Terry Sawchuk have cracked up under the gnawing and unyielding pressure of carrying the greatest single responsibility of any man on the team, but Plante is sure it will never happen to him.
"It's physical exhaustion that makes a goaler crack up." he claims. "His nerves are shot. It won't happen to me because I get enough sleep. I sleep a couple of hours every afternoon and I’m in bed around nine o'clock at night, wunter or summer. But I think it does a goaler good to have a short rest during the season.”
Who is it? After going off limits in Montreal he got his name in lights in his native U. S. Who is he? Sec page 52.
1 asked him how long he expects to play before he retires. "Until I’m about thirty-five." he said, which gives him another five or six years. "That’s when the eyes change.”
When that time comes he won’t leave the game the way he found it. Originals invariably leave imprints behind, if