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Parent forever grateful for Plante's influence

Goalie was mentored by veteran with Maple Leafs before helping Flyers win Stanley Cup twice

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TORONTO -- Hall of Fame goaltender Bernie Parent enjoyed his greatest fame with the Philadelphia Flyers, winning back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1974 and 1975 and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason's most valuable player each of those seasons.

But Parent will tell you that none of this would have been possible without a detour north to receive a priceless education from a boyhood idol. Parent, 72, forever will be grateful that his road to glory was largely paved by Jacques Plante during the two seasons the two were Toronto Maple Leafs teammates (1970-71, 1971-72).

It was in Toronto, he says, that he truly learned to be a goalie.

Growing up in Montreal, Parent had worshipped Plante, watching the goalie's Montreal Canadiens thump the opposition at the Forum, Plante anchoring five consecutive Stanley Cup championship teams from 1956-60.

Video: Bernie Parent backstopped Flyers to back-to-back Cups

When he was 16, a junior-age player, Parent was copying the moves of Plante, who once said that the impressive teenager would become an NHL goalie. Never did Parent imagine that a decade later they'd be teammates, least of all in Toronto.

Selected at No. 2 by the fledgling Flyers from the Boston Bruins in the 1967 NHL expansion draft, after the Los Angeles Kings picked goalie Terry Sawchuk from Toronto, Parent became a huge fan favorite in Philadelphia before he was traded to the Maple Leafs on Feb. 1, 1971.

He was crushed to leave Philadelphia, but it didn't take him long to see the upside of absorbing the wisdom of Plante, who was 16 years Parent's senior and who, in the twilight of his career, was more than willing to mentor a fellow French Canadian.

"We had a great bunch of guys in Toronto, from Plante up to the defense and forwards like Dave Keon, a great player and a classy individual," Parent said, sitting recently to talk in a Toronto hotel dining room with his wife, Gini. "Coming here gave me a chance to play with Plante for a season and a half and it changed my whole career.

"I was going in circles in Philly. I was OK but just an average goalie. But then from the bench, I watched Plante play and I'm thinking, 'Man, this guy is good.' "

In his 2012 autobiography, "Unmasked," Parent wrote about a trust that developed between himself, an outgoing 25-year-old when he arrived in Toronto, and Plante, 42, "who you could say was a loner."

The veteran, Parent said, didn't view the newcomer "as some young punk trying to take his job. He told me, 'We're on the same team and I can help you.' "

Parent was in awe of the legend he was calling a teammate. Like a pupil of long ago bringing an apple for the teacher, Parent bought Plante a box of the finest cigars he could find and studied him inside out.

"My memories of Jacques went so far back," Parent said. "He laughed when I told him how we used to watch him from the shrubbery."

With stars in his eyes, Parent watched how Plante laced his skates and every move after that.

He learned work ethic; no longer was he a nonchalant practice goalie, as he'd been in Philadelphia, having relied on the gifts he'd been given without working much to develop them. 

Spending a season with Plante, Parent said, was like gaining three years of experience. The master taught his student how to play the angles and properly use his balance, and how to position himself in the net by tapping the goal posts with his stick and glove, without needing to take his eyes off the puck.

Most importantly, Parent said, he learned the art of anticipation.

"I have never been unsure in my whole life," he wrote. "The confidence was always there, but as soon as I worked with Plante, that's when the magic happened."

Parent wasn't the only goalie who benefited from the generosity of Plante, the author of a landmark goaltending instruction manual who counseled many, sometimes inexplicably. Twice in the hours before the start of the historic 1972 Summit Series between Team Canada and an all-star team from the Soviet Union, Plante met puzzled but grateful Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak to brief him on Canadian shooters and present him with a fiberglass mask built in his Quebec factory.

Parent and Plante split the Maple Leafs workload quite evenly in 1971-72, Parent playing 47 games in his only full season in Toronto to Plante's 34. 

"I loved playing at Maple Leaf Gardens," he said. "The corner of the rink behind the net was the hole in the wall they called the bunker, where (Toronto owner) Harold Ballard and his friend, (Maple Leafs executive) King Clancy, would watch games."

If Parent loved the team and its fans, Ballard's brusque manner and his shallow pockets were less appealing. The goalie considered a contract offer woefully inadequate, Ballard finally digging in his heels when $2,000 separated the two sides. Finally, Parent left Toronto to join the upstart World Hockey Association, signing with Miami but winding up with the Philadelphia Blazers when the Miami franchise relocated there before playing a game.

He played one unhappy WHA season in 1972-73, then returned to the NHL and the Maple Leafs, who owned his rights, and almost immediately was traded back to the Flyers on May 15, 1973. Embraced by Philadelphia fans as a returning hero, Parent promptly led the Flyers to their consecutive Stanley Cup championships.

"There comes a time you have to make decisions in life," said Parent, who preaches that message today as a motivational speaker. "You take risk and you have to face fear. Most people are willing to take the risk but when they sense fear, they back away and miss what could be a great opportunity. 

"I knew what I could do in goal, having learned so much from Plante, so when the WHA called, I took the calculated risk. If I'd played it safe and stayed with the Maple Leafs, I'd not be wearing my two rings today.

"What is fate? It's saying yes to life. Is it scary? You're darned right it is. But some beautiful things come out of it."

Parent considers that every day of his life. He looked across the table at Gini, grinned, and spoke about risk once more.

"Gini married a Frenchman," he said with a laugh, "and that's the ultimate risk!"

In a few hours, the couple would walk a couple blocks from the hotel to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Parent was inducted in 1984, two years before the death of Plante, who had been enshrined in 1978.

It was not lost on Parent as he walked into the Hall of Fame that evening -- his Flyers jersey in a glass case, Plante's sweater displayed nearby -- that the two goalies are teammates again. How fitting that they're reunited not far down the road from old Maple Leaf Gardens, in the city where a young man's career was changed forever by a generous veteran and the wisdom he shared.

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