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100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Jacques Plante: 100 Greatest NHL Players

First NHL goalie to regularly wear mask won Stanley Cup six times with Canadiens

by Wayne Coffey / Special to NHL.com

In the long reach of history, Nov. 1 has brought no shortage of momentous events. In 1512 in Vatican City, Michelangelo's artwork on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel went on public display for the first time. A little over 250 years later, the British Empire imposed The Stamp Act on its colonies in the Americas, igniting outrage over the idea that colonists now had to pay the King of England to process legal papers and conduct other everyday business.

And 194 years after that, on the west side of Manhattan, a Montreal Canadiens goaltender named Jacques Plante took a wicked shot just beneath his nose in the opening minutes of a game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The blast was a backhander fired by Rangers right wing Andy Bathgate. Plante left the ice, blood gushing from the corner of his mouth as if from a spigot.

 

Video: Jacques Plante changed game when he donned mask

 

Red Fisher, longtime writer for the Montreal Gazette who covered the NHL for more than a half-century, remembered the scene.

"[Plante] had been struck in the face and it opened up a cut from the corner of his mouth all the way up through his nostril," Fisher said. "Try and imagine that -- the pain that he was going through.

"I rushed down to the dressing room and there was Plante, looking in the mirror and separating the cut and looking at it. 'Pretty ugly,' he said to me. I said, 'Yeah, well you had a good start Jacques.'

"Then he laid down on the table and was stitched by the doctor."

After about 20 minutes, the stitches were done and Plante returned to the game. 

And the history of the NHL would never be the same.

 

JACQUES PLANTE CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 837 | Wins: 437 | Losses: 246 | Ties: 145 | GAA: 2.38

 

Because strapped to the face of Joseph Jacques Omer Plante was a mask, a piece of equipment that he had used for three years in practice, and that would henceforth become as indispensable a piece of his game armor as his pads or his blocker, for a very sensible reason.

"Playing goal is like being shot at," Plante said.

Jacques Plante was not the first goaltender to wear a mask. Elizabeth Graham, a goaltender for the Queen's University Golden Gaels women's hockey team, wore a fencing mask in 1927, apparently at the insistence of her father, who wanted to shield his daughter's recently completed dental work. Three years later, Clint Benedict of the Montreal Maroons wore a leather mask for a few games to protect a broken nose, then discarded it.

But Plante was the first NHL goaltender to wear his mask for good, no matter that Toe Blake, the Canadiens coach, loathed the thing, a widely held sentiment in those days. Blake, however, was in a serious bind on the night of Nov. 1, 1959, given that NHL teams of that era didn't travel with a backup goaltender. 

"I told Toe I would only return if I could wear the mask, so there was no choice," said Plante, who started wearing the mask during practices following an operation to deal with his sinusitis. "He never wanted me to wear [it] because he thought it would make me too complacent."

Indeed, Blake considered the mask a sign of mental weakness, and even cowardice, according to Carl Lavigne, a hockey historian who is the Canadiens manager of research. Lavigne said that Blake was convinced it would impair Plante's vision and his ability to react quickly.

The coach clung to his theories, but in the laboratory of competitive play, Plante went out and proved him utterly wrong. Back in the Garden net against the Rangers, the bemasked Plante led the Canadiens to victory, and soon helped them win eight straight games. Blake kept trying to revisit the issue, but the conversations were brief and one-sided, and why wouldn't they be, with the Canadiens and their masked man riding a hot streak?

"Plante was a stubborn guy," Lavigne said. "Toe Blake wasn't going to talk him out of it. Plante told him, 'If you don't let me play with the mask, I'm not playing,' and that was the end of it."

The Canadiens finished the season as Stanley Cup champions for a record fifth consecutive season, and lest anyone thought that Plante's performance had dropped off with the mask, he also won his fifth straight Vezina Trophy that season.

The oldest of 11 children, Plante was born on Jan. 17, 1929 in Shawinigan Falls, not far from the banks of the Saint-Maurice River in Quebec, and played shinny with whatever equipment he could get, including a stick his father carved from the limb of a tree. 

"I've handled a lot of goal sticks since then, but I'll never forget the thrill of that first one," Plante said later.

Plante got started as a goaltender purely by being an opportunist, volunteering to get into the net as a middle schooler after the high school hockey coach had a row with one of his goalies and the kid took his skates off. Plante jumped in, and never really left. He regularly sharpened his game playing against much older boys, and joined the Quebec Citadelles of the Quebec Junior Hockey League before signing with the Canadiens and moving up to Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior Hockey League, where he played for three-plus seasons until serving a short apprenticeship with the Buffalo Bisons of the American Hockey League in 1952-53. 

Along the way, Plante developed a highly unusual playing style, venturing from the crease to thwart attackers with his stick and skate behind the net to settle the puck. To some hockey purists, this was goaltending sacrilege, but Plante thought it was pointless playing as if he were chained to the pipes. With the Citadelles in particular, Plante was flanked by defensemen who didn't skate well, so if he could get to the puck first, why not?

"Possession of the puck is No. 1," Plante said. "That's all I'm doing -- getting control until one of my teammates comes along."

Though the Bisons were a poor team, Plante showed immense promise - enough that the Canadiens not only brought him up in 1953 as a backup to Gerry McNeil for the Cup semifinals against the Chicago Black Hawks, but that coach Dick Irvin started him in Game 6, with Montreal trailing the series 3-2.

Plante was so petrified before the game that his knees were shaking in the locker room. He could barely lace up his skates. Then Maurice "Rocket" Richard walked over and held out his own trembling hands.

"Look at them," Richard told Plante. "They shake before a big game. You'll feel better when you get out on the ice."

Plante shut out the Blackhawks 3-0 and stymied them again in a 4-1 victory in Game 7, moving the Canadiens into the Cup Final against the Boston Bruins. Plante remained the goalie as the teams split the first two games, and then Irvin went back to McNeil, who had shutouts in two of the remaining three games, including a 1-0 victory in Game 5 to clinch the Stanley Cup.

Three seasons later Plante was the Canadiens' No. 1 goaltender, leading the League with a 1.86 goals-against average in 1955-56. By the time he finished a Hall of Fame career (he was inducted in 1978) that would span 18 NHL seasons and three decades, Plante would have six Stanley Cup titles and seven Vezina Trophies on his resume - the last of them, remarkably, coming at age 40 with the St. Louis Blues. Fresh off of a three-year retirement, Plante came back in peak form in 1968-69, allowing 1.96 goals per game in teaming with Glenn Hall in the St. Louis net.

 

Still, Plante understood that his enduring place in NHL history went far beyond his ability to stop pucks. It traced all the way back to Nov. 1, 1959, to the courage he had to take a longstanding convention and shatter it as if it were a Tiffany vase.

That is what Jacques Plante did when he put on a mask one night at Madison Square Garden, and never took it off.

"If you jump out of a plane without a parachute, does that make you brave?" Plante said. "No, I think that makes you stupid. I will never play without the mask again."

 

 

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