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Beyond the crease

Plante changed goaltending
By Bob Carter
Special to

"There are a lot of very good goalies, there are even a fair number of great goalies. But there aren't many important goalies. And Jacques Plante was an important goalie," says Ken Dryden on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series."

Teammates thought he was eccentric and aloof. His coach didn't always understand him.
Jacques Plante won the Vezina Trophy in five consecutive seasons from 1956 - 1960.
Critics poked fun at him. Jacques Plante danced in goal to his own lyrics, helping the Montreal Canadiens build hockey's most dynamic dynasty in the 1950s and creating waves along the way.

Recording the third most victories (434) by a goalie in NHL history, the Hall of Famer in time won over skeptics who questioned his innovative, roaming style of play and what seemed a most preposterous notion: Netminders, Plante reasoned after hundreds of facial stitches, should wear masks for protection. The Quebec native changed the way goalies played and looked.

While Plante wasn't the first goalie to wear a mask (Clint Benedict wore one for two games in January 1930), he introduced it as a regular piece of equipment in November 1959. His coach, Toe Blake, opposed the idea, but relented after Plante was struck in the face by a shot from the Rangers' Andy Bathgate and balked at returning to the ice unless he could wear a plastic mask that he donned frequently in practice.

The goalie endured taunts about his manhood and questions about the mask's durability and effect on his vision. Asked if he were scared to play without a mask, Plante replied, "If you jumped out of a plane without a parachute, would that make you brave?" Montreal went 10-0-1 that month with a masked Plante, and the face of hockey was changed forever.

In the book "Forever Rivals," Plante is described as a "poet at his position, and in many ways, a polestar for the creative spirit of the team."

Montreal won a record five consecutive Stanley Cups from 1956 to 1960, with Plante earning the Vezina Trophy each year for allowing the fewest goals. Fast, agile and mobile, the 6-foot, 175-pounder was the first goalie to rove beyond the crease and forsake what had been a passive, spectator-like role. He intercepted opponents before they could shoot, reduced the angles on shots, swirled back and forth behind the net and threw long breakout passes to quicken Montreal's transition game.

Despite attacks of asthma, "Jake the Snake" played for five teams over 18 NHL seasons. He was voted the Hart Trophy as MVP, won seven Vezina trophies and was first-team all-league three times. Posting 82 shutouts in 837 regular-season games, he had a 2.38 goals-against average (GAA).

A member of six Stanley Cup champions, Plante was even sharper in the playoffs: a 2.16 GAA and 14 shutouts in 112 games. "In an important game, you couldn't get an aspirin by him," Canadiens teammate Tom Johnson said. "The bigger the game, the better he played."

Plante posted 82 shutouts in 837 regular-seson games.
Plante was born Jan. 17, 1929, in Mont Carmel, Quebec, and grew up with 10 younger siblings in Shawinigan Falls, where his father worked as a machinist. Starting out as a defenseman, Plante switched to goalie after severe bouts of asthma dictated that he not skate hard and fast. At 15, he earned 50 cents a game while playing goalie for a factory team. After high school, he played for $85 a week with the Quebec Citadels of the Quebec Junior A League.

In 1949, he joined the Montreal Royals, the Canadiens' top farm team. He played with the Royals and Buffalo of the American Hockey League before sticking in the NHL. When Canadiens goalie Gerry McNeil suffered a fractured cheekbone in October 1952, Plante went 2-0-1, allowing just four goals in a replacement trial.

Rejoining the team for the 1953 playoffs, coach Dick Irvin inserted Plante into the lineup with Montreal trailing Chicago three games to two in the semifinals. Plante responded by allowing one goal in two games as the Canadiens won the series.

Against Boston in the final, Plante was in goal as Montreal split the first two games. Irvin yanked Plante after Game 2, and McNeil won the next three games as Montreal drank from the Stanley Cup.

In February 1954, Plante became the Canadiens' No. 1 goaltender and compiled a 1.59 GAA in 17 games. The next season, appearing in 52 games, his 2.12 GAA was third in the league as Montreal (41-18-11) finished two points behind first-place Detroit and lost to the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup final, with Plante losing 3-1 in Game 7.

In November of that season, Plante took a shot to the head from teammate Bert Olmstead in a pregame warmup and suffered a fractured cheekbone. It wasn't long before he went to an equipment expert and the two designed a mask covering his brow, cheeks and chin. The mask, unattractive but functional, cost $7.50, and Plante started wearing it in practice.

The Canadiens, featuring Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau and Doug Harvey, dominated the league in 1955-56, going 45-15-10 and winning eight of 10 playoff games and the Cup. Plante, described by teammate Bernie Geoffrion as "one of the cockiest, most confident goaltenders I've met," won his first Vezina with a 1.86 GAA.

Though Plante's flashy style in goal excited fans, he wasn't immensely popular with teammates, who viewed him as a loner. While they played cards on trips, Plante stayed to himself, often knitting hats and sweaters. On the ice, he played with amazing consistency. His GAA over the next three years ranged from 2.02 to 2.15 with nine shutouts each season. Plante had a 2.54 GAA in 1959-60, the season of the mask, and won his fifth Vezina.

Though Canadiens management frowned on the mask, Plante gained support from NHL Commissioner Clarence Campbell: "We're anxious for goalies to wear anything that will cut down injuries."

Many others disagreed. After watching Plante's mask debut on Nov. 1, 1959 and losing in Madison Square Garden, Rangers goalie Gump Worsley said the equipment wasn't necessary. "Why all of a sudden after all these years do they decide we should wear masks?"

The mask was here to stay, though it wasn't until the mid-1960s that the headgear became widespread. With Plante posting three shutouts and a 1.38 GAA in the 1960 playoffs, Montreal swept Chicago and Toronto to win its fifth consecutive Stanley Cup. "We lost to the greatest team of all time," Maple Leafs executive Conn Smythe said.

During the five-year title streak, Montreal won 40 of 49 playoff games. "Jacques didn't get credit at the start because the team in front of him was pretty good," said teammate Johnson, "but he was the key man."

Toronto's Johnny Bower ended Plante's hold on the Vezina the next season,
Plante won the Hart Trophy in 1962, after compiling a 42-14-14 record in 1961-62 season.
when Montreal won its fourth straight regular-season championship but fell to Chicago in the semifinals. Plante's GAA rose to 2.80.

He rebounded with his MVP season in 1961-62, compiling a 42-14-14 record and 2.37 GAA in winning his sixth Vezina. Though Plante had a 2.46 GAA the next campaign, the Canadiens fell to third and he was traded to New York after Montreal was eliminated in the playoff's first round. His goals-against went over 3.00 for the first time in his NHL career with the Rangers, and after two losing seasons, Plante retired at 36.

Expansion, though, brought him back in 1968. Signing with the second-year St. Louis Blues, he divided time with another veteran, Glenn Hall. Plante (1.96 GAA) and Hall shared the Vezina. The Blues traded Plante to Toronto in June 1970 after losing their third consecutive final.

At 42, he had a 1.88 GAA, second lowest of his career. After almost three part-time seasons with Toronto, he was sold to Boston, where he played his final eight NHL games.

After a season as coach and GM of the Quebec Nordiques of the World Hockey Association, he played the 1974-75 campaign for Edmonton in the WHA. His career ended when he developed an ear infection. On Feb. 27, 1986, he died of cancer at his home in Switzerland. Jacques Plante was 57.

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