From the archive: The masked man
Jacques Plante was an innovator while winning six Stanley Cups (First published Jan. 17, 2009)
You don't win Stanley Cups without exceptional goaltending. Put it this way: Henrik Zetterberg was a good choice for the Conn Smythe Trophy last June as playoff MVP, but the Detroit Red Wings would not have won the Stanley Cup without Chris Osgood bringing his "A" game to the arena throughout the postseason.
The same can be said for Patrick Roy (two Stanley Cups with the Canadiens and two with Colorado) as well as a three-time winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy - in 1986 and 1993 with the Canadiens and with Colorado in 2001. In his eight seasons with the Canadiens, Ken Dryden won the Stanley Cup six times. How many would the Canadiens have won without him? Roy and Dryden richly deserved the recognition they received, but Jacques Plante is the best goalie in Canadiens history.
Jake the Snake. The first modern-day Masked Man. Innovator. Winner of six Stanley Cups. He was the biggest reason why the Canadiens dynasty of the last half of the 1950s won five Cups in a row, a record that never will be matched. Five of his seven Vézinas in a row.
It is possible, likely perhaps, that Plante will be remembered mostly for the night of Nov. 1, 1959, when early into a game against the New York Rangers he stopped a short backhander from Andy Bathgate with his face, left the ice bleeding profusely and returned to it wearing a mask, but there was so much more to him than that.
I was in Madison Square Garden on that November night when Bathgate, only a few feet away, deliberately shot the puck into Plante's face. A cut was opened on the left side of Plante's face, starting from the corner of his mouth and running through his nostril.
A pool of blood already had formed while Plante was falling to the ice. Seconds later, he left a trail of blood across the ice en route to the clinic.
Unlike today, doors were open to the media. The Garden's press box was close to the ice, so it was only a short trip to the clinic, where I found Plante, his nose only inches away from a mirror. He probed at the cut with his fingers.
"Pretty ugly, isn't it," he said quietly.
"I guess you could say that," he was told.
Plante continued to study the wound until the Rangers' doctor interrupted.
"That's enough of that," he snapped. "Get over here on the table. We've got to sew you up." A few minutes later, Plante was on his way to the Canadiens' room. He wasn't a pretty sight. He also wasn't prepared to return to the game unless he was allowed to wear the mask he had been trying out in team practices. Coach Blake wanted no part of it, but with no other goalie, he had no choice but to allow it. The Canadiens won 3-1.
How good was he? Ask any of the surviving 12 Canadiens who played on those Stanley Cup seasons from 1955-56 through 1960, and they'll tell you it wouldn't have happened without Plante.
You can argue he was the goaltender on a team that had Blake behind the bench and sent eight players to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was the goaltender on a team that overwhelmed the opposition on most nights, making it "easy" for Plante to do his job. The fact is, Plante made winning a lot less difficult for his colleagues.
No goaltender I have known over the years studied the game more closely or knew what was needed to be among the very best. None had more confidence when it came to stopping the puck. He was aware that the fewer shots he faced in a game, the better he had to be - and was.
He was this good: Canadiens GM Frank Selke had seen enough of his best defenceman, Doug Harvey, after the Canadiens fell short of winning a sixth consecutive Cup in 1960-61, so before the start of the 1961-62 season he sent him to the Rangers for tough-guy Lou Fontinato. It was a trade that stunned everyone in hockey, starting with the players. All of them, that is, except Plante, who was flooded with questions about the move during training camp.
"How are you going to do without Doug?" I asked him.
"I don't have to tell you what Doug meant to the team while we were winning all those Stanley Cups." Plante replied. "He was by far the best in the league and still is as far as I'm concerned. Tell you what, though: I'm gonna win the Vézina this season without Harvey." "You really think so?" "I know," Plante said.
He won the Vézina that season. He also won the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player.
In 1963, Selke and coach Blake also had seen enough of Plante, trading him to the Rangers, where he endured two difficult seasons before retiring in 1965. His retirement, though, didn't last long. Three years later, when the NHL expanded to 12 teams, the St. Louis Blues reached out for him, and wouldn't you know it: Plante shared a Vézina with Glenn Hall en route to reaching the Stanley Cup final against the Canadiens.
How good was he? On Dec. 15, 1975, a 47-year-old Plante, now out of hockey for a year after 17 NHL seasons, was chosen to play for a Montreal junior team in an exhibition against the Soviet Union's national team.
"I was never so nervous before a game in all my life," Plante would recall years later. "I've never had a feeling like I did before that game. There was a different atmosphere throughout the whole Forum. Everyone was edgy. I was shivering and shaking in the dressing room and didn't think I would make it to the net. I kept telling myself that I had no business being there; that I was out of hockey for a year and I had nothing to gain and everything to lose." It was all about Plante that night. Montreal's juniors scored with 29 seconds remaining in a 2-1 victory over the Soviets' best, with Vladislav Tretiak in their nets.
"The Forum went wild and fans threw everything on the ice," Plante recalled. "After they cleared it all up, the Soviets fired three more good shots at me in the last 29 seconds.
"It was the highlight of my career." rfisher@ thegazette.canwest.com RED'S BEST OF THE BEST General manager: Sam Pollock Coach: Toe Blake Goalie: Jacques Plante Tomorrow: Best defenceman
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