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The man who changed the face of hockey

Jacques Plante's last mask ... and last team.
Jacques Plante's last mask ... and last team.

November 1, 1959 was, like today, a Sunday. In those days the NFL was no threat so every Sunday the NHL always scheduled a full slate of three (!) games, all of them stateside. (This was so long ago Canadian laws restricted profit-making ventures on Sundays, so the Leafs and Canadiens always played at home against American squads on Saturday, then took a train across the border, frequently for a return engagement against the same opponent.) On this Sunday it was a fairly typical sked for the old six-team loop: Toronto at Boston, Chicago at Detroit, Montreal at New York. Seemingly a routine early season contest, the latter was to become one of the most famous, and iconic, games in NHL history.

The Canadiens were the class of the league that fall. Riding a 7-game unbeaten run, they were already well on their way to their third straight Prince of Wales Trophy and more importantly, their fifth consecutive Stanley Cup. Maurice (Rocket) Richard's great career was winding down in style, but the squad was loaded with prime time players in every position: up front snipers Jean Beliveau, Dickie Moore, and Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, who each led the league in goals and points at various stages of their careers; all-around threat Henri Richard, the Pocket Rocket, who twice led the loop in assists; checker extraordinaire Claude Provost; on the blue the great Doug Harvey, the Nick Lidstrom of his day who was in the middle of a run of 7 Norris Trophies in 8 years; and his partner Tom Johnson, who won the Norris the year Harvey didn't.

Backing them all up was Jacques Plante, perhaps the greatest goaltender of his time and certainly the one blessed with the best team in front of him. Plante was en route to his fifth consecutive Vezina Trophy to complement those five straight Stanley Cups. A quirky loner who was thought to be something of a hypochondriac, Plante was one of the most innovative, influential goaltenders in the history of the position. Think of him as the Dominik Hasek of his era. He was an early pioneer in wandering from the crease to handle the puck, now an essential tool in every goalie's kit. Later he became an outspoken advocate of having a second goalie on every roster. But in 1959 each club still carried just a single goaltender, a fact which was central to the events that transpired that Sunday evening in MSG.

The Rangers were no match for the mighty Habs. Destined to finish dead last, 15 long points behind the fifth-place Bruins, the Rangers' lone star was reigning Hart Trophy winner Andy Bathgate. On this night, however, Bathgate had more on his mind than scoring.

In a recent candid interview, Bathgate describes being tripped face-first into the boards by Plante a couple of weeks earlier. He was considerably less than impressed, and decided he would get even when the chance presented itself. Just 3:06 into the first period, it did. Bathgate lifted a shot from a bad angle right into the goalie's bare face, slicing him open and spilling copious amounts of blood over his white road jersey. Plante was carried from the ice; with no backup goalie in sight, the game waited for him to return.

21 minutes later Plante was back, sporting a few more stitches and a new piece of equipment: a fibreglass face mask. He had been trying it out in practice for some time, but Habs coach Toe Blake had refused to allow him to wear it in a game. Plante, cut yet again, decided to call Blake's bluff and refused to return to the game without the facial protection. In an unfriendly city with no other options available, Blake had no choice but to relent.  

Already riding a hot roll in which he had allowed just 7 goals the previous 6 games, Plante won that game 3-1. Still wearing the mask as his face healed, he won the next game 8-2, then tied a third 2-2. He then proceeded to win 8 more games in a row, allowing just 8 goals in the process. The masked man posted a record of 10-0-1 that November -- all regulation wins, mind -- with a minuscule 1.18 GAA. The questions about the mask, about vision, about comfort, about courage, started to melt away as the Habs' unbeaten run reached a staggering 18 games, with Plante allowing 2 goals or fewer in the last 17 of those games. 

Even when the streak inevitably ended Plante's stellar play continued. The great sportswriter Scott Young (father of Neil) described the memorable game that ended the winning streak in his classic book of that era, The Leafs I Knew:

December 2

A man on the way out of the Gardens tonight was holding a bug-eyed little boy by the hand and telling him, "You'll never see as good a game as that one."

I hope he's wrong, because the young fellow has a long life ahead, and never is a long, long time. But it was the sort of game that made conversation go in superlatives. One other man who has been watching hockey for a long time told me it was the best game he'd ever seen.

When the sound came whooping down the long alive slopes of faces from the greys, high in the eaves, to the mink and camel hair in the reds and rails, there was in the sound the high emotion of the best in the game.

Go, Leafs, Go! they shouted.

When a line went on and another came off, the fans clapped their hands and cheered. They cheered the goalkeeper, Johnny Bower, when the mighty Canadiens came in and fired and he beat them standing, sitting, sliding and once in a while doing the breast stroke. They cheered, by refraction, the man in the mask at the other end, Jacques Plante, because when a Toronto player made a great play on the Montreal goal and Plante beat him, it became two great plays in one, and this happened quite often.

If a man missed forty seconds at the beginning of a period (found himself so weak from excitement he had to hire a caddy to help carry his peanuts), he would miss five mighty OH-H-H-Hs!

In short, it was some hockey game. Canadiens hadn't lost a game for forty-six days and it took an especially good team to beat them 1-0, Mahovlich getting the goal from the edge of the crease.

By then the mask was here to stay. Although Plante wasn't the first netminder to experiment with one -- the great Clint Benedict had worn a leather mask for the last few games of his career three decades previously -- he was the first to "buy in" to the concept and stuck to his convictions for the rest of his storied career. Grudgingly others began to follow suit, although it was three years before another goaltending legend of the day, Terry Sawchuk, donned the headgear in 1962.When I started to watch the game in the spring of '63, Plante, Sawchuk, and Leafs reserve goalie Don Simmons were a growing minority who wore facial protection, while other goaltending stars of the era -- Glenn Hall, Johnny Bower, Ed Johnston, Gump Worsley -- remained resolutely bare-faced. In an era where virtually every skater was also bare-headed, there was no small fascination in watching these masked men ply their trade.

My personal memories of Plante are pretty extensive for a guy who was supposedly on the downside of his career by the time I tuned in. My first playoff series was his last in Montreal, a comprehensive blowout by the Leafs punctuated by a 5-0 finale in Game 5. Just one year removed from his Hart Trophy season (the next goaltender to do so would be Hasek, 35 years later), Plante was scapegoated and traded that off-season -- to New York of all places, in a multi-player deal that included the bare-faced Gump Worsley going the other way. Plante endured two miserable seasons in MSG, and announced his retirement in 1965. He was far from done, however; three years later he made a triumphant return to expansionist St. Louis Blues, where he shared goaltending duties with another aging great, the now-masked Glenn Hall. The two shared the Vezina Trophy -- Plante's seventh -- while the man many called Jake the Snake led the NHL with a sparkling 1.96 GAA. Plante returned to the Stanley Cup Finals in both 1969 and 1970 but the Blues could not break through against the powerhouse Canadiens and Bruins. In the '70 SCF Plante was beaned by a Phil Esposito shot which knocked him out of the series. Ever the drama queen, he claimed the mask saved his life on that occasion.

Plante moved on to Toronto, where in 1970-71 he again improbably led the NHL with a remarkable 1.88 GAA. To put that in perspective, his primary backup, Bruce Gamble, was at 3.87. Plante therefore led the NHL in GAA with three different teams in three different decades. Late that season, the Leafs acquired the fine young goaltender Bernie Parent, an avowed Plante disciple who apprenticed under the master for a year and a half. One interesting event occurred in the 1971 playoffs in (wait for it) Madison Square Garden, when Parent refused to complete a game after a brawl in which his mask was thrown into the crowd. Rather than play bare-faced, Parent deferred to the original masked man to finish up the 4-1 Leafs win.

Plante remained a fierce advocate for goaltender safety. Around 1970 the league was toying with a cockamamie idea to allow a "free face-off" if the defensive team froze the puck. It wasn't a penalty shot, but the goalie was to be confined to his crease while an opponent stepped up and potentially let one rip from the dot. The savvy Plante called the league's bluff, saying that if he had to face such a shot from the likes of Bobby Hull, he would simply "step aside rather than be a target in a shooting gallery". Faced with the potential embarrassment of such a (non) encounter, the league dropped the idea quicker than you can say "hot potato".

After winding his NHL career down with a few games in Boston late in the 1972-73 season, Plante took another year off before being coaxed out of retirement yet again for a swan song with the Edmonton Oilers of the WHA in 1974-75. He played and won the first ever game played in Edmonton Coliseum (now Rexall Place), 4-1 over Cleveland Crusaders and another famously masked man, Gerry Cheevers. I didn't have the pleasure of attending that sold-out affair, but I did watch the 46-year-old Plante play a number of games later that season. He had some sort of sweetheart deal where he played almost all of his games at home and rarely travelled with the team. The result was the ultimate three-headed monster in goal, where Chris Worthy led the team in Minutes Played, Ken Brown in Games Played, and Jacques Plante in decisions. I'd bet good money that has never happened before or since in any league.

One particularly memorable game occurred after the Edmonton Spring Rodeo, a precursor to the Canadian Finals Rodeo which has been held every year of the Coliseum's existence. But the first year was an adventure of trial and error. The dirt was put right over the ice, and removed after the final event on Sunday afternoon for a hockey game that night. Fans coming to the first game after the Oilers' outrageous road trip -- it was their 14th game in 21 nights, no two in a row in any one place -- entered to the spectacle of a badly stained ice surface. We waited and waited as the Zamboni did round after round after endless round of the ice. The PA guy assured us every few minutes to be patient, "the game will be played this evening". About two hours later much of the worst had been cleaned up, and the players finally came out for the pre-game skate to a loud cheer. But the warm-up lasted only a couple of minutes. Ever the safety marshall, Jacques Plante was appalled that he couldn't properly see the pucks being shot from certain areas of the ice, and informed the referee of his refusal to play under those conditions. It was close to 10 o'clock that the game was formally postponed to the next night. Ticket holders could get a refund or use their stubs to see the rescheduled game. To make matters much, much worse, those of us diehards who chose to come back were subjected to an absolute stinker of a game, as the exhausted Oilers put on a listless performance in a 5-2 loss to the mighty San Diego Mariners. Before the first period was half over, the catcalls had begun: "Can we STILL get our money back?" What a fiasco ... but the last person this former goalie was going to blame was Jacques Plante. Under the ridiculous circumstances, he did the only sane thing. Safety first.

50 years ago today Jacques Plante did another sane thing, putting on a mask in an NHL game and changing the face of hockey. By the time he retired for the third and last time in the spring of 1975, every single goalie in pro hockey the NHL was wearing one. The goalie mask had become an icon of the game, and indeed of the horror movies that are always in vogue this time of year.