It wasn’t that long ago that professional hockey goalies had precious little to stop pucks.
If they missed with their stick or pads, chances were good that the last line of defense was their face.
Broken bones, black eyes, concussions, stitches, and missing teeth became the hallmarks of a good goaltender.
That changed with Jacques Plante.
After taking countless shots to his mug, Plante decided he’d had enough.
Instead of subjecting himself to a lifetime of surgery, disfigurement, and pain, Plante helped develop the first hockey mask.
Amazing photo of Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante in ready position against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in December 1957. Plante became the first goalie to wear a face mask. He did it during the 1959-60 season pic.twitter.com/u522rqbAlx
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) August 17, 2019
He first wore a mask during the 1959-1960 season and was viewed by hardened veterans as a wimp.
That didn’t stop him from revolutionizing the position and winning no less than six Stanley Cups.
Because of Plante, goalies are now required to wear full helmets and facemasks to protect themselves.
They also play the game in the style that Plante made popular.
This is the story of trailblazing goalie Jacques Plante.
The Making of a Goalie
Joseph Jacques Omer Plante was born on January 17, 1929, in Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Carmel, Quebec, Canada.
The Plante family was large and included 11 children with Jacques being the oldest.
Jacques’s parents, Xavier and Palma, encouraged their kids to play sports.
However, with jobs and so many offspring to raise, they were on their own.
Jacques took up the sport of hockey when he was five and Xavier used the wood from a tree root to whittle Jacques his first hockey stick.
“I’ve handled a lot of goalsticks since then, but I’ll never forget the thrill of that first one,” Plante said.
That same year, the youngster broke his hand in an accident and it affected the way he played the sport.
As if that wasn’t enough, Plante also developed asthma that prevented him from skating around the rink for long periods.
Not wanting to give up the game, Plante switched from playing offense to defending his team’s goal.
He played outdoor hockey until he was 12 when Plante saw an opportunity to play organized hockey against older kids.
“I was attending Ecole St-Maurice school in Shawinigan,” said Jacques. “Our hockey team consisted of boys seventeen and eighteen years old and I used to watch them play all the time on the outdoor rink. On this one day, I remember it was very cold and I was looking at the game while standing indoors with my back against a stove. The goalie was having trouble and the coach accused him of not doing his best. The goalie was mad and took his skates off. I rushed toward the coach and volunteered to take his place. There was no other goalie around, so I went in the net and played with them the rest of the season.”
Plante Gets Noticed
Three years later, Plante had become such a good netminder that he was suiting up for as many as five different teams per week.
Even though he was just 15 years old at the time, Plante played for a team that was represented by a local factory.
Although he wasn’t an employee of the factory, Plante got up the nerve to ask his coach if he could get paid.
“The coach agreed to give me fifty cents a game if I didn’t tell any of the other players about it,” said Plante. “We couldn’t afford a radio or luxuries of any kind (in the thirteen-member Plante family). Fifty cents meant a lot to me in those days.”
Soon after, other teams and organizations offered to pay Plante for his services.
At one point, a franchise from Britain offered him $80 per week to play.
Then, the Providence Reds of the American Hockey League also offered him a hefty sum.
Plante had to turn down both teams.
“Each time, my parents turned me down,” sighed Jacques. “They wanted me to finish school.”
He followed his parents’ request and finished school at 18 by graduating with honors.
After graduation, Plante took a job at a local factory while also playing hockey wherever he could find a game.
God, you would think there were only teams in the OHL…
Montreal Junior Canadiens:
Rick Martin Gilbert Perreault Yvon Cournoyer
Jacques Laperriere Serge Savad
(If too old Rogie Vachon)
— Connor Lapalme (@Connor_Lapalme) August 24, 2022
The Montreal Junior Canadiens brought Plante in for a tryout, but he returned home soon after.
“After one week, the Canadiens wanted to sign me but I took one look at the contract and decided to go back home,” said Plante. “I was making more money as a clerk!”
Instead, Plante signed and played for two years with the Quebec Citadelles in the Quebec Junior Hockey League.
Reaching the Top
In 1949, Plante was 20 years old and making $85 per week playing for the Citadelles.
His time in the Junior leagues paid off when Plante was added to the Montreal Royals, the Montreal Canadiens minor league team.
For the next four years, Plante spent his days playing for the Royals as well as the Buffalo (New York) Bisons of the American Hockey League.
— Hogamadog (@hogamadog) November 27, 2021
It was during this period that Plante was noted for his unique style of goaltending.
Instead of sitting behind the crease and waiting for a shot on goal (as every one of his peers did), Plante had the audacity to venture outside the crease.
In fact, to the horror and dismay of his coaches and teammates, Plante would actively go after the opponent with the puck and try to poke it away.
“I was with the Citadels,” Plante began. “We had four defensemen. One couldn’t skate backwards. Another couldn’t turn to his left. The others were slow. It was a case of me having to go and get the puck when it was shot into our end because our defense couldn’t get there fast enough. The more I did it, the farther I went. It seemed to be the best thing to do, so I did it and it worked.” Plante continued, “Possession of the puck is number one. That’s all I’m doing — getting control until one of my teammates comes along.”
In 1952, Plante was called up to the Canadiens to fill in for injured veteran Gerry McNeil.
He won two of the three games he started and gave up just four goals.
Making a Name for Himself
The Canadiens sent Plante back to Buffalo for the 1952-53 season to get more playing time and hone his skills.
The Bison weren’t very good, but with Plante in goal, Buffalo improved dramatically to the point where the locals began filling their home stadium.
During one particular stretch in the season, Plante and the Bisons won five games in a row in front of 9,000 fans (instead of the usual 2,000) and a nickname was born.
“They started calling me ‘Jake the Snake.’ I loved all this publicity,” Plante said.
Then, in January of 1953, Montreal called up Plante to play in some regular season games and he more than held his own.
“How would you like a job where, every time you make a mistake, a big red light goes on and 18,000 people boo?”
– Jacques Plante
Montreal Canadians pic.twitter.com/3acc24H58f
— Mike Gibson (@constantimage) August 21, 2022
Not only did he play well against hardened veterans, he stood out like a sore thumb by wearing a stocking cap during games.
Canadiens coach Dick Irvin didn’t like his goalie wearing such attire and forbade Plante from wearing the “tuques.”
During the 1953 playoffs, Plante was called back to Montreal to fill in for an injured McNeil and helped the club win two straight contests (and allowing just one goal).
That brought the Canadiens back from the brink of elimination by the Chicago Black Hawks and Montreal advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals against Boston.
Plante started the first two games of the Finals and tallied a 1-1 record.
McNeil returned for Game 3 and led the Canadiens to a 4-1 series victory.
Although he had played in only a handful of games that year, Plante had his first Stanley Cup.
For the next two seasons, Plante played second fiddle to McNeil and was also shuttling back and forth between Montreal and Buffalo.
At long last, in the late spring of 1954, he replaced McNeil for good.
The Canadiens had lost in the 1954 Finals to the Detroit Red Wings and met the Wings again in the 1955 series.
By then, Plante was the starting netminder and was flabbergasted when star teammate Maurice “Rocket” Richard was suspended for the rest of the year.
Richard had gotten into a violent altercation with a Boston Bruins player and leveled the player with his stick.
In response, NHL president Clarence Campbell suspended Rocket for the last few games of the regular season and the entire playoffs.
Montreal and its fans believed the punishment was too severe.
Just days later, Campbell dared to attend a game in Montreal even though he had just suspended Richard.
Today in 1955, Maurice Richard was suspended for the rest of the NHL regular season and playoffs after a fight with the Bruins.
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) March 16, 2020
His mere presence sparked a riot that spilled out into the streets.
The Canadiens qualified for the postseason without Richard but lost to Detroit again in the Finals.
Plante and Montreal Become a Dynasty
With the “Richard Riot” behind them, Plante, Richard, Jean Beliveau, Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, Dickie Moore and company embarked on a dynastic run.
An aversion to losing helped the franchise pile up numerous victories and five straight Stanley Cup victories between 1955-56 through 1959-60.
Montreal had fantastic offensive and defensive athletes, but Plante was on a different level.
“Jacques didn’t get credit at the start because the team in front of him was pretty good,” said Canadiens teammate Tom Johnson, “but he was the key man.”
Each year the organization won the Cup, Plante led the NHL in goals against average (GAA).
— The Hockey Samurai 侍 (@hockey_samurai) November 24, 2021
Not once during those five years did his GAA get above 2.55 and Plante won the Vezina Trophy (for the league’s best goalie) every year.
“In an important game, you couldn’t get an aspirin by him,” Johnson said. “The bigger the game, the better he played.”
Even more amazing, Plante did this while suffering from asthma attacks that could be crippling.
A consequence of playing goalie without a mask is that the netminder will get pummeled repeatedly in the face with the puck.
That happened often to Plante.
“In those days, you had Bobby Hull in the league and [Tim] Horton and [Andy] Bathgate and all those big shots and they’re coming at you, from five, ten feet in front and wind up, they didn’t know where it was going, you had to stop it,” said Plante, when recalling his goaltending days on CBC’s 90 Minutes Live in 1977. “You had no mask and the coach kept telling you: ‘Use your head.’ And I did.”
In 1954, Plante took a puck to the cheekbone from a teammate in practice.
Before returning from the injury, Plante went to an equipment specialist and had him make a plastic mask that covered the goal tender’s eyebrows, cheeks, and chin.
He only wore the device during practices, but by 1959, Plante had had enough.
OTD in 1959, Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadians becomes the first NHL goalie to don a protective mask. He'd been hit in the face by a puck in a game vs. NY Rangers and cut for several stitches. He'd developed the prototype already and insisted on wearing it if he went out. pic.twitter.com/qp9vsaWBZJ
— Jeff Hubbell (@Humbledore) November 1, 2021
On November 1 of that season, he was struck in the face with a puck fired by the New York Rangers’ Andy Bathgate.
“The shot by Bathgate nearly ripped my nose off,” Plante fumed.
Bleeding like a stuck pig, Plante had to go to the Montreal dressing room to recover.
Meanwhile, the Canadiens had no one else to play in goal.
Plante told coach Joseph “Toe” Blake that he would only return to the contest if he could wear his mask.
Too many facial injuries to count had taken its toll on Plante and he had no desire to continue getting unnecessarily pummeled.
Penny's 🇨🇦 fun fact: In 1959, Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante became the first goalie to regularly wear a mask, making him one of the most important innovators in ice hockey 🏒
— CanadianPenny 🇨🇦 (@CanadianPenny1) August 10, 2020
With no other options, Blake finally relented.
“He [Blake] never wanted me to wear the mask because he thought it would make me too complacent,” said Plante.
Plante wasn’t the first to wear a mask during a regular season game, but he did become the first to wear one permanently.
Plante was also candid with the media when they asked if he was scared to play without a mask.
“If you jumped out of a plane without a parachute, would that make you brave?”
The Canadiens won the Cup that year and Plante received his fifth consecutive Vezina.
Plante was one of the best goalies and players in the NHL and should have had a million friends and an entourage to boot.
That just wasn’t his style.
“No, I never make friends,” Jacques stated unapologetically. “Not in hockey; not elsewhere. Not since I was a teenager. What for? If you are close to someone, you must be scheduling yourself to please them.”
During road trips, Plante sat by himself and knitted sweaters and tuques, something he’d been doing since childhood.
He was a loner who didn’t care much for the camaraderie of the clubhouse, but Plante was the consummate teammate on the ice.
— NHL Hockey Cards (@NHLHockeyCards) July 14, 2021
Although he was awkward away from the game, during a contest Plante was locked in and nearly unbeatable.
“…one of the cockiest, most confident goaltenders I’ve met,” Geoffrion once said.
Plante used that confidence to take home a sixth Vezina Trophy in 1961-62 after winning 42 games and having a GAA of 2.37.
He also became the fourth goalie in NHL history to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP.
Plante is Traded and Retires
As good as he was playing, all was not well between Plante and Coach Blake.
The year before his MVP season, Plante was sent to the minors to rehab a sore knee which turned out to be torn cartilage.
In 1962-63, his asthma flared up again and Plante missed significant time.
To make matters worse, that year Montreal lost in the semifinals for the third year in a row.
Blake was upset with Plante’s time lost to injury and his general aloofness.
The coach went to Montreal management and demanded that Plante be traded or he would leave.
Before the 1963-64 season Plante was dealt to the New York Rangers for a slew of players.
— Doug Norris (@GoalieHistory) June 4, 2022
In two years with New York, Plante’s GAA rose over 3.0 and the Rangers did not qualify for the playoffs.
Plante felt his best days were behind him and retired following the 1964-65 season.
For the next three years, Plante worked as a sales rep with Molson Brewery.
In the summer of 1968, he was selected in the intraleague draft by the St. Louis Blues.
St. Louis was about to begin its second season and Plante joined the squad to form a potent goalie combo with Glenn Hall.
“I felt I was wanted there and if I feel I’m wanted by a team, I feel good,” admitted Plante.
The duo played so well that year that they were honored together for the Vezina Trophy.
In 1968-69 the HOF tandem of Glenn Hall & Jacques Plante shared the net for the St Louis Blues. Hall was 37 years old & Plante was 40. Hall had a .928 sv% and a 2.17 GAA. Plante posted a .940 sv% in 37 games and a 1.96 GAA. Legends! #stlblues pic.twitter.com/bMz9Cdymxi
— The Hockey Samurai 侍 (@hockey_samurai) April 7, 2023
It was Plante’s seventh time receiving the award.
The Blues won 37 games and lost to Montreal in the Stanley Cup Finals in ‘68.
After losing to Boston in the Cup Finals in 1969-70, the franchise traded Plante to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He then posted a 1.88 GAA in his first season as a Leaf.
Late in 1972-73, Plante’s third year with Toronto, he was traded to Boston and spent eight games as a Bruin before retiring again.
In the summer of 1973, Plante became the coach and general manager of the Quebec Nordiques.
That never panned out, and he reported to the Edmonton Oilers of the World Hockey Association for 1974-75.
— The Hockey Samurai 侍 (@hockey_samurai) August 29, 2022
Despite being the oldest (46) player on the Oilers, Plante still won 15 games.
However, a series of injuries, the death of his son in an auto accident, and his obviously declining skills stared at Plante in the face.
He retired for good after the season.
“After a long and serious study of my personal position as a player, I decided that I wanted to retire while I was still on top,” he stated at that time.
Retirement and Death
Plante retired with a career GAA of 2.38, 437 wins, and 246 losses (as an NHL player).
He won six Stanley Cups, received the Vezina Trophy seven times, was the Hart Memorial Trophy recipient once, and played in eight All-Star games.
Plante was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978.
After leaving the game, Plante moved with his second wife to Switzerland but returned to the States frequently to teach and talk goaltending.
“I don’t want a full-time job,” he mentioned. “I’m doing what I like best now — talking goaltending. This has been my life. My reward is seeing a big smile on their (young netminders) faces when they see me around. I don’t want any more.”
In 1985, Plante was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer and he died on February 27, 1986.
Today in 1986, Jacques Plante died. One of the greatest NHL players ever, in his career from 1947-1975, he won six Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens. He also won seven Vezinas, popularized the goalie mask & was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978. pic.twitter.com/1WmG9LWKsB
— Craig Baird – Canadian History Ehx (@CraigBaird) February 27, 2023
He was just 57 years old.
Plante may have passed away too soon, but his legacy lives on.
Once mocked for his use of a mask, goalies now wear full helmets to protect their heads.
Plante’s playing style which included skating behind the net and outside the crease continues to this day.
“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,” said former Canadiens goalie and fellow Hall of Famer Ken Dryden.