Goaltenders tend to make fascinating subjects for biographical treatment. Whether autobiographical (as in Ken Dryden’s masterful work in The Game) or penned by others, there is something compelling about the saga of the goalie’s existence. This surely holds true for Todd Denault’s Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey (McClelland & Stuart 2009)
Part of the attraction, no doubt, comes from that mix of quirkiness, arrogance and almost academic insight that goaltenders tend to display. For roughly half of each game, goalies have little to do except take in the spectacle of the game. They are the only players who see virtually the entire ice surface all the time, and from virtually the same perspective — breeding an analytical view of the game. To be effective, they need a certain swagger and conveniently short memory — much like an NFL cornerback. Finally, you have to be just a little off center to stick your mug in front of a vulcanized rubber disc travelling at speeds in excess of 100 mph. This is particularly true for those, such as Jacque Plante, who played in the era when there were no masks, and teams carried only a single goalie.
Plante, of course, is renowned for his pioneering use of the goalie mask during his career (and for lesser known efforts in manufacturing and selling masks after his playing days were over). However, as Denault exquisitely documents, Plante brought much more to the game than the goalie mask.
Modern hockey fans tend to credit Patrick Roy with innovating the concept of the “wandering” goaltender. Wrong. Jacque Plante pioneered the concept of the mobile goalie, much to the consternation of his coaches. He badgered the NHL establishment into eventually adopting the two-goalie system, became the first to hold his hand up to indicate icing and save his skaters some room, and was the most vocal of the era’s goaltenders in directing the play of his blue liners.
All of this from a complex man who knitted his own toques, suffered massive bouts of asthma, and was simultaneously reclusive and ostentatious. He amazed reporters by contending that half of the arenas in the league (New York, Boston & Chicago) had crossbars two inches lower than regulation. No measuring, no drawings, just feel. To the league’s ultimate embarrassment, Plante was entirely correct, with the difference attributable to the way the assembler had welded the crossbars incorrectly.
Denault does a tremendous job of weaving the complexities of Plante’s life into a seamless tapestry that alternately intrigues and entertains. The book is exhaustively researched and annotated, yet this is no mere recitation of statistics and numbers. Sure, you experience the seven Vezina Trophy presentations, the one Hart Trophy, the 435 victories and lifetime 2.38 GAA. However, these numbers emerge naturally from the backdrop of a league in transition, from the days of Selke and Smythe to Maurice Richard, Bobby Orr and beyond, through Plante’s retirement at age 46 and his eventual death in Switzerland at the age of 57.
To his credit, Denault avoids bringing personal biases to the party, letting the good, the bad and the ugly emerge naturally from the facts and the contexts. The reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions, and that is as it should be. What emerges, however, is a portrait of a remarkable, complex individual, who had a truly remarkable impact on the game of hockey. Denault receives full marks for avoiding the customary athletic biography trap of lapsing into tedious recitations of games and statistics, instead providing a rich, well-developed tale that will be appreciated by anyone wanting a deeper understanding of the roots of hockey and one of the seminal figures in its modern development. A great read for the playoffs!
Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey (Amazon Link, The Hockey Writers gets a small commission)
Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey (Amazon Link, No Affiliate Code)