“Did you ever see how they kill cattle?” Jacques Plante said. “They use a sledgehammer and the cattle just drop dead. That’s how the shot felt when it hit me. Without the mask I wouldn’t be here today.”
He was in the Jewish Hospital in St. Louis by then, early May of 1970. Eleven years had passed since he’d first donned his famous mask and started a hockey revolution. At 41, with seven Stanley Cup championships to his name, he was nearing the end of his playing days, but he wasn’t there yet. In his second year with St. Louis, he was a favourite of fans, and had helped the Blues reach their third consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup finals.
Coach and GM Scotty Bowman had used three goaltenders through the early rounds of the playoffs. As the Blues prepared to face Boston in the finals, Bruins’ coach Harry Sinden said, “We recognize Plante as their number one goalie, and I never want to see him in the nets against us.” Bowman didn’t oblige: Plante was the starter on Sunday, May 3, as the Blues opened the series at home at The Arena.
Boston’s Johnny Bucyk scored in the first period, Jim Roberts tied the score for St. Louis early in the second. Then, as recalled next day in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The 41-year-old Blues goalie was struck on the fiberglass mask above the left eye on a deflection of a shot by the Boston Bruins’ Fred Stanfield.” Another correspondent from the same paper had him “felled by a puck.”
UPI: “nearly had his head torn off Fred Stanfield’s screamer.”
Stanfield’s “brow-bender,” was Harold Kaese’s contribution, in The Boston Globe.
“The Boston player’s drive, which started out low, glanced off Phil Esposito’s stick and smashed into the veteran goalie’s mask, cracking it.” (Post-Dispatch)
He fell facedown. For two minutes he lay unconscious on the ice. Blues’ doctor J.G. Probstein and trainer Tommy Woodcock “worked on” him, the AP said. After about five minutes, they got him to his feet. He wobbled. They brought out a stretcher, but he wanted to skate off.
Ernie Wakely, 28, was the Blues’ back-up. He came in and did his best, but the Bruins kept coming, and won by a score of 6-1 with the aid of Bucyk’s hattrick.
Later, Dr. Probstein said it was a concussion and that while Plante’s condition was “satisfactory,” he’d be hospitalized “for an indefinite period of time.”
Plante’s first words (“after his head cleared”) were said to be: “The mask saved my life.”
He phoned his wife Jacqueline in Montreal. “She was relieved to hear from me,” he said later. She made a habit of not watching her husband on TV, but his children had the game on that night. It was almost when she passed through the room and noticed that Plante was absent from the net. Only then did the youngest son calmly mention what had happened.
Monday, a reporter among many visiting Room 223 at Jewish Hospital described the patient: “He had a whelp over his left eye and a slight cut and he smiled very little for his audience.”
Plante: “My head hurts every time I move it.”
Joe Falls was there, sports editor of The Detroit Free Press.
“Hockey writers,” he’d write, “happen to like old Jacques.”
He’s a good guy and always good for a story and so before we went up to see him I chipped in two bucks with a couple of Montreal writers and we bought him some flowers.
Jacques, he like that very much. He is a very sensitive man and was moved by the sentiment.
“Merci beaucoup, merci beaucoup,” he kept repeating.
Of course we’d signed the card: “From Fred Stanfield, with love.” He pretended not to notice.
Did Plante change rooms? Also Monday, Boston Globe columnist Fran Rosa found him asleep in 219. Barclay Plager had spent the night at the hospital, too, and he was the one to wake Plante up. The Blues defenceman was admitted after passing out on the Blues’ bench during the third period of Sunday’s game; now he was being released.
Plante talked about his future. “I don’t think I’ll be here next season.” With Buffalo and Vancouver coming into the league, summer would see an expansion draft. Plante didn’t think he’d be protected.
“Look,” he said, “Hall is three years younger than me and Wakely is the goalie of the future so what do they want with me?”
Plager had injured himself trying to hipcheck Boston’s Johnny McKenzie, damaging ribs when he bounced off and hit the boards. “The doctor didn’t exactly call it a fracture,” he confided. “He seems to think it was a separation. He said he hadn’t seen anything like it before and he’s going to write a paper on it.”
Monday, the Bruins held a light practice. Towards the end, coach Harry Sinden called the players together and led them in an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Fred Stanfield was turning 26.
Plante said he’d never been hit so hard. From his Montreal days, he recalled a tough night against Toronto: “Red Kelly shot and hit me in the face and the rebound went to Mahovlich. When I dove for the puck, it hit me where the mask protects my eyes. All I had that time was a nosebleed. No cuts.”
Dan Stoneking of The Minneapolis Star phoned Plante on Monday, said he sounded “groggy.” He also noted his “unmistakable French-Canadian accent.”
Another report from Plante’s bedside noted his “slight French accent.”
Joe Falls from Detroit’s Free Press opened his column with this:
Monsieur Jacques Plante, he leaned back on ze pillow in ze hospital room and he say: “Le masque m’a sauve la vie …”
“It only hurts when I laugh,” Plante told Dan Stoneking.
“I’ve got the world’s biggest hangover,” was another quote in another paper.
“Nothing ever felt like this,” Joe Falls heard. “My head, it is still spinning. I feel like I am floating. I feel like I want to throw up all the time.”
“I can still feel it in my head,” was another thing Plante said on the Monday. “The way I feel right now, I don’t feel like playing any more. That’s today. I don’t feel like eating or anything. Then I know as I get better I’m sure I’ll play again. But I do not know I will play in this series. I just don’t know.”
Also on Monday, Mrs. Ruth Frohlichstein dropped by. That’s her, above. The newspapers who ran photographs of her visit described her variously: as “a neighbourhood friend” and “Plante neighbour and favourite bridge partner.”
St. Louis coach and general manager Scotty Bowman had yet another goaltender waiting in the wings, 37-year-old Glenn Hall. Originally, Bowman had said he’d wanted to see how Plante played in the first game before he made any decisions on later starters. “He doesn’t play well in Boston,” Bowman said, “Glenn Hall plays well there.” With Plante out, the coach didn’t waver from that: Wakely would keep the net for Game Two in St. Louis before giving way to Hall when the series moved to Boston.
Tuesday, Boston beat Wakely 6-2. As the teams headed east from St. Louis, the news was that an infected hand might keep Hall from starting Thursday’s game. It didn’t; he started, and finished, and St. Louis lost, 4-1.
Back at Jewish Hospital, a spokesman said that Plante’s dizziness had “cleared up beautifully.” Plante himself had been advising reporters Thursday that he was ready to play that very night, if he could just get out of the hospital, and to Boston.
“Why not?” he said. “I’ve played the game my whole life. There was never any question in my mind that I was coming back. As a matter of fact, my legs were strong enough to carry me when I left the ice Sunday and I thought I’d come back in the game.”
He wasn’t scared. “If you see the puck coming at you and you get hurt bad, you keep on seeing it in your dreams. But I never saw the puck coming. All I saw was Stanfield winding up. The next thing I remember was waking up on the ice feeling a burning on the end of my tongue. They had put a pair of rubber-ended pliers on it. They were afraid I’d swallow my tongue.”
Trainer Tommy Woodcock was asking him how many fingers, he recalled. “I kept saying it was two but Tommy told me today it was three.”
Plante Plenty Glad He Had Face Mask
(The Morning News)
‘I Fill The Net … I Block It All … I Laugh’ — Plante
(St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Injured Plante Thanks Mask
(St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Plante said, “I would’ve been dead without it.”
For background reporters told Toe Blake stories from 1959, of course, reflected on the night Plante first donned the mask. Just a week earlier, he’d been telling Ed Wilks of The Post-Dispatch about the history, the damage done, the evolution of the mask.
“My nose was broken four times, my cheekbone twice, and my jaw once,” he’d said. “And I had a skull fracture.”
The mask he was wearing now was fourth-generation. “When this one wears out, I think I’ll quit,” he’d said.
Monday, when the writers wondered whether he’d be back, Plante said yes and no and maybe. And: “If somebody will ask me, I will play again. I am a better goalkeeper than ever.”
Oh? said the writers.
“Yes, better than ever. I have perfected two new moves this season for breakaways. I have two more ways to stop the puck. I am better than ever.”
Ha, ha, said the writers. Would he wear his mask again?
“I will wear my mask but I will wear it differently.”
“Yes. No more will I put my face in front of the puck to stop it. Until now, I have great faith in my mask. But now I do not know any more. I was afraid to put my face in front of a shot if it meant I could stop the shot. I used my mask as a fifth hand —”
You mean a third hand, said the writers.
“Yes, a third hand.”
Game Four was on May 10, 1970, Sunday night in Boston. Tied 3-3, the teams went to overtime. Forty seconds in, with the puck behind Glenn Hall, and Bobby Orr taking brief, famous flight, it was over. The Stanley Cup belonged to Boston.
Plante’s goodbye to St. Louis came before the month was over when the Blues traded him to Toronto in return for future considerations. “I had a feeling I was going somewhere,” Plante said, “but I didn’t know where.” He was just back from a Miami vacation when the news broke. Dr. Probstein, he said, had declared him fully recovered.
“I just hope the move is not too late for me at my age,” Plante said. He’d miss St. Louis, to be sure: “I felt I was wanted there, and if I feel I’m wanted by a team, I feel good. Toronto has a young team, and I know they are building. It’s an honour to go here.”
Plante would play three seasons for the Maple Leafs before joining the Boston Bruins. He retired in 1975 at the age of 46 after a year with the Edmonton Oilers in the WHA.
Do they kill cattle with sledgehammers? A quick review of available materials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency reveals no mention. Over at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sledgehammers don’t come up in the regulations governing the humane slaughter of livestock. Possibly Plante was thinking of captive-bolt stunners, which are described in some detail in Section 313.15, between Chemical: Carbon Dioxide and Mechanical: Gunshot. Stunners, apparently, come in two different kinds, skull-penetrating and non-penetrating. The latter produce unconsciousness, in the regulatory parlance, “by a combination of acceleration concussion and changes in intracranial pressures.”