net presence

The first time Gerry McNeil defended the Montreal Canadiens’ net was in 1947, when he relieved an injured Bill Durnan at the Forum midway through a meeting with the New York Rangers. Montreal lost a 1-0 lead that night; the Rangers won 5-3. McNeil “wasn’t given the best of protection,” the Gazette’s Dink Carroll wrote, “but the fact remains that Durnan’s absence was felt.” McNeil started the next night, too, against Boston, holding the Bruins to a 2-2 tie. “Steady but unspectacular” was the verdict on that performance.

Born in Quebec City on a Saturday of this date in 1926, McNeil remains largely unsung in the annals of Montreal goaltending greatness. To demonstrate why that’s not fair you might cite the fact that in all four seasons in which he was Montreal’s first-choice puckstop, from 1950 through ’54, Canadiens made it to the Stanley Cup finals. “The plucky goaler,” Dink Carroll called him in 1953 when McNeil led his team to a championship with a fifth-game shutout of the Boston Bruins. Often remembered as the man Toronto’s Bill Barilko scored on to win the 1951 Cup for the Maple Leafs, McNeil ended up playing parts of seven seasons with Montreal. His last stint as a Canadien came during the 1956-57 regular season when he returned from retirement to sub in for an asthmatic Jacques Plante. Canadiens won a Cup that year, too.

Gerry McNeil died in 2004 at the age of 78. For more on his life and times, his son David McNeil very good book is the one you want. In The Pressure of the Moment: Remembering Gerry McNeil (2016) also happens to be a fascinating cultural study of the game as well an incisive guide to the arts and anguishes of goaltending.

minder of nets, thwarter of goals

If you follow ‪@CP0031 on Twitter, you’ve seen that he lists his location as “Top of the paint.” His bio there is plain and simple: “Minder of nets — Thwarter of goals — Swatter of pucks.” On the ice last night at Montreal’s Bell Centre, Carey Price was at his unflappable best, turning back 20 shots as the Canadiens defeated the Detroit Red Wings by a score of 3-1. It was Price’s 315 regular-season win for Montreal, and with that he passed Jacques Plante atop the team’s ledger, which includes the names of 83 men. He Plante still holds the Canadiens mark for total wins, regular-season and playoffs, with 373, with Patrick Roy behind him (with 359) and then Price (with 340). Here, Toronto illustrator Dave Murray has #31 bestriding the nation, from the mountains of his native British Columbia to the precincts of his winter home on the St. Lawrence. For more of Murray’s work, visit http://davemurrayillustration.com/

doodle bug

Google Canada has been showcasing Jacques Plante today atop its search page, backing it up (here) a broad overview of his career that’s worth a browse, if mostly for the George Silk photographs that illustrate it. Those, from Life magazine’s archive, depict Plante as he looked (reversed Habs logo notwithstanding), which I’m not sure Google’s daily doodle quite manages. I’m not complaining — even in error (mask and bleu, blanc et rouge aside), Google’s gesture makes for a perfectly adequate salute to Chuck Rayner’s Hall-of-Fame career in the New York Rangers’ net.

jacques plante, 1970: no dizzy spells, no headaches, I don’t see double

Face First: In 1970, 11 years after he first wore a mask in an NHL game, Jacques Plante poses with a young goaltending colleague to show off the junior version of his new Fibrosport mask.

Fans in St. Louis sang “Happy Birthday” on this day in 1970 as Blues goaltender Jacques Plante celebrated his 41stwith a 20-stop 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings. Playing in his 16thNHL season, Plante had been named earlier that same week to the roster of the Western team for the NHL’s upcoming 23rdannual All-Star game. While that was a match-up that his team would lose, 4-1, to the East, Plante’s performance was immaculate: in relief of Bernie Parent of the Philadelphia Flyers, he stopped 26 shots in the 30 minutes, allowing no goals.

Plante would leave St. Louis that summer, signing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but not before he’d steered the Blues to their third successive Stanley Cup finals. The man who’d introduced the goaltender’s mask to regular NHL duty in 1959 only played a part in the first of the four games the Boston Bruins used in 1970 to sweep to the championship: a shot of Fred Stanfield’s hit Plante square in the mask, which broke. He was down and out and — soon enough — on his way to hospital, leaving Ernie Wakely and Glenn Hall to finish the series in the St. Louis nets.

“I feel great,” Plante said in June, up and at ’em and strolling around at the NHL’s annual summer meetings in Montreal. “I’ve had no dizzy spells, no headaches, I don’t see double.”

“But the doctor in St. Louis told me not to be afraid to tell everybody that if it wasn’t for the mask, I wouldn’t be here now.”

Even so, Plante had a new mask in hand, one that he’d been developing with the help of — well, as The Windsor Star had it in 1969, “moon workers” from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Plante been involved in the mask-building business for as long as masks had been mitigating the impact of the pucks that were finding his face in the NHL. Mostly he’d worked with Bill Burchmore, the young Montreal sales manager from Fibreglas Canada who’d designed Plante’s original mask.

Now Plante was launching a company of his own, Fibrosport, to develop and market face-protection for goaltenders of all sizes and skill-levels. That’s one of the junior models pictured above: they retailed for about C$12–$15 (about $75—$100 in 2018 money). Come the new season, the president of the company would be sporting the revolutionary professional model himself. One of those would set you back about C$22.50 ($150ish).

At the league’s June meetings in Montreal, Plante was ready to do some selling. While previously he’d been talking about NASA scientists — “They are experimenting with some new, lightweight material that can be poured right over your face,” he said in ’69 — the word now was that this new model had been developed in cooperation with the engineering department at the University of Sherbrooke. It weighed just nine ounces, he said, and fit the face better than any previous model known to goaliekind. Most important, it was superstrong. The secret? Resin and woven fibres. That was as much as Plante was revealing in public, anyway.

“We’ve been making tests with it,” he told reporters, “to see how much it can take and it didn’t even budge with shots at 135 miles per hour. That’s pretty good when you consider the hardest shot in the NHL is Bobby Hull’s. He shoots 118 miles an hour.”

The mask he’d been wearing when he was felled in St. Louis had resisted shots up to 108 mph, he said. The helmets astronauts wore, Plante happened to know, could withstand up to nine Gs of force. “After that, they can go unconscious. When I got hit with that puck, it was something like 12 or 14 Gs. That’s why I was knocked out.”

To prove the point (and sell the product), Plante arranged an exhibition of the new mask’s superiority. He’d brought along what the papers variously described as “a short-range cannon,” “an air-powered cannon,” and “a machine that fires pucks at 140 mph.” Set up in a conference room at a distance approximating Phil Esposito in the slot, it fired away at Plante’s newest (uninhabited) facade, which was firmly fixed to a stout backboard.

The Futuramic Pro was what Plante was calling the mask that Leaf fans would get to know over the next few years. (He’d don it, too, for subsequent short stints with Boston and WHA Edmonton.) It didn’t disappoint in Montreal that June, withstanding the hotel bombardment no problem at all.

Not so the pucks fired in the demo: in the press photos from that week, they appear misshapen and more than just a little ashamed.

Man of the Futuramic: During his final stop in the pros (with the WHA’s 1975-76 Edmonton Oilers), Plante wore a version of the mask he’d introduced at the NHL’s summer meetings in 1970.

 

blazer focus

Face Time: The WHA’s Blazers made a home in Vancouver for two seasons in the early 1970s, neither of which was particularly successful. (Pre-B.C., the franchise played a year in Philadelphia; afterwards, they transformed into the Calgary Cowboys for two final campaigns.) In 1973-74, the four goaltenders who shared the guard of the Vancouver nets included Pete Donnelly and George Gardner. In 1974-75, the man pictured here mostly took over, Don McLeod, playing a league-leading 72 games over the course of the season while allowing 233 goals (also tops among his peers). Nobody’s goals-against numbers were exactly stellar in the high-scoring WHA that year: Ron Grahame of the Houston Aeros led the pack with 3.03 average, while McLeod (3.34) finished tenth-best, just back of Edmonton’s Jacques Plante.

plante kingdom

Out In Front: A Bruin, with intent to backhand, makes his move in front of Jacques Plante’s net. Snapped at the Montreal Forum, this photograph by Hy Peskin has the luminous quality of a painting by Tex Coulter or Tony Harris. It dates, probably, to late 1955. Studying the schedule from that fall, I see that the Bruins were in Montreal towards the end of November. Boston was languishing fifth in the standings at that time, while Montreal cruised at a first-place altitude. When Doug Mohns opened the scoring for the visitors that night, press reports tell that it was with a 20-foot backhander — could this be the moment just before that? Canadiens roared back via Jean Béliveau, who added two goals to his league-leading statistics, and Maurice Richard. Terry Sawchuk was the Boston goaltender who tried to foil them, in vain.

gimme shelter

Maskmaster: Today’s the day that Jacques Plante decided that he’d had enough. It was in 1959, of course, that Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers vengefully shot a puck that cut the Montreal goaltender’s face. Blood stanched, wounds stictched, Plante said he’d only return to the ice under the protection of the mask he’d been wearing in practice. Canadiens’ coach Toe Blake didn’t like it, but he agreed; the New York fans sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” as Plante regained the net. Showing here, on the anniversary, is Nadine Arsenault’s vivid hand-embroidered thread-and-textile portrait of Montreal’s iconic trailblazer. A Toronto editorial designer and illustrator, Arsenault exhibits her hockey portfolio at www.nadine.design.