jacques plante’s new face-saver

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Mask + Man: Before he added his famous mask to his game equipment one night in 1959, Jacques Plante was protecting his face in practice. After having both cheekbones broken in training mishaps in 1954 and ’55, he first tried a welder’s mask donated by a fan. He later switched to the plexiglass apparatus he’s holding above, the creation of a St. Mary’s, Ontario, inventor by the name of Delbert Louch. “Louch’s New Head-Saver” had its shortcomings: it left a goaltender’s forehead vulnerable and tended, too, to fog over on the ice. Plante modified his, as shown above, by cutting out eye-holes. (Image: Library and Archives Canada)

You can guess, maybe, the species of shot that truly distressed Jacques Plante. “Oh brother, that damned slap shot!” he wrote, to the point, in 1971. “You have no idea what an effect the slap shot has had on goalies.” Heading into a game against Chicago, he said, knowing he was gong to facing Bobby Hull, his nerves would start their rattling two days before the teams hit the ice.

Plante was 41 by then, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs — with another three seasons to go before he’d wrap up his 21-year professional career. He was wearing a mask by then, of course — had been for 11 years, ever since the night in 1959 when Andy Bathgate of the Rangers moved in on him in early minutes of a game in New York.

You know the story. It was this week, 57 years ago, November 1. It wasn’t a slapped shot that did the damage and launched a Heritage Minute. No, Bathgate’s effort was a malign backhand. He told Plante biographer Todd Denault that he’d done it on purpose, vengefully — Plante had tripped him into the boards, he was bleeding, and mad. “I gave him a shot right on his cheek,” he said.

The puck struck Plante to the left of his nose. Dave Anderson: “He toppled face down on the milk-white ice at the right side of the net.” Red Fisher, covering the game for The Montreal Star, would describe Bathgate rushing in and lifting Plante’s head.

Plante stayed down for 15 seconds. He got up with a towel fixed his face, skated off under escort by Maurice Richard and Dickie Moore. A pair of Garden policemen helped him to the medical room. Rangers’ doctor Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa sewed in seven stitches. After 20 minutes, Plante was ready to return. There are varying versions of the conversation that took place between coach and goaltender before Plante rejoined the game. In his biography Behind The Mask, Raymond Plante (no relation) has Plante lying on the medical table, seeing Blake, saying I want to play with my mask on. Blake: We’ll see, we’ll see.

Dave Anderson wrote a Plante feature for The Saturday Evening Post in 1960. As he tells it, Blake is the one to mention the mask, tell Plante he can put it on. Good, Plante told him, because I wouldn’t go back without it.

Todd Denault’s biography is Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey (2010). He has a stricken Plante departing the medical room, heading back out to the ice (where — a superior detail — the New York fans sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”), then on the Canadiens’ dressing room where he had it out with his coach. Continue reading

a manly knit

fergie collection

John Ferguson was 32 in 1970 when he decided the time had come to hang up his skates after seven hard-fought NHL seasons. His Montreal Canadiens had finished out of the playoffs that spring and he’d gone through the summer wondering whether it was time to go. Things had changed in the league, and Fergie was troubled.

He writes about this in Thunder and Lightning, the memoir he published with Stan and Shirley Fischler in 1989. “Expansion and the new breed of hockey player had combined to slowly, but surely, change the game’s values for the worse, I thought. More and more, the accent was on big bucks and selfishness. Agents were becoming as important in the lives of young players as their coaches. Respect for older players, team loyalty, toughness and discipline were values that gradually were being eroded.”

Maybe he’d play one more year. Would he? He went to training camp in the fall of 1970, played some exhibition games, hurt his arm. That was it. His mind was made up.

“At a press conference in Montreal,” he writes, “I told the media that I had decided to retire from hockey. … Naturally, the reporters grilled me. They wanted to know about specifics. Was it [GM Sam] Pollock? Who? I told them I had no beef with hockey or the Canadiens or Pollock or the club owners. I told them that, when I decided I couldn’t give one hundred per cent to hockey, it was time to give up.”

Knitwear played its part, along with horses. When he wasn’t playing hockey, Ferguson was in business with both. He was already president of Butternut Enterprises, a company owned by friends, that not only manufactured fine shirts, dresses, pants, and sweaters, but owned a bevy of racehorses: two trotters and seven thoroughbreds.

“Horses were in my blood,” Ferguson writes. But the threads meant something, too. He writes about that, too. “Some of my hockey friends thought it was paradoxical for a tough guy like me to be making a fashion statement with knitwear, but nobody ever teased me about it. I matched my colours and was never outlandish with my colour schemes.”

No, you wouldn’t tease John Ferguson about his fashion choices, would you? Above, he shows his stuff in ad from a November, 1970 Canadiens’ game program. Earlier that year, posing for another campaign in Montreal’s Gazette, the John Ferguson Collection promised “brave designs … masculine and bold. Styled with clean lines … powerful stripes … decisive trims. A manly knit in textured Cel-Cil Fortel®.”

The knitly man made a return to the ice the following year, of course. Habs’ captain Jean Béliveau called him up the following season, invited him to supper. They went to Ruby Foo’s, and Béliveau told him: “The Canadiens need you. Think about coming back.”

Ferguson was out of knitwear by then — so to speak: he’d sold his interest. After meeting Sam Pollock to talk contract, he rejoined the team for one final season. It was a good one, too, the last one also of Béliveau’s illustrious career, and the first for a young goaltender named Ken Dryden. The Canadiens won the Stanley Cup.