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

icelanders

glsea_curThe Great Lakes are 85.4 per cent iced over, or at least they were yesterday, according to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, the U.S. federal body that monitors these things on behalf of science and shinny.

That’s an impressive figure by any standard other than that of impatient hockey players, or Canadians. True, most of us won’t make it out this winter with our Kohos, in our old Tacks, onto a frozen patch of Erie or Ontario or Superior, much less pick up a puck near Kingston and stickhandle it all the way west to Duluth. Still, to the rink born, we feel that such a stretch of ice should be available to us all the same in mid-winter, just in case. It’s what we’re owed, as Canadians — anything short of 100 per cent coverage is at best a disappointment.

If we’re not, at this point, calling it a natural national tragedy, that’s because we know what we’ve learned from all those flooding in our backyards: the freeze takes time. The good news is that the Great Rink is getting there: on Monday last, coverage was at 76.6 per cent. A few more icy nights and we should be good to go — maybe by the weekend, then?

In the meantime, maybe best to review the hazards of pond hockey. Hockey’s literature has been attentive to the dangers involved in venturing out on to natural ice, which you’ll know if you happen to have read all the hockey novels, only a few of which don’t include a scene in which the hero (a) falls through thin ice himself while chasing pucks and/or (b) rescues some other poor sap who didn’t listen and went under. I wrote about that in Puckstruck, citing some of the terrible fictional sounds associated with hockey/ice disasters:

• ominous creaking, anguished cry, crash (Lightning On Ice, Philip Harkins, 1946)
• silence (Pass That Puck! Richard T. Flood, 1948)
• “yow!” “crash!” “crack, crackle!” (New Heroic Comics, 1949)
• gentle splashing, shouts of people running (Brother of the Hero, Lev Kassil, 1968)
• “helllppppp!” (Forever, Roy MacGregor, 1996)

“In fiction,” I continued,

it’s a bit of a rite of passage for young players. If you’re going to learn the game, then you’re going to have to take a swim, losing if not your life then at least a boot. What often happens is that your brother Joe comes by with his hockey stick and lies down on his stomach and says, “That’s a brave boy” and “Wrap your arms around it and hold hard,” and so you do that, and he fishes you out and makes you skate to shore to get your circulation going instead of carrying you, which is smart. That’s what happens in Skating Today (1945), possibly one of the worst titled hockey novels of all, though still compelling as a story in its own hokey way.

You don’t, course, have to be a young scamp in a hockey story to have the ice betray you. It happens in history, too, to Russian armies at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. Whether you’re fulfilling your birthright as a Canadian or retreating from Napoleon with your artillery over a lake in what’s now the Czech Republic, the lesson to learn is the same: as the Ontario Provincial Police like to remind us, no ice is safe ice.

satchan lake