Editorial Feature

How Jacques Plante Revolutionized The Future Of Ice Hockey

Discover how the Canadian ice hockey player shook things up

Joseph Jacques Omer Plante, AKA Jacques Plante (1929–1986) was a Canadian professional ice hockey player and during his career was considered to be one of the most important innovators in hockey. Said to be one of the most successful of all goaltenders in the National Hockey League (NHL), he was an integral member of the powerful Montreal Canadiens team that won a record five successive Stanley Cups (1956–60). Plante’s legacy extends beyond his ability as a player as he is also credited with wearing and developing the first full-face ice hockey mask. Discover more about Plante’s successful career below and how he revolutionized the sport for generations to come.

The first of 11 children, Plante was born on a farm near Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Carmel, in Mauricie, Quebec. The family moved to Shawinigan Falls and in 1932, aged three, Plante began to play hockey, skateless and with a tennis ball. He used a goaltender’s hockey stick his father had carved from a tree root.

Jacques Plante by George Silk (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Aged five, Plante fell off a ladder and broke his hand. The fracture never healed properly and it ultimately affected his playing style during his hockey career. Eventually, he underwent corrective surgery as an adult. Another ailment that had an impact on Plante’s play was the fact he suffered from asthma in early childhood. This prevented him from skating for extended periods of time and the reason why he gravitated towards playing goaltender.

As Plante’s playing progressed through childhood, his parents did what they could to support him. In 1936, his father made Plante’s first pads by stuffing potato sacks and reinforcing them with wooden panels. His mother taught him how to knit his own knitted hats, also known as a tuque, to protect him from the bitter winters of Quebec.

The player’s first foray into organized hockey came aged 12. While watching his school’s team practice, the coach ordered the goaltender off the ice after an argument over his play and Plante was asked to replace him as there was no other alternative. Plante impressed the coach and played well despite being several years younger than the rest of the team. He stayed on as the team’s number one goaltender.

Jacques Plante by George Silk (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Fast forward two years later, Plante was playing for five different teams of various age levels, as well as the local factory team. Plante demanded a salary from the factory team’s coach after his father (who worked at the factory) told him other players were being paid because they were employees. The coach agreed and began paying Plante 50 cents per game.

Word soon spread of Plante’s abilities and he began to get offers from other teams including a team in England who offered him $80 per week (a huge sum back then) and other similar offers from Providence Reds of the American Hockey League. Plante passed up the offers having promised his parents he would graduate high school first.

As soon as he graduated in 1947, Plante took a job as a clerk in a Shawinigan factory and a mere few weeks later, the Quebec Citadels offer him $85 per week to play for them. Plante accepted and this marked the beginning of his professional career.

Jacques Plante by George Silk (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

It was while playing for the Citadels that Plante developed his unconventional style. Essentially he started to play “outside of the crease”, meaning he left the net area to recover the puck. Fans found his style exciting but his managers didn’t agree, believing the goaltender should stay in the net and let the other players recover the puck. Plante continued regardless, believing that as long as he was in control of the puck, his opponents could not shoot at him. Though rebellious at the time, this approach has now become standard practice for goaltenders.

After playing the Montreal Canadiens, the team’s general manager, Frank J. Selke, wanted to acquire Plante as a member of the team. In 1949, he offered Plante a contract with the organization and he began playing for the affiliate team, Royal Montreal Hockey Club, earning $4,000 for the season, and an extra $500 for practicing with the Canadiens (the main team).

In 1953, Plante got called up to play for the Canadiens after the original goaltender, Bill Dunan, retired and the other top goaltender, Gerry McNeil, had fractured his jaw. Plante played three games but still managed to stir up controversy. The coach, Dick Irvin Sr., did not want his players to stand out from each other, but Plante always wore one of his tuques while playing, almost as a lucky charm. After an argument between the two, all of Plante’s hats vanished from the locker room. Even without his lucky caps, Plante only gave up four goals in the three games he played, all of them wins.

Jacques Plante by George Silk (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Over the next few years Plante had success after success when it came to his career but his health did suffer a few knocks in relation to his ongoing asthma and old fractures, which took him out of action. However, the consensus from those who saw him play was that he was special. Fred Hunt, the general manager of the Buffalo Bisons was once quoted as saying: "He's the biggest attraction since the good old days of Terry Sawchuk."

Plante was the first NHL goaltender to wear a goaltender mask in regular play on a frequent basis. He used his mask in practice from 1956 after missing 13 games because of a sinusitis operation. Head coach Toe Blake was afraid it would impair his vision and would not permit him to wear it during regulation play, but during the 1959–60 season, Plante wore a goaltender mask for the first time in a regular season game.

This was because Plante’s nose was broken when he was hit by a shot fired by Andy Bathgate three minutes into a game against the New York Rangers. He was taken to the dressing room for stitches and when he returned, he was wearing the homemade mask he’d been using in practices. His coach was livid. With no other goalie choice and Plante flat out refusing to return to the goal unless he wore the mask, Blake let him play on – but only on the condition Plante discard the mask when the cut healed. The Canadiens won the game 3–1.

Jacques Plante by George Silk (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

The following games proceeded with Plante wearing the mask and Blake became less vocal about it after an unbeaten winning streak stretched to 18 games. The one time Plante didn’t wear the mask, the team were beaten by Detroit in 1960. The mask returned the next night.

Plante introduced the mask to the game as everyday equipment, and it is now mandatory for goaltenders. With the assistance of outside experts, the player was even involved in the development and testing of various versions of the mask, including the forerunner of today’s mask/helmet combination.

The next decade of Plante’s career was again filled with success and only slowed, like for many sports stars, because of injury and illness. In 1975, Plante finally retired from hockey. He moved to Switzerland but remained active on the North American hockey scene as an analyst, adviser, and goaltender trainer. In 1985, the player was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer and he died in a Geneva hospital in February 1986. He was buried in Sierre, Switzerland, and when his coffin was carried from the church following the funeral mass, it passed under an arch of hockey sticks held high by a team of young hockey players from Quebec.

Jacques Plante by George Silk (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

The legacy Plante left is monumental in relation to the way ice hockey is played today. Plante was one of the first goaltenders to skate behind the net to stop the puck, he was the first to raise his arm on an icing call to let his defenseman know what was happening, and he perfected a stand-up, positional style, cutting down the angles. Through this he became one of the first goaltenders to write a how-to book about the position. Before, goaltenders had stood passively in the net, deflecting pucks as they came to them. Plante changed all of this and brought about new and exciting style of play for goaltenders.

In 1978, Plante was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and into the Quebec Sports Pantheon in 1994. His jersey, #1, was retired in 1995 by the Montreal Canadiens. Among other honors, the Jacques Plante Trophy was established in Switzerland following the player’s death, and is given out annually to the top Swiss goaltender. Not only did Plante create a more exciting game to watch, he also improved the safety of the game, which is why he is still seen as such an innovative player today.

Jacques Plante by George Silk (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
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