Acquired to provide guidance to a rebuilding team, the legendary goaltender provided the 1970/'71 Maple Leafs with a spectacular season.
Jacques Plante was not where he wanted to be during the 1970 Stanley Cup finals. During game one, the St. Louis Blues goaltender was knocked out cold after a shot from Boston Bruin Fred Stanfield shattered his face mask. The 41-year-old veteran netminder spent the next few days recovering from a concussion in a St. Louis hospital, where he was swarmed by reporters from Toronto. While curious about his condition, one question was on their minds: were the rumours true that “Jake the Snake” would become a Maple Leaf?
Surprised, Plante sat up in his bed and dismissed the story as silly. “It’s not that I don’t think highly of Toronto,” he told the press corps, “but you fellows know only too well the trouble I’ve had there with my asthma. The last thing that can happen to me is Toronto.” Speculation continued even though announcements from Leafs management indicated that, despite a last place finish during the 1969/’70 season, they were happy with the goaltending tandem of Bruce Gamble and Marv Edwards. Sportswriter Jim Proudfoot speculated in the Hockey News that Plante would fill in the role held by recently retired Johnny Bower of “the big stopper who’ll win the important matches, no matter what blunders are committed in front of him and who’ll make the impossible stops at times when it’ll interrupt opposition momentum and give his own colleagues a lift.” Proudfoot suspected that one or two excellent seasons from Plante would give the Leafs time for their young defensemen to develop and to find goaltending prospects for the future.
Plante was released from the hospital in time to join the rest of the Blues for a post-season vacation in Miami Beach. While waiting for a bus to the airport at the end of the trip, Blues coach/general manager Scotty Bowman pulled Plante aside and told him the secret he kept since the trip began: Plante was heading to the Leafs as part of a three-team deal which earlier sent Tim Horton from Toronto to the New York Rangers. The Blues decided to protect their other, slightly younger goalies (Glenn Hall and Ernie Wakely) in the upcoming expansion draft which would admit Buffalo and Vancouver to the league. Plante reassuring Bowman that he would have made the same move, then thanked him for two wonderful seasons with the Blues since ending a three-year retirement from the NHL in 1968. Bowman later admitted letting Plante go was a big mistake.
After the trade was officially announced in late May 1970, Plante spent the off-season launching Fibrosport, a hockey equipment manufacturer specializing in goalie masks. Ever since he revolutionized hockey by donning his first face protector a decade earlier, Plante had continually refined his masks. To avoid a repeat of his recent hospitalization, he tested a mask which withstood the impact of a puck fired from an air cannon at 135 miles an hour. To avoid distraction during the upcoming season, Plante handed day-to-day production management to his 19-year-old son.
Team doctors were impressed when Plante reported to training camp in September 1970, finding his condition as good as rookies two decades younger. To prepare, he dropped his five-cigar-a-day smoking habit. Leafs executive Harold Ballard boasted that “in orthodox medicine, Plante’s health is expressed this way: 20-20 vision, age 41, 183 pounds, 140 over 80 blood pressure, and seven Vezina Trophies.” To alleviate Plante’s asthma, the team rented him an apartment on higher ground near Yonge Street and Highway 401 and arranged weekly tests at Sunnybrook Hospital. “I’ve never seen doctors anywhere else who seem so interested in finding what’s wrong,” he told the Globe and Mail.
As the season opener approached, Plante was confident about his skills. “I think I’m a better goalie now than before I retired in 1965,” he told the Hockey News. “In a couple of seasons watching hockey, I learned a great many things about goalkeeping and about the players I’d have to face—things I didn’t know before, I think that knowledge makes me better.” He made one concession to his age—“I need more time to get over a game than before. It takes a day of rest to get me back to normal.”
The team started 1970/’71 poorly, battling with the Buffalo Sabres for last place in the East Division. Play improved after Plante recovered from an injury, centre George Armstrong ended a brief retirement, and former Leaf star defenseman Bob Baun was reacquired from the Detroit Red Wings. Coach John McLellan gave Plante the freedom to choose which games to play and treated him like an assistant coach, giving him free reign to advise the team’s younger defenders. Qualities Plante was criticized for—being a know-it-all chatterbox—were embraced by the rebuilding Leafs. Players were impressed by the extensive notes he kept on opposing players and arenas. As Jim Proudfoot noted in the Star, Plante became the team’s “beloved patriarch,” who saved the team’s youth “from the jackpots their boyish mistakes bring on.” Reporters often used him for quotes, and commented on his frugal lifestyle and habit of knitting his own undershirts, which grew out of childhood poverty.
Plante soon embraced the city of Toronto. “I am still amazed at what a nice place Toronto is to live in,” he noted in his autobiography. “My view had been limited to hotel windows and unfriendly fans in the Gardens but, suddenly, I found both Toronto and its people altogether different. Maybe that’s been the trouble in our country; we just don’t get around and meet the neighbours in other provinces.
It’s hard to say what effect the supportive atmosphere had on his play, but as the season unfolded everyone realized they were witnessing an amazing performance. By the time he turned 42 in January 1971, Plante had a goals against average hovering under 2.00 and a pair of shutouts to his credit. In games he didn’t play in, the team had a losing record. A poll conducted by the Star of coaches around the league named Plante the top goalie. “If I had to win one particular game,” one coach noted, “Plante’s the guy I’d want to have going for me. It’s unbelievable, but he keeps getting better and better.” As the team rose in the standings, so did Plante’s volume of fan mail. He provided handwritten responses for up to 200 letters daily, though he saved time by providing a printed list of 15 key tips for aspiring players.
While his asthma was kept under control, Plante suffered a late-season injury whose true nature was covered up to prevent embarrassment. While lounging poolside during a roadtrip to Los Angeles, Plante suffered severe facial sunburn which prevented him from wearing his mask. The press was told he was rushed to hospital for “a badly infected face.” General manager Jim Gregory claimed the infection was caused by a botched dental cleaning. Plante drew on his legendary hypochondria when he told reporters that at first he thought he had a boil in his nose, then the mumps.
When the season ended, Plante recorded 24 wins, 11 losses, and four ties. In games he didn’t play or have a decision in, the Leafs managed 13 wins, 22 losses, and four ties. Plante also had four shutouts and a stunning goals against average of 1.88. How incredible his season was became clear years later, when hockey buff Edward Yuen tracked a statistic that wasn’t in use back in 1970/’71, save percentage. After piecing together every goalie’s performance, Yuen discovered Plante blocked 94.2 per cent of the shots he faced, giving him a .942 save percentage, which was over two percent better than the next netminder. Since the NHL began tracking the statistic in the early 1980s, the closest anyone has come to Plante’s figure is Brian Elliott, who reached .940 with the Blues in 2011/’12.
During the first round of the playoffs against the New York Rangers, Plante split goaltending duties with Bernie Parent, who reluctantly came to the Leafs in a blockbuster trade in January 1971. “Jacques Plante came over and grabbed my arm,” Parent remembered. “Cripes, Plante was like a god to me. I had been watching him on TV since I was a kid. Now I was on the same team with him. It was then that I knew even though I still felt the hurt over the Philadelphia trade, this trade was going to be the best thing that ever happened to me in hockey.” Plante’s mentoring helped Parent lead the Flyers to two Stanley Cups upon his return to Philadelphia a few seasons later. The veteran came to his student’s rescue after Parent’s mask was tossed into the stands by Vic Hadfield of the New York Rangers in a brawl during game two of the playoffs. Parent refused to play without it, leaving Plante to fill in for the remaining four minutes of the game. As the Star observed, “when a goalie loses his favourite face mask, it is handy to have the manufacturer occupying bench space in the same dressing room.” Plante made a quick call to Magog, where Fibrosport prepared a new mask for Parent in time for game three. Harold Ballard insisted that the Rangers pay the $150 bill for Parent’s new facewear.
Clip from Face Off. Jacques Plante appears at the 14-second mark.
Plante’s magic ran out in game six, when a Bob Nevin goal nine minutes into overtime eliminated the Leafs. Despite this, he was rewarded for his efforts through the season with a spot on the NHL’s second all-star team. He was among the Leafs who appeared in the movie Face Off, though he annoyed the filmmakers by stopping several shots from former Leaf Mike Walton when he was supposed to let one go by. Plante stayed with Toronto until he was traded to the Boston Bruins during their Stanley Cup drive in March 1973. After a stint as coach/general manager of the Quebec Nordiques, he returned to the ice for a season with the Edmonton Oilers before hanging up his skates at age 46 in 1975. He continued to mentor other goalies until his death from cancer in February 1986.
Additional material from The Hockey Compendium by Jeff Z. Klein and Karl-Eric Reif (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2001), Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey by Todd Denault (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2009), The Jacques Plante Story by Andy O’Brien with Jacques Plante (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1972), and the following newspapers: the June 1970 and October 16, 1970 editions of the Hockey News, the September 10, 1970, December 5, 1970, and April 10, 1971 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the January 2, 1971. March 13, 1971, and March 26, 1971 editions of the Toronto Star.