The wonder of an old team jacket should be that it warms twice: once by wrapping you in body heat, and again by enfolding you in the crest and colors that bring back warm memories. For years, my old team jacket chilled me to the bone.
The jacket may represent a high-water mark of excessive hero worship by an adolescent. The sight of this jacket so embarrassed me that for years I kept it in a garment bag under the cellar stairs. Once in a while, primed by a wave of nostalgia (in turn, primed by a couple of beers), I would wear the jacket while shoveling snow at night or while resurfacing my backyard rink. I never wore it when someone might see it and laugh at me.
Yet I couldn't bring myself to throw the jacket out, or even to look the other way when it fell victim to one of my wife's cellar-cleaning frenzies, as it almost did last year. "But it's just so...so...inexplicably stupid," my wife, Barbara, said after I had declined her invitation to pitch the jacket into a plastic trash bag full of old clothes.
Inexplicable? No, not really. Stupid? Yes. I'll also plead guilty to pretentious, impulsive and immature. But the act was not inexplicable. I can explain it, and this year, above all others, I feel compelled to do so.
It is late March 1962 and the 20 members of St. Mary's CYO hockey team of Winchester, Mass., are gathered in the parish hall to be measured for the jackets that are our reward for an undefeated season. We stand in line in front of a salesman who measures us and then writes down the name or nickname we want stitched on the left sleeve. It is my turn.
"Thirty-four inches," the salesman mutters, writing my sleeve length on his order pad.
"Name? Spell please," he says.
I start to spell my name, "J-A-C..." Then I blow it. But I have help. "...Q-U-E-S," calls out one of my teammates from somewhere near the back of the line. Others laugh. I laugh. It's a big In joke. The "Jacques" my teammate refers to is, of course, Jacques Plante, the great goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens and, as everyone on the St. Mary's team knows, my one and only sports hero.
Sure, I think. Why not? Am I not the team's goaltender? Doesn't my admiration for Plante go so far that I have even tried to ape the man's roving style of play (with absolutely no discernible success except that people have yelled at me, as they did at Plante, "Get back in your bleeping net")? Hadn't I once worn a towel around my neck—a la Plante—during pregame warmups? Wasn't mine an admittedly blatant case of all-out hero worship? Why not, indeed?
"Whaddaya want on the sleeve," the salesman asks.
I go for it. "J-A-C-Q-U-E-S," I say. I laugh. All around me teammates are breaking up. Good joke.
The enormity of that act is made perfectly clear to me a month later, when I take delivery of a jacket that has someone else's name on the sleeve. A foreign name at that. And, even worse, the name of a superstar. Pretentious? No more so than a light-hitting rec league softball player having "Babe" or "Yaz" stitched on his team jacket. A person wouldn't do that even if his name were Babe or Yaz...or Jacques.
I felt uncomfortable wearing the jacket. Too many quizzical looks and involved explanations. "No, it's not my name, see, it's Jacques Plante, and he's a goalie for Montreal and...."
As a result, I ended up having to give the jacket early retirement.
It was Thursday, Feb. 27, 1986. I was still on early-morning cruise control—moving and thinking at half speed—as I walked to the kitchen while riffling through the morning newspaper. The story woke me up in a hurry. "Jacques Plante died," I said to Barbara, and then I read aloud the report that Plante had died of stomach cancer at a hospital near his home in the Valais, Switzerland.
My son, Brian, then 14, came down to breakfast. Maybe to be polite or to humor me, he asked if I thought Plante was the greatest goalie ever. I wanted to say yes. I gave him the most honest answer I could. "He may not have been the greatest, but he was the most important," I said.
In the weeks after his death, I reflected on Plante's contributions to goaltending and on my long fascination with the man. Even without his introduction of the revolutionary roving style, or his popularization of the goalie mask, or his advocacy of goalie coaches—unheard of back then—Plante's records and statistics alone marked him as one of the greatest goalies ever. He won a record seven Vezina Trophies (then awarded to the goalie allowing the fewest goals). He was the only goalie in the last 32 years to win the Hart Trophy (1962) as league MVP. His name was inscribed six times on the Stanley Cup. He had a glittering 2.37 average in 837 regular-season games and an even better 2.16 in 112 playoff games. Only fellow Hall of Famers Terry Sawchuk (103) and Glenn Hall (84) had more career shutouts than Plante (82).
But Plante had more than talent. He had genius. He was a virtuoso and a stylist who, finding it insufficient to merely master one of the toughest positions in sport, went out and re-created it in his own flamboyant image.
Plante shattered what for decades had been the first commandment of goaltending—thou shalt not bother a puck that is not bothering you—in favor of leaving the net to intercept passes and gain possession of the puck for his defensemen. Goalies were supposed to wait for trouble, then try to deal with it as best they could. Thanks to Plante, goalies today can stop trouble before it happens. But, as with most innovations, it was not always well received.
"Rèveille-toi! Wake up!" the Montreal crowd would yell at him on those rare occasions when his wanderings would result in a goal against. In 1960, when a cranky knee led to an early-season slump, Plante was booed by Forum fans. "After seven years all they see are my saves...not my work," he said. "I play pro hockey; I know what it is like. But most of them, they played school hockey. What do they know?"
As that vaguely arrogant reaction suggests, Plante had the air of a haughty sommelier secure in his knowledge of the wine list and contemptuous of the opinions of the Great Unwashed. "What do they know?" Indeed. Today, a goalie who cannot handle the puck cannot expect to make a good high school junior varsity.
And then there was Plante's mask. Except for a brief experiment by Clint Benedict in 1929, NHL goalies did not wear masks because 1) it was considered to be a tacit admission of fear, and 2) the mask was thought to interfere with the goalie's vision.
Plante rejected both points. "The pleasure of the game is to like it, not to think about getting hurt," he said in the mid-'50s, when he started wearing a mask in practice. The mask was partly his own design and had a lot of open space around the eyes so he could see the puck clearly.
No matter. Plante's coach, Toe Blake, disliked the mask and wouldn't let Plante wear it in games. The breakthrough came on Nov. 1, 1959. Early in the first period of a game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, New York's Andy Bathgate smashed Plante's nose with a backhand shot. In those days, NHL teams did not carry spare goalies. The substitute was supplied by the home team and, in this case, that sub would have been one Joe Schaefer, a Madison Square Garden TV technician.
In the dressing room, where Plante's nose was being stitched up, Blake asked his goalie if he could go back in. Plante said he would play only if he would be permitted to wear his mask. Naturally, the Montreal coach gave in to this squeeze play, and that night the man who would thereafter be known as the Masked Marvel led the Canadiens to a 3-1 win. Today, any goalie at any level who steps into the cage without a mask is considered bereft of his senses.
A player who defies coaches, fans and tradition is, clearly, a player who trusts himself. But the obverse of that self-trust was that Plante did not trust anyone else. At least that is the impression I got the one time I met the man.
It was April 1984 and I was covering the Adams Division semifinal playoffs between Montreal and Quebec. Plante was serving as goalie coach for Montreal and had the Canadiens' rookie goalie, Steve Penney, playing like a possible playoff MVP. On Wednesday, April 18, Penney had shut out Quebec 4-0 in Quebec City. I returned to Montreal with the Canadiens immediately after the game, and it was well past midnight when I got on the elevator at my hotel. The only other people in the car were Plante and his wife, Raymonde. Plante and I nodded. He had seen me in the dressing room earlier that night, and I had asked him some questions at a press conference, but we hadn't been introduced. I have never asked an athlete or coach for an autograph—it alters the working relationship—but I thought about making an exception for Plante. I wanted the autograph. Then I looked at it from Plante's point of view. He would have liked the asking but not the asker. I kept my pen in my pocket. But I felt the need for something to say.
With Montreal ahead three games to two in the best-of-seven series and with Penney playing spectacularly, I speculated (correctly, as it turned out) that Penney and Montreal would eliminate Quebec in the next game. "He'll wrap it up Friday," I said to Plante and then added—I don't know why, other than to make conversation—"if his friends don't let him down."
Plante said nothing. The elevator arrived at his floor. The door slid open and Plante put his arm in front of it, holding it back while his wife stepped off. Then Plante stepped out and, with his arm still holding the door, smiled and said, "A goalie has no friends. Good night." The door slid shut.
Was that a joke or did Plante really think that way? I don't know. But what I do know, from all I've heard and read in my 30-year obsession with the man, is that he was not one to seek friends or curry favor. Or, as his ex-Montreal teammate Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion once put it, "Oh, that Plante. He was a very good goalie, eh? But he don't go to no parties."
Yet his own found him. There are NHL goalies past and present to whom Plante was more than a friend. As goalie coach for the Philadelphia Flyers from 1976 to 1982, Plante coached the magnificent Bernie Parent in 1978-79, Parent's last year of play. His place as one of the game's greats already secure, Parent could easily have resented Plante or rejected his coaching. I once asked Parent how he felt about Plante.
"Before, I just play by instinct," said Parent. "Now, Jacques has me thinking about everything and handling the puck more. Now, I don't just react. I know what I am doing."
We were in the visitors' dressing room in Boston Garden, and Parent was getting dressed while he talked to me. As I started to leave, Parent reached out and jabbed at my notebook. "You put down there that he was the tops. The best. The [bleeping] best," he said.
I put it down.
A few seasons ago, Buffalo's young goaltender, then Rookie of the Year, Tom Barrasso, told me that he had a copy of Plante's now out-of-print book, Goal-tending (Collier Macmillan Canada Ltd., 1972). The book was dog-eared, tattered and falling apart, said Barrasso, because he had read it so many times.
And, last season, when the St. Louis Blues announced that Plante would be hired as goalie coach (this was just before his cancer was diagnosed), an ecstatic Rick Wamsley, one of the Blues' goalies, said that being coached by Plante was "like being able to go to a library and take out every book ever written about playing goal."
But shortly after he joined the Blues, Plante complained of not feeling well. He was tested in a St. Louis hospital and his cancer was discovered. He went home to Switzerland to die.
I have thought about Plante a lot since that day last February. I still think that having his name stitched on my hockey jacket was a stupid thing to do. But I also think that it might be time now to haul that old jacket out of the garment bag. To come out of the closet, so to speak.
I'm going to wear that jacket a few times this year. To the store. To the town rink. To a high school game. Wherever a hockey jacket is not inappropriate. If people laugh, I will laugh, too. But if anyone asks me about it, I will tell them—as briefly as I can (there's no point adding boorishness to stupidity)—that in my youth, Plante was a man I greatly admired. And if they want to know why, I will tell them.
If one is to have only one sports hero in life, then one should choose him carefully. I think Jacques Plante was a worthy choice. I'm proud of that.
Jack Falla is the manager-custodian of his backyard rink, The Bacon Street Omni.