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Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey [Hardcover]

Todd Denault
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Review

"In this engaging bio Todd Denault tells the story of a trailblazer."
Sports Illustrated

"A fascinating read, meticulously researched." 
— Scott Morrison

"A well researched and thorough examination of the life of an extraordinarily talented hockey player and complex man." 
— Al Strachan

"This is a long overdue examination of one of hockey's pivotal players and most colourful characters — but Todd Denault has made the wait worthwhile." 
— Roy MacGregor

"A complete, well-researched portrait of a complex man." 
— Montreal Gazette

"After just a few pages into this book it was obvious Todd Denault had written an instant classic. I can not recommend this book enough." 
— Hockeybookreviews.com

About the Author

A member of the Society for International Hockey Research, Todd Denault is a freelance writer who has had his work featured in numerous online and print publications. A graduate of Carleton University and Lakehead University, Todd resides in Cobourg, Ontario. This is his first book.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

THE SEEDS OF THE MAN
 
 
Located on the Saint-Maurice River, almost halfway between Montreal and Quebec City, at the turn of the century Shawinigan Falls (as it was known then; in 1958, the city dropped the Falls from its name) was a thriving town that was the first in the country to produce aluminum and employed thousands in the pulp and paper, chemical, and textile industries.
 
In the 1930s, with the onset of the Depression, many of those factory jobs disappeared under the weight of the economic downturn. In an effort to help families hit by the loss of employment, the city council enacted a variety of public works programs that included building a hockey arena.
 
Bolstered by their new arena, Shawinigan was granted a franchise in the nascent Quebec Senior Hockey League in the fall of 1945. A semi-professional league that operated in the area between the junior league and the National Hockey League, the QSHL, then made up of seven franchises, produced a high quality of hockey that gave many players overlooked by the professionals a chance to continue playing for money while keeping their NHL dreams alive. Overnight, the Cataractes became the toast of the town, a source of civic pride, and gave the youngsters a team of players to idolize.
 
That same fall, a teenage boy, full of dreams and self-assurance, stood in front of the newly built arena and asked if the Cataractes needed any help.
 
"I was standing outside the door of the rink in the Shawinigan Arena where the Shawinigan team in the Quebec Senior Hockey League played its home games," remembered Jacques Plante many years later. "I noticed that they had only one practice goalie and asked the trainer whether I could help out. Although I was fifteen years old by this time, he told me to 'go away. You're still wearing a diaper.'"
 
The name of that condescending trainer has been lost to history. What this trainer had no way of knowing was that in fifty years this young man's name would be emblazoned over the door when the arena was named in his honour.
 
Jacques, the oldest child of Xavier and Palma Plante, was born in a wooden farmhouse near Mont Carmel in Mauricie, Quebec, on January 17, 1929. Soon afterwards, Xavier moved with his wife and baby to Shawinigan Falls, where he had secured employment with the Aluminum Company of Canada Limited.
 
"Dad was a machinist who had to work hard – harder than any man I have ever known," Jacques later said. "He even got a temporary job during his holidays while working for the aluminum company – just to raise a bit more money. He had a bicycle to get him to and from work, two miles each way. I can't recall him taking a single day off. Whenever I won an award in the NHL, I thought of my father and the pride he would get in reading about it and having people mention it to him."
 
Jacques was not an only child for long. Over the next thirteen years, he would be joined by five brothers and five sisters. With a burgeoning family, Palma Plante found her time at a premium, so as they got older each of the children was expected to help with the household chores. Being the oldest in such a large family meant that Jacques was given responsibilities rare for many his age. His chores included scrubbing floors, cooking, and changing diapers. With not much in the way of extra money, most of the children's clothing was handmade, and Jacques became proficient with a needle, some thread, and yarn. These were skills he carried into his adulthood and contributed to his legend.
 
With such a big brood and only one income, everyone in the Plante house was required to sacrifice some of the things that others better off were able to enjoy. This was most apparent to little Jacques in the hot summer months, when he was allowed to wear shoes only for Sunday Mass or the odd special event. Most times he went barefoot.
 
"The shoes proved everything is relative," Plante wrote later. "All of us kids in the neighbourhood had to go shoeless for the same reason – all except the landlord's son, because his father had more income."
 
Years later, when his hockey career had taken him away from his impoverished beginnings, many teammates as well as members of the press were taken aback by Plante's habit of knitting his own undershirts, socks, toques, and scarves. But he would always speak with pride of his ability to knit a pair of socks in a day and a toque in a mere three and a half hours. Throughout his life, Plante used knitting as a form of relaxation, oblivious to the reaction of those around him; this was his way to unwind after being the target of onrushing pucks. However, typical of the man, there was also a practical side to his needlework.
 
"I can't get what I want in the stores," Plante explained of his choice in undergarments, "so I knit [them]. I use four-ply wool. They must not be too warm. I use larger needles because small ones produce a thicker weaving and the holes are too small."
 
As an adult, Jacques Plante was misunderstood by many around him. They questioned why he continued to knit, why he was so frugal with his money, and why he kept his distance from those closest to him. The answers to many of these questions lay in his childhood.
 
"He grew up poor and was very proud of it," explains sportswriter Frank Orr. "He learned a lot of good lessons from it. He was deprived because there was no money around, but it taught Jacques the value of a dollar."
 
"He was very careful with money," confirms his former teammate Dickie Moore. "He came up poor and he grew up the right way. He didn't spend what he didn't have and he saved what he had. I admired him for that – he was an individual. There's a reason he kept his money. He wanted to end up with something, and that's what he did."
 
Plante never forgot his impoverished roots. It's what drove him, what motivated him to always reach higher. It instilled in him selfconfidence, and a belief that he alone could shape his destiny. And despite the poverty, Plante always retained a certain fondness for his childhood.
 
In the early 1970s, when Plante was plying his trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Frank Orr, a writer with the Toronto Star, was commissioned by his editor to write a special Christmas column. Orr was given the assignment of asking each player to share a remembrance of their most cherished Christmas memories.
 
Plante told Orr how his father would buy two bottles of ginger ale on his way home from work every Christmas Eve. This was the only day when the Plante children would taste a carbonated beverage.
 
"We'd have soft drinks then and I can still taste them," Plante told Orr. "Would you believe that the champagne I have drank on six occasions out of the Stanley Cup didn't have the same tang? Being poor doesn't necessarily mean no enjoyment from life."
 
Another source of enjoyment for young Jacques was the outdoors. He and his friends played games at every spare moment, whether during recess at school or on the weekends. Sports provided an escape from hard reality.
 
Baseball was extremely popular with many, and Plante always felt that this may have been the sport he was best at. But for any child growing up in Quebec at that time, all other sports took a back seat to one overriding passion: hockey.
 
Jacques Plante couldn't tell you when he began playing hockey. He was told by others that he started playing a form of the game, with a ball and without skates, at the age of three, the same age he learned to skate. "Growing up, Shawinigan was a big hockey town," recalls Marcel Pronovost, a childhood friend of Plante's. "We organized and managed a lot of the games ourselves. In all the schools we had an hour and a half for lunch and every class had a team and we played at noon. Every school had an outdoor ice rink then."
 
Like most children, Jacques was naturally curious about goaltending, but he quickly discovered that a frozen tennis ball hurt, and that a puck hurt even more. Besides, he found that he had an affinity for skating.
 
And then at the tender age of five, something happened that would forever alter Jacques' path in life. He was climbing up the ladder of the playground slide when suddenly he lost his balance and fell hard to the ground, breaking his left wrist. However, the real damage took place in the ensuing weeks and months when the wrist didn't heal properly, leaving Jacques unable to turn his left palm outward, which made it especially difficult to catch pucks.
 
Jacques had quickly fallen in love with the game of hockey. He enjoyed skating, but when he skated hard, he had trouble getting his breath. He was soon diagnosed as being asthmatic. Unlike his wrist, which was surgically healed decades later, asthma was a constant companion throughout his life.
 
"If it wasn't for my asthma," Jacques said later, "I would certainly have remained on defence and possibly never gotten beyond school hockey."
 
When it became clear that Jacques had no choice but to play in net – where no fast skating was required – his supportive father presented his five-year-old son with his first goal stick, carved from a big tree root. When he was seven, his father bought him a proper goalie stick for Christmas. That same year, Xavier stuffed potato sacks into wooden panels to give Jacques his first set of goalie pads.
 
It was during these early days spent outdoors that Jacques developed one of his most enduring trademarks. Standing alone in the net in those bitterly cold winters, bare-faced and bare-headed, Jacques soon found himself frantically knitting toques to cover his frostbitten ears. The toque would become a staple and would be worn indoors and outdoors right up until his professional debut.
 
During this time Plante also discovered that he didn't always fit in with the other children. "Looking back I know it began when my fat...
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