Tuesday 2 December 2014

Nothing Sweeter than Gingerale for Christmas

"Would you believe that the champagne I have drunk on six occasions from the Stanley Cup didn't have the same tang [as the gingerale I drank once a year at Christmas as a boy].  Being poor doesn't necessarily mean no enjoyment in life."

Jacques Plante was born in Mauricie, Quebec in a wooden farmhouse.  The first of eleven children, Jacques' parents struggled to make ends meet.  Mr. Plante soon acquired a job at the aluminum factory in Shawnigan falls and the family moved there.

While the family was poor, that wasn't about to stop Jacques from playing hockey.  His father carved him a hockey stick out of a tree root.  He used a tennis ball as a puck.  Unable to afford skates, he slid around the ice in his boots.  His ears would get frostbitten in the frigid Quebec winters.  Soon he taught himself how to knit his own tuques, which would not only keep him warm but later became a good luck charm.

As a young boy, he fell off a ladder and broke his wrist,  Still he did not let the injury discourage him from playing hockey.  In 1936, his Dad gave him his first regulation hockey stick.  Once he received a pair of skates, he became an avid skater.  However, he developped asthma and could not skate for long periods of time.  To solve the problem, he switched from defenseman to goaltender.  His father made him homemade goalie pads by stuffing potato sacks and inserting wooden panels.  He felt comfortable in net.  The asthma was a blessing in disguise:  Plante maintained that if he had remained on defense he wouldn't have made it past high school hockey.  But as a goalie, he shined.

Life was not all play, however.  As the oldest of 11 children, Jacques had many chores including cooking, scrubbing floors and changing diapers.  He even learned how to sew since the family couldn't afford to buy new clothes.  Shoes were reserved for Sunday mass; the rest of the week Jacques went barefoot.  Treats were a luxury in the Plantes household.  The highlight of the year for Jacques was Christmas Eve when his father would stop on his way home from work and buy two bottles of gingerale.  It was the only time Jacques and his siblings drank pop -- how sweet it was!

Another treat for Plante was listening to professional hockey games.  Plante became a fan of the NHL early on.  However, his family could not afford a radio.  No problem -- the man upstairs would blast the hockey broadcasts so loud that if Jacques stood on his sister's bureau, he could hear them perfectly.  In the 1940's, standing on the bureau, he listened to the greats play, including Maurice "Rocket" Richard.

By 14 years of age, Plante was playing for four teams including the local factory team.  His dad said he should demand a salary considering all of the adult players were getting one.  The coach agreed to 50 cents per game.  Despite other offers to play hockey, Plante stayed in high school and graduated with honours in 1947.

The Quebec Citadelles hired him to play for 85 dollars per week.  By this time, Plante had acquired the nickname "Jake the Snake".  He pioneered the idea of playing the puck outside the crease, unorthodox for a goalie.  Plante figured that the more time he was in control of the puck, the less time that his opponent had to shoot on him.  Although his coach at the time hated the idea, it was later adopted by all goalies.

By 1949. Plante was invited to play for the Royal Montreal Hockey Club.  In 1953, he played his first game in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens.  While his play was impressive, coach Dick Irvin didn't like the fact that he wore a tuque.  The two argured and Plante's tuques disappeared from his dressing room.  Even without his good luck charm, Plante played good hockey.  Within a couple of seasons, he was the starting goaltender with the Habs.  They won five consecutive Stanley cups and six in total with Plante in net.

Plante started wearing a face mask during practices to protect himself.  However, coaches forbid him to wear it in regulation play.  In 1959, Plante's nose was broken during a game.  In the dressing room he received stitches.  He refused to return to the game unless he could wear his mask.  Without another goalie available, the coach relented.  Plante came out on the ice with the mask, which he never took off, making history.

Read Jacques Plante:  The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey.  Here is an excerpt:

Jacques Plante, wearing his trademark tuque, circa 1948 courtesy upload.wikimedia.org.

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