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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 father gave me my first real goaler stick for Christmas," Plante told reporter Andy O'Brien years later. "Although I was only 7 years old that stick got me invited to play with kids 11 and 12 years old. But after we played they didn't want me around. I was left alone off the ice. I didn't resent it because I didn't know any better."
When it came to goaltending and the game of hockey, Plante demonstrated a seriousness about the game not found in many others his age. "For me to be the best possible goalie, I had to learn as much about the game as I could," Plante later explained. "Nobody ever taught me the way to play goal. I was never coached at the position. The skills I developed were learned from personal experience and from studying the mistakes made by other goalies. Of course, hockey is a physical game, and maintaining the best conditioning is important. But playing goal is really a very scientific thing, and that's the approach I tried to take."
Such was Jacques' talent and confidence that at the age of 12, while attending Ecole St. Maurice, he managed to land the goaltending position on the high-school team, which consisted of boys 17 and 18 years of age.
"I still remember the day as if it were yesterday," reflected Plante. "Cold? It was really cruel and the team was practicing on the outdoor rink. What happened between the coach and the goalie wasn't quite clear but the only thing that interested me was the empty net. The goalie had been bawled out, didn't like it and left. I offered to take his place. There was nobody else available. The coach looked around before agreeing with some reluctance to allow a 12-year-old between the posts. But I skated into the net and stayed there – not only that day but for the rest of the season."
Being the goalie on the school team was the first step towards Jacques' ultimate goal: manning the nets for the Montreal Canadiens. Hockey had always been a passion; now he dreamed of making it his livelihood.
"It was the dream of every boy growing up in Quebec in the thirties and forties to one day put on the uniform of the Montreal Canadiens," Plante's future teammate Jean Béliveau wrote later. "I was no different from anyone else who loved playing hockey during that era. We would practice for hours after school in the rink we had in our backyard. By playing outdoors we learned to stickhandle and develop other skills that might one day allow us to play for the Canadiens."
"We couldn't afford a radio," Plante recalled, "but, luckily the man upstairs used to turn up the hockey broadcasts real loud. By standing on the bureau in the girls' room I could hear the broadcasts through the ceiling. In the spring of 1944, when the Canadiens beat the Black Hawks for the Stanley Cup, I listened to those exciting Canadien names coming down through the ceiling – Rocket Richard – Toe Blake – Elmer Lach – Butch Bouchard. When Bill Durnan made a big save in goal, I would try to 'help' him by sticking out a leg or a hand. Believe me, all of those Canadiens seemed to be 10 feet tall!"
Soon afterwards Jacques Plante was so rudely dismissed by a trainer at the entrance of the Shawinigan Arena. This rejection would have shattered a less self-assured 15-year-old, but Jacques, even at this young age, was bursting with confidence. He disregarded the trainer and went straight to the coach of the Cataractes and boldly asked if the team required a practice goalie. Expecting Jacques to fall flat on his face, the coach inserted the boy into a practice of semi-professional players, but was stunned when Jacques not only held his own but shone. Jacques, who had never skated in the Shawinigan Arena before, now found himself the centre of attention. The manager of the arena, in awe of Plante's play, told him that from this point forward he was always welcome at the arena.
Suddenly, at the age of 15, Jacques Plante was in demand. In addition to being the practice goalie for the Senior League Cataractes, he was playing goal in three other age levels simultaneously: midget, juvenile, and junior. "We played together in midget category for Quebec schools," Marcel Pronovost remembers. Plante "was in the nets when we won the Quebec provincial championship."
Unlike many of his classmates, who dropped out of school to chase their hockey dreams, Jacques stayed in school to get the high-school diploma that his parents desperately wanted him to receive. Not that the offers weren't tempting.
The word on Jacques Plante started to spread beyond the local rink and the boundaries of Shawinigan. The wooden benches at the Shawinigan Arena were now filling up with people eager to see the local prodigy, who almost always seemed to be patrolling the goal no matter who was playing. He received an offer to play in England with the pay starting at $80 a week. He was offered a tryout with the Providence Reds of the American Hockey League. His parents stood firm and refused the offers; Jacques Plante had to finish high school first. However, there was one offer he did accept. The local factory team, which played once a week, asked the 15-year-old to join them.
Soon after Jacques started with the factory team, his father pointed out to him that he was in a unique position. All the other players worked at the factory and were paid accordingly. Having watched a few games, Xavier Plante knew that his son was the factor in the team's newfound success, and since he didn't work at the factory, he also was aware that his son was playing for free. Perhaps there was some way that Jacques could be financially compensated? It didn't take long for Jacques to approach the coach, who quickly accepted the weakness of his own bargaining position and capitulated.
"It wasn't my best contract," Plante laughed years later, "but it looked big at the time. I would receive fifty cents a game on the condition that I didn't tell the other players. Fifty cents a week is important money when you're part of a family where soft drinks were only served at Christmas."
Plante may have missed out on his best offer, however. "I grew up in Shawinigan with Marcel Pronovost. We were close friends and played a lot of hockey together. I almost ended up going to Detroit with him. What happened was, a Detroit scout from Quebec City came to Shawinigan to look at four players: Marcel, the Wilson brothers, Johnny and Larry, and me. I wasn't there that night so he signed up the other three and went back home. It was lucky for me that I didn't sign with them. Their regular goalie was Harry Lumley and they had young guys like Terry Sawchuk and Glenn Hall in their system at the time and I might not have gotten a chance to play. I would have disappeared somewhere, especially in Ontario where they had their farm clubs and I didn't speak a word of English. I would have been lost."
And so Jacques Plante stayed behind, and while his friends followed their dream, he continued on with his studies, and graduated from high school at age 18 in the spring of 1947.
He immediately took a job as a factory clerk alongside his father to help the family. But it was apparent to everyone in town that his future lay elsewhere. He had been given a brief taste of semi-professional hockey that year when he played in one game for the Cataractes. Now when he wasn't working at the factory, he was working on what he considered his true profession – goaltending. Spending up to four hours each day in the nets, he kept himself sharp for the opportunity that he was sure would present itself.
From the Hardcover edition.