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.