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"Réveille-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.