Montreal is a hybrid, often confusing town where an elevator is an ascenseur and a good cigar is a fum�e. But until recently there was no confusion, linguistically or otherwise, about Jacques Plante. No matter how you pronounced it, he was simply the best goal tender in hockey. Then suddenly, two months ago, he wasn't. Jacques Plante, Vartiste of the nets, the goalie saws peur et sans reproche, the winner of his craft's Oscar for five straight years, the perennial, irreplaceable bulwark of the top team in hockey, went down to a third-rate club in a minor league. His place in the Canadiens' nets was taken by a nice little guy named Charlie Hodge.
Today one cannot spend five minutes in Montreal without hearing, in French or English, an explanation for this bizarre turnabout. Plante cooled off, they will tell you. Plante is hurt. Plante is being taught a lesson in humility. Plante asked to be sent down. Plante was thrown out kicking and screaming. Plante will be back next week. Plante will never be back. Says a brooding, chastened Plante himself: "I have to face the fact, I may not play again for the Canadiens this year." The French-language newspaper Le Dimanche-Matin congratulated the banished goaltender for having "beaucoup de guts" about the demotion.
The only goalie ever to win the Vezina Trophy five times, Plante brought new ways to the old art of goaltending. He roamed far from the nets, sometimes passed all the way up to the forward line. He wore a mask. He shouted instructions to his teammates. And he made enemies.
Plante opened the current season by announcing that he didn't care if he ever won the Vezina again: "It is too much strain on me." He said he would be happy merely if the Canadiens won the league race and the Stanley Cup playoffs. The statement had a sour sound to the other Canadiens' players. What better way to win the league championship than to keep the other teams from scoring; in a word, to try to win the Vezina? Already some of the more temperamental of his teammates were nursing injured feelings about Plante. They resented his habit of throwing his hands in the air at the end of winning games. It almost seemed, they thought, as though he were saying, "Look at me, I did it again!" His income, upwards of $20,000, rankled players who were making downwards of $10,000. Among some Canadiens, there was a distinct feeling that Jacques Plante was getting more attention than any single player deserved.
The Canadiens' defense, hampered partially by key injuries, began collapsing in front of Plante. To make matters worse, an old knee injury flared up. "I would be all right at the beginning of a game," he recalls, "but if I had to fall on the knee or make a split, it would begin to pain." At the end of 21 games, Plante and the Canadiens had lost seven and tied two, a horrible record for the New York Yankees of hockey. The great Jacques, whose lifetime "goals-against" average was a phenomenal 2.1, had let 3.2 goals slip by per game.
As the season advanced, the internal dissension grew worse. On dining cars one would see Plante alone at a table for four, while the other Canadiens cliqued off together. Coach Hector (Toe) Blake became openly critical of Plante, said he would be a better goal tender if he would take off his mask and not worry so much about facial injuries. Club Director Frank Selke specifically ordered Plante to abandon his flamboyant sorties away from the goalmouth, to cut down on his ex-hortatory shouting at other players, to desist from raising his hands in victory; in other words, to stop being Plante.
A little boy
In Detroit on Nov. 23, Plante's knee was banged in a practice session, and the next night two soft goals beat the Canadiens 3 to 1. Now they had the excuse they were looking for. Charlie Hodge was called up from the minors; Plante was benched. Nobody believed it would stick.
Canadiens' V.P. Ken Reardon recalls what happened after that: "Reporters would crowd around me when Hodge would win a game and they'd say it was a fluke. 'When you gonna take him out?' they'd ask. 'He'll crack, he's no good.' Then Hodge would have a shutout and the reporters would crowd around again and warn us that sooner or later the roof was gonna fall in. Well, the fact is we're winning with Hodge, and so long as we keep winning with him he's gonna stay right where he is."
Charlie Hodge is 5 feet 6, weighs 147 pounds, and may best be described in the words of a female fan who watched him at Madison Square Garden recently. "Whoever is that little boy in the goal?" she asked in shrill anxiety.