The Most Transformative Goalie

A few weeks back, I briefly waded into the debate about the greatest goalie in NHL history.  My sympathies rest with Martin Brodeur, as his career long excellence is unmatched even by other greats like Terry Sawchuk, Patrick Roy, and Dominik Hasek.  In comments on that post, Verdun and I briefly recapped the merits of Ken Dryden, who might have had the best peak of any goalie.  But one great goalie was conspicuously left out:  the great Jacques Plante.  Though Plante is not the greatest goalie ever, he is the one who truly transformed the position.  I once posted on the all-time transformative baseball team; if I did the same for hockey, Plante would have to be the goalie.

First, Plante was a great goalie, regardless of anything he contributed to the game. He won 7 Vezina Trophies in his time, an all-time record approached only by Hasek’s 6. As a goalie, Plante led his team to 6 Stanley Cups, including an NHL record 5 straight. Nevertheless, as good as his numbers are, he does not quite match up with the other legendary goaltenders. For his career, he is 6th in wins, 5th in shutouts. and 7th in adjusted goals against. Great, but not Brodeur. At this point, we must remember the transformation he wrought on the game of hockey.

In 1959, Plante changed the game of hockey forever. In 1956, Plante had suffered from sinusitis. In order to protect the illness, Plante wore a primitive mask in practice, but in games he went maskless like all other goalies that had ever played. On November 1, 1959, his nose was broken in the first period of a game on a shot by Andy Bathgate. After getting stitched up, Plante returned to the game wearing his old practice mask. With this, Plante introduced the world to the goalie mask. Imagine, for a second, a world in which hockey goalies do not wear masks. In 2009, Zdeno Chara set the record for hardest shot ever, with a shot of 105.4 mph during All Star festivities. Goalies would be facing hockey pucks harder than baseballs shot directly at them at speeds faster than Nolan Ryan’s fastball without a mask. Goalies would die regularly. Instead, Plante changed everything with the most common sense bit of safety equipment in all of professional sports.

Was Plante as good as Brodeur? Probably not. Has Brodeur lived longer because of Plante’s invention? Almost certainly. It is tough to imagine the NHL surviving without someone inventing the hockey mask. For that, Jacques Plante earned our thanks and respect. Greatest ever he is not, but no one changed the position quite like Jacques Plante.

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