Jacques Plante was one of the greatest goaltenders to ever strap on a pair of pads. But when he came to the Rangers in a blockbuster 1963 trade it became all too apparent that on most nights, he like any other goaltender is only as good as the team in front of him.
Plante became a Ranger on June 4th 1963 when he was traded along with Donnie Marshall and Phil Goyette for Gump Worsley, Dave Balon, Leon Rochefort and Len Ronson.
Jacques was shocked by the deal, after all he had won six Vezina trophies and six Stanley Cups in his 10 years in Montreal. But over time, he had worn out his welcome with coach Toe Blake as well as his teammates.
He was traded because the Canadiens could not depend on him due to all of his injuries and illnesses, either real or imagined. His coach Toe Blake thought he was a hypochondriac. And his teammates were not sad to see him go either. “It might have been a surprise when he was traded,” said Henri Richard, “but nobody complained”.
But the Rangers had high hopes for Plante and gave him a $24,000 a year contract that ranked near the top of the NHL pay scale in those days. It was certainly much more than he made in Montreal. Plante was also given special privileges like staying at a different hotel if one of his many allergies kicked up. The Rangers also said that if necessary they would book flights that would get Jacques to road games two hours before the opening face-off and allow him to skip practices when he felt he needed a rest.
At his first press conference as a Ranger, Plante claimed that he still “had it” and blamed much of his problems on the pressure or playing in Montreal, where he was expected to “win every game”. He also blamed his many health problems on the Montreal winters saying that the milder New York climate would be good for him. Unfortunately his bitterness began to show as he took the opportunity to take digs at the Canadiens.
“The Rangers are on their way up and the Canadiens are on their way down”, Plante proclaimed. “Geoffrion doesn’t have as hard a shot as he used to. Beliveau has been sick, Henri Richard loses too many scoring chances trying to pull the goalie out of position and Trembley shoots off the wrong foot.”
Emile Francis, the Rangers’ assistant General Manager at the time was at that first press conference and couldn’t believe what Plante was saying. “The Canadiens never forgot that, it was like committing suicide.”
Plante made his Ranger debut on October 9th 1963 in Chicago. Jacques made 40 saves but lost 3-1. Two nights later the Rangers traveled to Montreal to face Plante’s former teammates who were looking forward to the game to say the least. The Canadiens fired 59 shots at Plante and won 6-2. Geoffrion scored on a slap shot and skated by the crease to ask Plante, “Hey Jacques, if my shot is so slow, how come you can’t see it anymore?”
At the home opener Jacques notched a 34 save 3-0 shutout over Detroit. In front of 15,240 fans, the largest opening night crowd in 16 years. It was his 59th career shutout. Jacques also shut out the Bruins 8 days later.
From there on the 1963-64 season was a series of winless streaks interrupted here and there by a few victories. And as the losses mounted the bloom soon became to fall off Plante’s rose. “He drove our trainer Frank Paice crazy,” said Francis. “He had 42 pieces of equipment. He had a pad for everything. You name it, he had a piece of equipment for it.”
The highlight of Plante’s season was the night of March 8th when he shut out the Canadiens (0-0) at Madison Square Garden.
It should come as no surprise that Plante faced more shots as a Ranger then he did in Montreal. In 1963-64 he saw an average of 38 shots a game, the most in the league and a full 10 shots more per game than the year before. Over the 70 game season that’s 700 more shots than Jacques was used to seeing as a member of the Canadiens.
The Rangers finished the season with a 22-38-10 record, 17 points behind 4th place Detroit but only six points ahead of the sixth place Bruins. More telling was that they allowed 242 goals that season, the most in the league and nine more than the previous season without Plante.
Jacques played in 65 games that first year posting a 22-35-8 record with a 3.38 GAA. He made 2222 saves but gave up 220 goals, both totals were the highest of his NHL career to date. Gilles Villemure made his Rangers debut that season too, playing 5 games and going 0-3-2 with a 3.60 GAA.
By the time training camp for the 1964-65 season opened the Rangers landscape had changed greatly. Emile Francis had replaced Muzz Patrick as General Manager and wanted to rebuild the Rangers from the ground up.
Francis has seen and heard enough of Plante to know that he was not the kind of goaltender that he wanted to build a team around. “Plante was a loner”, said Francis. “He didn’t mingle with the players. He was never going to be the kind of goalkeeper that the players would work their (butts) off for.”
So when Plante started complaining of knee pain at the start of the season he was sent to the Baltimore Clippers of the AHL and replaced by Marcel Paille. (Ironically both Plante and Paille were from Shawinigan Falls, Quebec.) This gave Francis a chance to look at Paille since he didn’t want to rush the 24-year-old Villlemure into the NHL.
Upon Plante’s arrival in Baltimore, it was reported that he called the Rangers a ‘cheap organization” and that he’d “never play for Red Sullivan again.” Plante was brought back to New York to publicly deny the statements to the media.
Jacques was recalled on an emergency basis on November 7th in Toronto when Paille suffered a twisted knee in practice. Plante came through in the clutch, shutting out the Maple Leafs 1-0 and earning First Star of the Game honors. From that point on he and Paille shared the netminding duties for the rest of the season. In 33 games with the Rangers, Plante posted a 10-17-5 record with a 3.37 GAA and two shutouts. Paille played in 39 games, going 10-21-7 with a 3.58 GAA. But once again the Rangers finished out of the playoffs, 22 points behind the fourth place Maple Leafs.
By then it was obvious that Plante’s days as a Ranger were numbered and his fate was sealed when Francis traded for Eddie Giacomin in May. Francis had planned to trade Plante, but Jacques beat him to the punch by announcing his retirement at age 36 to spend more time with his family. Overall Jacques played in 98 games over two seasons as a Ranger, posting a 32-53-12 record with 5 shutouts and a 3.38 GAA.
But that was not the end of the Rangers connection to Jacques Plante. In 1967, Bert Olmstead the coach of the expansion Oakland Seals hired Plante to be his goaltending consultant. Plante however took it a step further signing a tryout contract and appearing in an exhibition game in Port Huron. Since Plante’s NHL rights still belonged to the Rangers, Francis tried to make a deal with the Seals for Plante. But when an agreement could not be reached, Jacques left training camp and returned home. The next season Plante made it known to Francis that he wanted to come out of retirement. But since the Rangers could only protect two netminders (Giacomin and Villemure) Jacques was exposed to the draft and selected by the St Louis Blues where he shared the 1969 Vezina Trophy with teammate Glenn Hall.
But Plante’s role in Ranger history didn’t end there either. When the Blueshirts acquired Tim Horton from Toronto for Denis Dupere in March of 1970, the Rangers were still owed an unnamed player from St Louis to complete an earlier trade. Francis had that “player to be named later” transferred to the Leafs as part of the deal. That player was Plante who was going to be left unprotected by the Blues anyway.
Plante went on to play for Toronto and Boston in the NHL before moving on to the WHA with Quebec and Edmonton. He retired in 1975 and was elected into the Hockey Hall of game in 1978. He died of stomach cancer in February of 1986 at the age of 57.
Jacques Plante may not have had his best years on Broadway, but he was a character; colorful and controversial and proof that although they might “steal” a game once in a while, a goaltender is really only as good as the team in front of him.