November 24, 2009

Interview With The Author - Todd Denault

I recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with author Todd Denault about his fantastic biography called Jacques Plante: Man Who Changed Face of Hockey.

In addition to reading the interview below, you can read my full book review and read an exclusive book excerpt, courtesy of McClelland & Stewart.

What drew you to write a biography on Jacques Plante?

A little over two year's ago, I was watching a hockey game one night on TSN. After the opening introduction, the camera zoomed in on that night's panel and there sitting right in the middle of the commentators was this little, brittle-looking mask.

The host quickly mentioned that this was the 48th anniversary of the night that Jacques Plante first donned the mask and there sitting on the desk was the actual mask. Later that night they discussed Plante and the mask and it occurred to me that I would like to read a book on Plante.

As a long-time fan of the Canadiens I've always been aware of Plante, but what I found when I went looking for the Plante book dismayed me. Here was a goalie who is maybe the most decorated in hockey history and unquestionably the most important and yet there was a dearth of books on the man, especially when compared to his contemporaries. For example, the past twenty year's have brought us three books on Terry Sawchuk, as well as autobiographies by Glenn Hall and Johnny Bower, yet nothing substantial on Plante.

Now keep in mind, that I had always had it in my head to write a book but like most aspiring writers I had always searched in vain for the ideal subject. Now as I was looking into the specifics of Plante's life, the light bulb went off and I began my journey.

Plante of course is known as the man who quite literally changed the face of hockey, by becoming the first to regularly wear a mask. What surprised you the most about his fight to wear the mask?

As I researched that part of the Jacques Plante story, the one thing that struck me the most was how Plante's fellow members of the goaltending fraternity were amongst the majority who condemned his decision.

Plante took a lot of abuse from those in management and in the media at the time but none was more scathing than that heaped upon him by "Gump" Worsley, and to a lesser extant Glenn Hall and Terry Sawchuk. Of course, all of them before they retired took to wearing a mask.

Plante revolutionized hockey. There are very few people you can say that about in any sport. Is Plante the most important innovative figure in hockey? In all of sport?

When we watch a hockey game today, at any level, on any given night, we see Plante's influence on the sport. It's hard to find somebody else in the history of hockey whom we could say the same of.

The closest comparison in baseball might be a Babe Ruth, a player who forever changed the dynamic of his sport for all those who followed.

Goalies are known for their quirks and Plante was no exception. Tell us about his.

Even amongst goalies it would be tough to find one quirkier than Plante. Of course, the most famous of these was his propensity for knitting. And while most people are aware that Plante was a knitter, they don't know the true extant of it. Throughout his life, Plante knitted all of his undergarments, socks, t-shirts, scarfs, mitts, toques, etc...

But beyond the knitting, Plante was a man of routine. Such was the extent of his devotion to his craft, that he only had his skates sharpened once a year - exactly at the halfway point of the season. He even had a specific timetable, which he followed religiously, for his personal grooming habits such as cutting his fingernails and toenails.

Why do you think Plante was such a misunderstood character?

Jacques Plante was the ultimate individual in the ultimate team sport. He was very outspoken and media savvy in an age where most of his contemporaries preferred to let their play do the talking.

He also preferred to keep his own company, avoided spending time in the bar with his teammates, didn't play cards on the long train rides, amongst many other things that differentiated him from his teammates. Jacques Plante was his own man and sometimes that put him at odds with the hockey establishment.

For all their success together, coach Toe Blake was not exactly a big fan of Plante. Why is this?

Toe Blake was the biggest fan of Jacques Plante the goalie. However, Blake found himself often at odds with the man. During the season's in which the Canadiens won five consecutive Stanley Cups their relationship was for the most part harmonious. However, in the three seasons that followed their relationship slowly disintegrated to the point of no return.

Toe Blake was an old-school hockey man and he didn't tolerate distractions and for him Plante eventually became too much of a distraction, hence his trade to the New York Rangers in the summer of 1963.

The research invested into this book is nothing short of amazing. How long did you work on this book?

The research and writing of the book took a little over a year with the last four months being the most intense. From the very start I had set as my goal the finding of anything and everything ever written or said on Jacques Plante. Between that and trying to interview as many people who knew Plante as I could, the whole point was to paint the fullest portrait possible.

Was Plante's family receptive to your biography?

Plante is survived by his oldest son and his second wife, who resides in Switzerland. I made numerous attempts to contact each of them. His widow declined my request as she now does with all media requests and I was never able to make contact with his son.

Hopefully, they will be receptive to the book and the portrayal of their father/husband.

After a life in the NHL, both on and off the ice, Plante relocated to Switzerland. Why Switzerland?

Switzerland was the home of his second wife.

Aside from wanting to begin a life with her in Switzerland I think that Plante enjoyed the atmosphere that the country provided. The climate did wonders for his asthma and he was also able to enjoy a little anonymity. He used to enjoy sitting outside the cafe's of Sierre in the morning, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. It's hard to imagine him doing the same in Montreal or Quebec City.

He continued to engage with the game in Europe. Is his impact still being felt over there?

I think Jacques Plante's impact is still felt wherever the game of hockey is still played.

Six months after Plante's death, his widow established the Jacques Plante Foundation, the purpose of which is to aid in the development of young, prospective, Swiss goalies. The foundation also has sponsored clinics for minor-league goalies and those less fortunate.

In the Swiss National League the award for the best goaltender is named after Plante.

In 2006 at the Turin Olympics, Switzerland defeated Canada 2-0 in what was the biggest victory in Swiss hockey history. A few days later his widow received a postcard signed by the entire Swiss team.

Who is the greatest goalie in hockey history? Where does Plante rank in your opinion?

I think there is no doubt that Jacques Plante is the most important goalie to ever play the game.

As for the greatest, it would be tough to rank anyone ahead of him.

Seven Vezina trophies, seven times leading the league in goals against, ten appearances in the Stanley Cup finals, six Stanley Cup championships ... all of them tops amongst goalies.

And to top it all off Plante may have had his best year in 1970-71 with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Named to the second All-Star team, finished fifth in voting for the Hart Trophy, he led the league in goals against, and led all goalies with a save percentage of .942 - the highest single season number ever recorded in NHL history.

And all of it accomplished at the age of 42.


Anonymous,  December 3, 2009 at 1:48 PM  

Hello: I wish to complement Mr. Denault on his fine book, however i found it astounding that he knows next to nothing about the Habs pricipal adversaries during Plante's tenure,The valiant Boston Bruins of the late 1950s!! He ridiculed my assertion that Flem Mackell be inducted in the HOF, compared Phil Goyette to Don Mckenney?? and knew nothing about the Bruins being the inventors & early proponents of the "Torpedo" style of Hockey!! May i suggest, Sir......

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