If not the best goalie of all time, Jacques Plante was certainly the most important - the man who introduced the art of modern goaltending to the NHL and whose influence is seen every night a game is played. "Jake the Snake" was born in Shawinigan Falls, Quebec, and from the time he started playing, his destiny was to play for the Montreal Canadiens.
After a usual four-year apprenticeship with the Montreal Royals in Quebec senior hockey and two years with the Buffalo Bisons, Plante quickly emerged as Montreal's goalie of the future. He played a few games for the Habs in 1952-53 and 1953-54, and in his first full season began an incredible run of five consecutive Stanley Cup wins and five consecutive Vezina Trophy wins, records that have yet to be equaled.
Throughout his career he was plagued with recurring asthma and after missing 13 games due to a sinusitis operation, Plante began wearing a mask in practices in 1956. Coach Toe Blake endorsed the move cautiously because it kept his goalie healthy and happy, but he warned Plante that a mask wasn't permitted during games. However, during a Montreal versus New York game the night of November 2, 1959, Plante was hit in the face by a shot. He went off to the dressing room for stitches and when he returned he was wearing a mask. Blake was livid, but he had no other goalie to call upon and Plante refused to return to the goal unless he kept the mask. Blake agreed on condition that Plante discard the mask when the cut had healed. In the ensuing days Plante refused, and as the team continued to win, Blake became less obstinate. The Montreal record stretched into an 18-game unbeaten streak with Plante protected and the mask was in the NHL for good.
Plante was a pioneer of the style of play for goaltenders as well. While there had been other goalies before him who periodically came out of their crease to play the puck, he was the first to skate in behind the net to stop the puck for his defensemen. He also was the first to raise his arm on an icing call to let his defensemen know what was happening on the ice, and he perfected a stand-up style of goaltending that emphasized positional play, cutting down the angles and staying square to the shooter. His book, On Goaltending, was the first of its kind and solidified his place in the game as not just a great stopper but a man who truly understood hockey and wanted to have an influence on how the game would be played in the future.
Plante retired in 1965 after playing two seasons with the Rangers, but he was lured out of retirement by the St. Louis Blues and the prospects of sharing the goaltending with the great Glenn Hall for the expansion team. Together they took the Blues to two Stanley Cup finals, and in 1969 Plante shared the Vezina Trophy with Hall at the ripe old age of 40. He also played with Toronto and Boston and played for one final season with the Edmonton Oilers in the WHA before becoming a scout and goalie coach in St. Louis. In 1962 he was the last goalie to win the Hart Trophy before Dominik Hasek in 1997, and he ranks among the leaders in games played and shutouts. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978.