Montreal is a hybrid, often confusing town where an elevator is an ascenseur and a good cigar is a fumée. 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.
Charlie Hodge looks like Charlie Brown. He talks like Gary Cooper. And in the net he acts like George Gobel. When he flops on the ice, one gets the feeling that he will never return to his feet. Struggling under 40 pounds of pads and protection, his face contorted in determination, he oozes up after a fall like a fishing float in a vat of molasses, just in time to stop another puck and go sprawling again.
No spectator could be blamed for predicting that this seeming incompetent would shortly be back in the minors. But after 27 games, of which Hodge and the Canadiens have won 15, tied six and lost six, it is Plante who is still in the minors. Hodge's own "goals-against" average is the lowest in the league and right now he stands a good chance of taking the Vezina himself.
It has long since been clear that luck is not the explanation. After playing for eight teams in six years, Charlie Hodge has learned his trade well. Whether from fright or the feeling that they would rather play with a modest little guy than with a prima donna, the Canadiens tightened up their defenses as soon as he came into the nets. Some idea of how much protection Hodge gets may be gleaned from a recent game in Chicago where the Canadiens won 2-0 and Charlie Hodge was required to make only 18 easy saves. Almost anyone's Aunt Mary could have been in the nets that night.
And what of the fallen angel Plante? In his first game for the minor-league Montreal Royals, he helped beat league-leading Hull-Ottawa 3-2. But in his next appearance, against a so-so Kingston team, the crowd of 6,000 (treble the normal size because of Plante) booed even before the game began. Few noticed that little Charlie Hodge was sitting right behind the nets, watching the action. "Listen to that," Hodge said. "He hasn't done a thing, and already they're on him." The game was only 39 seconds old when Kingston scored, and now the crowd really began lofting insults toward Plante. "It's just not fair," said Charlie Hodge. "He's one of the greatest ever. He makes stops nobody else could make." Like a little kid watching his hero, Hodge studied Plante's moves. "Oh, he's a showman!" Hodge exulted. "Look at him now, arguing with the referee. He's gotta get his two cents in. Oh, he's the greatest!" Not everyone in the Forum agreed. "Get back in the bloody nets!" a foghorn voice shouted. "You'll never get your job back, you bum!"
A little too early
After the game, which he lost 4-3, Plante swore he had heard nothing. Over coffee, he sat down to talk quietly, in his soft French accent, about his problem:
"When you are sideline like this, all kinds of thought go through the head. What am I goin' to do? What could happen? Charlie and I are good friends since 1954. How can they take him out the way he's playing? And my knee is still bad. I have a lead boot at home. I strap it on and lift the leg for 10 minutes every hour, all day long, hold it up there for 45 seconds. It hurts, but I want that job back. Maybe this year it is already too late. But next year...."
What is it like to be a fallen idol? "I will tell you. Already my son, Michel—he is 9—he is in fights at school. They say to him, 'Your daddy's no good. Your daddy lost his job.' "
Where once he would have been surrounded by autograph-seekers, Plante sat unnoticed in a quiet corner of the café. "I knew it had to happen sometime," he said. "Remember, I am 32 years old. Charlie, he is just 26. I knew I would slip sometime, but, sonofagun, it is a little early, isn't it? It happened too fast. I keep thinking what happened to the poor guy Lou Gehrig replaced. Remember? Gehrig came in for one game and the other guy never played again."
The parallel may not be strained. Already the Montreal papers are calling Charlie Hodge "the man who came to dinner." Cautiously they are beginning to accept the fact that Plante may not be back. They are beginning to believe their ears when they hear Toe Blake say publicly, "I won't take Hodge out of there as long as we keep winning with him," and they have no answer for Blake when he says privately, "What am I supposed to do? Do I take out Hodge and ruin his morale? Or keep him in and break Plante's heart?"