Jacques Plante first broke into the NHL at 24 years of age in the 1952-53 season, but only played in 3 games. The following year, he began to back up Canadiens net minder Gerry McNeil more, playing in 17 games and gaining some recognition. In 1954-55 Plante took over as the main starter for the Habs, winning 33 games in 52 games played. Plante’s solid season earned him 3rd in Calder voting. Plante helped the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup final, but they ultimately fell just short.
In 1955-56, Plante took his game to the next level, playing in 64 games and winning 42 of them, becoming the second goaltender to surpass 40 wins after Terry Sawchuk. Plante had a sparkling .929 save percentage, the best of all starting goaltenders and was voted to the First All-Star Team. Even better, his team took home the holy grail at the end of it all, the Stanley Cup. It was in 1956 that Plante began to experiment with masks, using them in practices outside of normal game time. Coach Toe Blake allowed Plante to use his mask, but warned him that it wouldn’t be allowed during actual games.
Plante had another great year in 1956-57, but had to contend with another goaltending great, Glenn Hall, for the title of the greatest goaltender. Hall played in all 70 games (as he often did) and Plante played in 61. Plante had 31 wins and a .920 save percentage, but was ultimately outperformed by Hall, who had 38 wins and a .928 save percentage. Still Plante was voted to the Second All-Star Team and had the last laugh, winning a second consecutive Cup while Hall’s Red Wings were upset in the first round.
After Hall moved on to the Chicago Black Hawks for the 1957-58 season, his performance dropped, leaving Plante to dominate with the Canadiens. The New York Rangers had a star on their hands in Gump Worsley, but by playing in only 37 games, he did have quite enough play time to be considered in the best goaltender conversation. Despite Plante’s solid numbers, including leading the NHL with 9 shutouts for a second consecutive season, he again finished 2nd in All-Star Team voting. Still, Plante again helped his team to yet another Stanley Cup, his third in a row.
In the 1958-59 season, the now 30-year old Plante reinstated himself as the best goaltender in the NHL, with a league-leading .925 save percentage, 38 wins, and 9 shutouts. Plante was again the top goalie in the league and was recognized by being named to the First All-Star Team again. The Canadiens had a slightly weaker playoff performance than usual, needing 11 games to win the Cup, instead of the usual 10.
The 1959-60 season was a historic one. In November of 1959, Plante’s face was cut by a shot from Andy Bathgate, prompting him to go to the dressing room for stitches. Plante returned with his mask on, infuriating his coach. Still Blake had no one to replace Plante and Plante refused to play without his mask, leaving Blake no choice. Plante played the rest of the game and an agreement was made to let him use the mask until his cut was healed. Plante still later refused to play without his mask even after his cut had healed, further angering Blake; however, Blake knew how vital Plante was to his team and when the team went on an 18-game unbeaten streak while Plante wore his mask, Blake let up. A new standard was born.
The 1959-60 season wasn’t bad for Plante, but both Glenn Hall and Leafs net minder Johnny Bower had stepped up their games, again challenging Plante for the title of the best NHL goalie. In the end, Hall was named a First Team All-Star and Plante had to settle for second. In the playoffs, however, Plante and the Canadiens didn’t have to settle for anything. The Canadiens went on a legendary 8-0 run to go undefeated in the 1960 playoffs to win their 5th consecutive Cup. Plante had 3 shutouts and a 1.35 GAA during the run.
Plante was a student of the game, and started several strategies that goaltenders still use to this day, including playing the puck behind the net and raising his arm to signal icing. He also pioneered the stand-up style of goaltending that emphasized positional play.
Plante had a fairly poor 1960-61 season, playing in just 40 games and almost even having his spot challenged by the younger Charlie Hodge, who played in the other 30 games. Plante wasn’t in the conversation for the best goalie in the NHL, but he would change that the following season. In the 1961-62 season, Plante, despite getting on in years at 33 years old, would have another outstanding season. He tied his previous best of 42 wins while playing in all 70 games for the first and only time in his career. He had a league’s best 2.37 GAA and .923 save percentage. Plante won his sixth Vezina, was voted to the First All-Star Team and even won the Hart trophy, edging out Doug Harvey. The Canadiens unfortunately couldn’t replicate their playoff success, being heavily upset by the Chicago Black Hawks in a 6 game series.
Plante had another decent year in 1962-63, but with Montreal’s performance weakening, there were concerned about long-term success with Plante, who was now 34 years old. Looking for a change, the Canadiens traded Plante to the Rangers in a trade with many pieces, but the largest two being Plante and Gump Worsley. Plante struggled to succeed on the Rangers, a much worse team, and after two sub-par seasons, he retired at 36 years old in 1965. Plante, who clearly still loved hockey, was lured out of retirement in 1968 with the opportunity to play with fellow goaltending legend Glenn Hall on the St. Louis Blues. Plante and Hall worked together to win the Vezina trophy with the fewest goals against in the NHL. Plante also led the NHL with a 1.96 goals-against-average. He and Hall took the Blues to two consecutive finals in 1969 and 1970, where they were beaten by Plante’s old team, the Canadiens twice in a row.
Despite his age, Plante continued to play after his two seasons with the Blues as he was sold to the Toronto Maple Leafs for cash. Amazingly, Plante was still an above-average goaltender, even at age 42. In 40 games, he led the NHL with an amazing 1.88 GAA and a stunning .944 save percentage, finishing 5th in Hart voting and being voted to the Second All-Start Team. While not at quite the same level in 1971-72, Plante remained above average with the Leafs in 34 games played. Plante played on more final season at 44 years of age in 1972-73 and even then, was still a respectable goaltender. Plante retired as one of the most respected goaltenders of all-time and also one of the greatest senior players of all-time.
Plante finished his NHL career in 1973 and his WHA career in 1975 before being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978. He retired at second all-time in wins just behind Terry Sawchuk and to this stay still ranks in the top 10 at 7th all-time. Plante also still ranks first in games and wins among Montreal Canadiens goalies.