Monday, December 14, 2009

Book Review: Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey by Todd Denault

The Man Behind the MaskJacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey, by Todd Denault, details the life of one of the sport's most colourful and controversial goaltenders. And, just as with any good biography, the book includes far more information than just its main subject. Readers will also learn about the Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s and 60s on which Plante played, and many of the all-time greats from those teams.

Jacques Plante was one of the first real renegades in the game. At a time when a players' union had just come into existence, and most players were simply happy to have a job, Plante stood up to absurdities and ushered in important changes in the game due to his force of will and refusal to bend to the criticism and mockery of others.

However, this is no hagiography. Denault includes plenty of criticism of Plante as a goalie and a person. Apparently Plante was one of the tightest individuals who ever played the game, and always made himself scarce when it was time to pay the tab in a restaurant or bar. A character trait that is no doubt due to the poverty he experienced as a child, and part of the thorough look into Plante's life that the book provides.

Fear of Change

Within the story of Plante and the Canadiens of the 1950s, there is the story of human nature, and how people respond to change. It is universal and never-ending in the history of the world: fear of anything new. The ridiculous, illogical resistance offered up by the most frightened individuals of the day and how Plante stands firm in his beliefs result in some of the best passages in the book. Some things never change. Disciples of Don Cherry, who like their arguments as meaningless as possible, will likely not see themselves in the critics of the past who cringed at the possibility of an NHL goalie donning a mask. However, everyone else with a shred of sanity will see the bloviating blowhard Cherry and all those who cheer him on in the mules of yesteryear who brayed the loudest that a goalie dared to protect himself from 100 mile-an-hour slap shots to the face.

Research and Writing Style

This book represents an impressive effort in research. The reader gets a genuine sense of Plante—both the player and person—and also gets a feel for the Canadiens teams on which Plante played. Most of the research here appears to be from newspaper reports from that time, various hockey books, and TV and radio game replays from the era. Denault also includes some primary research in the form of interviews with surviving players and commentators from the years in which Plante played.

Like many hockey books, the writing style does not dazzle. Call it workmanlike at best. At times, the clichés fly fast and loose. An entire paragraph of clichés is no easy feat to achieve:
With three consecutive Stanley Cups, they stood at the pinnacle of the hockey world, and there appeared to be no end in sight. They had set a standard for winning. However, it was in many ways a double-edged sword. They had cast a tremendous shadow over all those who came after them. Nothing less than a Stanley Cup was acceptable now, for them or those who followed in their footsteps in Montreal.

That, however, is an extreme example. In general, the book is very readable.

There are numerous great hockey factoids, stats, and records sprinkled throughout this book. The game was vastly different back then in many ways. For example, teams only had one goalie on their roster at any one time. This meant that when a tender went down with an injury in an away game, the opposing team was obliged to supply a backup goalie for the remainder of the game. A practice goalie usually sat in the stands for the primary purpose of stepping in if the home team's netminder was hurt, but would also fill in for the visiting goalie as well.

Nostalgia for the Game

While the passages that detail the games are vivid and nostalgic of the game as it was played then, it is not really evocative of the years in which Plante played the game. Some more colour and reminiscing about life and society outside the rink during those years would have added some entertainment value to the book. But that is a small criticism that will really be a red herring for most readers. The book is pure hockey, which is the reason most people will pick it up in the first place.

This is the first book from author Todd Denault, and it is a decent effort that fans of hockey history will enjoy.

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