"The Man Who Changed The Face Of Hockey" - An Interview With Author Denault

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I've never had the privelege of personally meeting "Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed The Face Of Hockey" author Todd Denault, but I have become acquainted with him in two fashions - one of which certain readers here are surely familiar with.

Todd, often known as T.C. Denault online, has written about the Canadiens for years now. His work has been featured at The Hockey News, Habs World and other Canadiens related sites. Like myself, he is a member and contributor with the Society for International Hockey Research. A university graduate of Carleton and Lakehead,Todd shares an unbridled enthusiasm for Canadiens goaltenders with a multitude of fans.

What I've always enjoyed best of Todd's work, is that he has a knack for leaving no stone unturned when it comes to research, analysis, perspective and prose. It wasn't long after I began this site that I became aware of Mr. Denault's writings. As time passed and his name became familiar to me, Todd began leaving an occasional comment at EOTP on a variety of subjects. One day, an unfortunate occurance by myself led to me getting to know Todd a little better. I accidentally plagiarized him!

What happened was, I had began running my Habs all time goalies series, and upon reaching Rogie Vachon, I found a wealth of information on him at a Habs fan message board - uncredited. It was precisely the particular info I was after, and following some subtle editing, I included the gist of that work in my post. Within the day, I received an e-mail from Todd laying claim to the work. I recall replying regretfully, almost instantly. As he provided a link to his original post at Habs World, I quickly credited, re - edited and linked to it, apologizing to Todd by e-mail. Todd was real cool about it all, I learned one big time lesson, and we began to communicate on a more frequent basis.

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Soon it seemed, we were complimenting each others work at our home spaces, and a friendship developed quickly from mutual respect. Late in 2008, Todd informed me that he was seeking a book publishing deal and that news excited me on a variety of levels.

First off, Todd had it in him to write this book, by his sheer dedication to the subject matter and by his thirst for information on it. He asked that I keep such news under my hat until it a book deal confirmed. I'll admit, it wasn't easy to keep it a secret. I told my wife and kids, and that was it. After I promised Todd a lip zipper, he sent me a few chapters of his work, and keeping the secret became all the more difficult - what I read was enthralling!

Once I had read those chapters, I started to beg, cajole, and tug at Todd's shirtsleeves that I be one the first to, not only announce the upcoming release of his book, but have the privelege to interview him on it as well. Without hesitation, Todd allowed me such a privelege. His effort in seeing his project through to publication, serves as an inspiration not only for writers such as myself, but for countless other online Habs writers as well. It would be hard to verify such a fact, but Todd just might be one of the first writers who began online, who sharpened their skills, on the path to a book deal. I am proud to know him some, call him a friend, and share his origins. In my eyes, he is a trailblazer.

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Todd dilligently dug back through time while researching his subject. In his endeavors, he has spoken with 30 former team mates of Plante, including Beliveau, Moore and the Pocket Rocket, his one time coach, Scotty Bowman, rivals such as Andy Bathgate and Dave Keon, as well as men such as Red Fisher and Dick Irvin, who covered Plante's career during his prime.

The book will be released on November 1, 2009 - coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Plante first donning a mask in an NHL game. It is presently available for pre - orders at these Amazon.com and Chapters.Indigo links. Both sites product description for Todd's book read as such:

"Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed The Face Of Hockey" is the first full-scale biography of a legendary and award-winning NHL goalie who transformed the game. On and off the ice Jacques Plante was a true original; he was extremely talented, boastful, defiant, mysterious, and complex. Throughout his tumultuous career as a goalie, he played for Montreal, New York, St. Louis, Toronto, Boston, and Edmonton. His contributions to and impact on the game were extensive and are reflected in today’s rules, equipment, and style of play. Thoroughly investigated through archival and primary research, this biography sheds light on one of the most pivotal figures in the history of hockey."

"There are a lot of very good goalies, there are even a fair number of great goalies. But there aren’t many important goalies. And Jacques Plante was an important goalie." - Ken Dryden

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As Todd agreed months ago to allow me to Q & A him, I fussed a great deal over the questions I would ask him, that would dually serve to answer queries on both Jacques Plante and Todd's insights into his subject and task. I hope that readers here end up with a copy of Todd's book in their hands. I'll have one in each of mine, as I know of one youngster who would just love this book as a Christmas gift!

Here is my interview with Mr. Denault.

I've been reading your work for close to three years now, and it's fairly obvious that you have a fixation with Canadiens goaltenders. Did that start at a young age for you, and what do you feel prompted it?

Like most of us, I think our fascination with hockey begins at a very early age. And for most kids I think the goalie stands out. We all at one point or another stood in front of the net, all trying our hardest to make the "spectacular save." I think that feeling is something we all strive to capture when we are younger. Of course, it’s not the only feeling we remember about playing goal. At one time or another we’ve all felt the flipside of playing the position, which usually involved some bruising at the very least.

The goalie is the most unique player in the game; they never leave the ice, they have a skill set entirely unique from the other players, and their equipment is completely exclusive to their position.

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In terms of myself, I remember the spring of 1984 being a real turning point for me as a hockey fan. I was nine-years-old and I think up to that time I probably had spent way more time outside playing road hockey than actually sitting in front of the television watching the NHL. That changed that summer when the Canadiens made an improbable run to the Wales Conference Finals. Two springs later, my love for the team was cemented forever by the Stanley Cup win. And I think I speak for a lot of people my age when I say that Patrick Roy became my favourite player almost overnight. The white mask, the butterfly style – which was pretty new at the time, the talking to his posts, the way he moved his neck around.

Plus the fact that my father had been a Junior A goalie with the Pembroke Lumber Kings in the mid-sixties, no doubt helped me to focus on the netminders.

It wasn’t long after that that I received my first Roy Canadiens jersey, and soon I was outside wearing my all white mask trying my hardest to imitate all his moves. Not very successfully I should add.

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From my own Montreal Canadiens blogger standpoint, I have a great amount of admiration and respect for you for pulling this project off. I can imagine - or maybe I cannot - that writing one's first book is a rollercoaster full of emotions. Can you tell about your sense of fullfillment that the project has brought to you, throughout all the ups and downs involved?

Speaking for myself, I found writing the book to be a long and winding, but ultimately rewarding process. Having lived with the book for a year, I can tell you that it can become a bit of an obsession. When you’re in the middle of the process you rarely think of anything else. In your mind you’re trying to sort out chapters, arrange questions for your interview subjects, what to leave in, what to leave out, hope that you haven’t missed even the tiniest detail, etc...

But more than that I would compare the writing of the book to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You start out with all these pieces of information scattered about and the job of the biographer is to take them, see which ones fit together, and try to put them all in their proper place. At the same time you may be missing a few pieces, so you have to go out and find them, to fill in the blanks. And then when the puzzle’s complete you can stand back from it and take in what you’ve put together.

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Jacques Plante, having been a revolutionary goaltender with an idiosyncratic personality, makes him the perfect subject matter when it comes to hockey biographies. When did you realize, that within yourself, you had a book on him?

Pretty early on.

When I first had the idea for the book, I found myself surprised that it hadn’t been already done. Considering that there have been a fair amount of books in the recent past about his goaltending contemporaries in the Original Six I thought that a biography on Jacques Plante was a glaring omission. Add in the fact that there have been biographies or autobiographies recently done on ‘Rocket" Richard, Bernie Geoffrion, Jean Beliveau, and Doug Harvey and I thought that a book on Plante would be a nice addition.

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I also realized early on that if the book where going to be done, now was the time. For me personally, I knew that a key part of the book would involve interviewing the people of the time; teammates, opponents, journalists, etc… Sadly with the passage of time, there are less people who fit this criteria so I thought that time was of the essence.

Much has been written about Jacques Plante and his career - not all of it being accurate. While a bio proper has never quite been done on Plante's life and playing days, what was it that you felt you could bring to the story in terms of freshness and perspective?

As an avid reader of biographies and not just sports ones, I’ve developed in my own mind a list of what I liked in certain biographies and what I didn’t like. For me personally, the most essential component for any prospective biographical author is research. The more research you do, the more you’re going to find out. The more you find out the better the finished product.

I think that another important aspect to the book is the interviews. Talking to those who knew the man gives the book a certain intimacy that is sometimes lacking in the details.

Too many biographers take the easy way out and go through the same set of books for all of their information. The result is a book that feels and reads like many similar books you’ve read before. Not to slag anybody else’s work but I think that the lack of research really shows up in the details.

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Speaking for myself, I couldn’t tell you in how many books I’ve read that the shot that Andy Bathgate struck Plante with on November 1st, 1959 (leading him to put on the mask) was a slap shot; some even have it as a backhand. Too many times it’s easier for the writer to take what’s written in another book and decide to go with it. I guess it saves them some time and effort.

For myself, I wanted to hear about that night from Andy Bathgate himself and not from a decades old book. The end result is that in my book for the first time you get a full, detailed description of that entire incident from Andy Bathgate’s point of view, not only what happened but why it happened.

As the title of your work suggests, Plante changed the face of hockey, not only as a pioneer of the mask, but also in pushing the envelope in regards to the role of goaltenders within the game. He affected a great many changes beyond the goalie mask, puck handling to name but one. What do you feel is his most underappreciated contribution to the game?

In some ways I think that the mask has in time, obscured his achievements on the ice. Obviously people remember the six Stanley Cup Championships, and to a lesser degree the seven Vezina trophies and the Hart trophy in 1962. But how many know that he played in a record ten Stanley Cup Finals?

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If one aspect of his career has been neglected in my eyes it has been his longevity. He first appeared in the finals at the age of twenty-four and in his last final at the age of forty-one. I don’t know of any other goalie who was as good for as long as Plante. He was named as a second-team All-Star with the Leafs in 1971 at the age of 42. He was still at the age of 46 playing goal professionally for the Edmonton Oilers.

In retrospect, do you personally feel that the Canadiens messed up by trading Plante to the Rangers in 1963?

It’s hard to truly say that they messed up in trading Plante when they won the Stanley Cup in 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1969. Of course, the man they got in return for Plante, Gump Worsley had a lot to do with the Habs successes in the year after the trade.

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Now do I think the Habs would have won those same Cups with Plante in the net? Probably. However, the relationship between Plante and the Canadiens management, particularly Toe Blake, had soured to the point of no return. Also keep in mind, that there was a strong suspicion amongst the Habs brass that Plante was beginning to break down and you can start to see the reasoning behind the deal. However, I don’t think that the Canadiens, or Plante for that matter, imagined him still playing goal in the NHL a decade later.

In terms of goaltending evolution, I've always thought of Jacques Plante as personifying the crossroad, or midpoint if you will, between the modern day goalie and everything that came before and after him. Do you find it fair that today's puck stoppers are compared to Plante?

It’s hard not too. Every time we watch a game whether it be the Stanley Cup Finals or a peewee game at our local rink we see the influence of Jacques Plante. Today, it is standard operating procedure for the goalie to communicate with his defenseman, to play the puck, to be able to pass the puck up, and of course, they all have to wear the mask. It was Plante who popularized these techniques, and paved the way for them to become what they are today.

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Without spoiling anything for readers, are there any details about the book, as far as new things you discovered about Plante that you can reveal?

One of the aspects of the book that I’m most proud of is the detail on Plante’s life after he left the Canadiens. I always thought that his career after leaving Montreal was grossly neglected. I think the readers will enjoy finding out more about Plante as a Ranger, a Blue, a Leaf, a Bruin, a Nordiques coach, and finally as an Oiler.

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Scotty Bowman told me a funny story about Plante. In the summer of 1968, Plante came down to see Scotty to finalize his contract with the Blues. Unbeknownst to anybody at the time, Plante had undergone a highly secretive knee surgery a month or two before. Scotty devised a unique test for Plante’s repaired knee. He took Plante to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, and watched him walk into the Stadium, climb the stairs to get to the seats etc. Satisfied that the knee was fine, Scotty then took Plante back to the Blues offices to sign his contract. Unfortunately, Scotty forgot that there would be no secretaries in the office because it was a Saturday. Thinking it now impossible to get the contract prepared Scotty was taken aback when Plante volunteered to type up the contract himself. So as Scotty watched, Plante typed up his first St. Louis Blues contract, which when completed the two men signed.

If time travel existed, and you were seated at a table with Jacques Plante, what would be the first question you would want to ask him?

That’s a tough question, because there would be so many. I do know however that it would be a long night. Former Toronto Star journalist Frank Orr told me and Red Fisher confirmed that you could ask Plante a question about the game or even the weather and then be subjected to an answer that would always be lengthy. Of course, it would also be an answer unlike any of the other players.

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I'm not a gambling man, but I'd place a large bet on your bio of Plante being a very successful book this season. Certainly you are anxious for its release. What writing plans do you have beyond that date?

Right now I have a few ideas for future books percolating in my head. In the next month or so I’ll meet with my agent and fine tune them a little before presenting them to the publisher. Hopefully, they like at least one of them. If they do the cycle begins again and we start on the next book.

Thanks Todd, for taking the taking for this. I'm certain that Canadiens fans, and fans of goaltending, will enjoy having this book as part of their collection.

The photos selected to accompany this interview are not included in Mr. Denault's biography of Jacques Plante. The chosen pics are from the HHOF site, HIO,with one or more from the collections of Dennis Kane and The Goalie Archives. Photos in Denault's Plante biography will consist of rarely seen and never before seen shots of the goaltender. Here is a photo of the author:

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