The Verdict: Pilote became Blackhawks legend in his own time

Sunday, 01.26.2014 / 1:00 AM
Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian

He started late, but turned out great. As a youngster, Pierre Pilote played baseball, and circumstances beyond his control delayed a love affair with hockey.

“The only rink in our hometown closed down,” he recalled. “Roof collapsed after a big storm. So my first organized game was when I was 17. Maybe that explains why I was a late bloomer.”

Indeed, Pilote spent four-plus seasons in the minor leagues—an unthinkable apprenticeship these days—before graduating to the Blackhawks. But he evolved into one of the best-ever defensemen in the National Hockey League, won a Stanley Cup in Chicago and was a 1975 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Now, Pilote’s story is all there in book form: “Heart of the Blackhawks.” David M. Depuis did most of the writing, L. Waxy Gregoire did most the research, and Pierre did the talking.

“Maybe too much,” noted Pilote. “When we took the original transcript to our publisher, ECW, they told us to cut 50,000 words. So we shrank some paragraphs and said the same thing. Turned out nice. Naturally, when our book came out, so did another one that’s been selling big throughout Canada: Bobby Orr’s.”

Before Orr arrived in Boston, Pilote was a premier NHL “offenseman,” rushing the puck and making masterful passes.

Then the incomparable Orr joined the Bruins in 1966, revolutionized the game and collected an unprecedented eight straight Norris Trophies.

“Yeah, some nice people have said I was like Orr before Orr,” Pilote went on. “I don’t know about that. I do know that I could skate pretty well, and it was difficult for guys to get around me.

“We’re playing Boston in Chicago during Bobby’s rookie year. He comes toward me, I think I’ve got him lined up, then whoosh! He’s gone. So fast. So smart. And tough. He had the amazing ability—and speed—to find the holes. I tried. I had a great stay-at-home partner in Moose Vasko, and the time I spent maturing in Buffalo (in the American Hockey League) was important.”

Pilote played 20 games with the 1955-56 Blackhawks when they still were, in Glenn Hall’s famous description, “hockey Siberia.” He joined them full-time the next season, and slowly but surely the franchise arose from the ashes under monied ownership and progressive management. Also, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita showed up from the St. Catharines junior pipeline.

In 1961, the Blackhawks upset the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, then beat the Detroit Red Wings to bring the Stanley Cup to Chicago for the first time since 1938. Pilote became a longtime captain and was a stalwart on the power play with a series of stellar teams. He won three Norris Trophies (1963, 1964, 1965) and was runner-up in 1962, 1966 and 1967; he was also a first- or second-team All-Star from 1960 to 1967.

A cerebral sort, Pilote took correspondence courses while playing and applied education toward several business ventures. His top salary was $45,000 a year—big money then—and he has lived a good life, well-earned. Pierre’s soulmate, Annie, passed away in 2012, but he is involved with four children and 10 grandchildren.

“Soon, I’ll be a great-grandfather,” said Pilote. “I’m very lucky. I thought I would play forever in Chicago and retire there. Then I was traded to Toronto (for Jim Pappin in 1968) and realized it was a business. But it all worked out, and a lot of nice things have happened to me, thanks to the Blackhawks. You always wonder: Will I be remembered or forgotten?”

When Doug Wilson of the Blackhawks won the 1982 Norris Trophy, Pilote presided over the ceremony. Wilson, now general manager of the San Jose Sharks, still has that picture in his office. Pilote is a staple of the Blackhawks Convention every summer and has attended both Stanley Cup parades.

“Unbelievable,” he said. “What that organization has accomplished under Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough! They’ve been wonderful to me. And what players they have. Gotten to know a few of them. Young guys don’t want to hang out with us old guys. But Duncan Keith, he makes you feel like you belong. Talk about a guy who can move the puck. And he stays in shape year-round. In the summers, we did nothing.”

In November 2008, Pilote’s No. 3 sweater was retired. The number also was worn by Keith Magnuson, whose banner is raised above the United Center. Ever the gentleman, Pilote graciously shared the honor.

“Never occurred to me that I should be up there by myself,” Pilote said. “I was with Keith at the funeral of Keith McCreary in 2003. An hour later, Keith was killed in an automobile accident. Sad. Wonderful man. If I’m a Hall of Fame player, he was a Hall of Fame person.”

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