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The Verdict: Plenty of symmetry between 1961 and now

Thursday, 01.06.2011 / 12:58 PM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian

To say that the Blackhawks’ stirring 2010 Stanley Cup triumph provided an exclamation point for the “One Goal” mantra of a revived organization is obvious. Throughout Chicago, the buzz about hockey is palpable, bigger and better than ever.

But even as history is made, it tends to be recreated, especially by the NHL’s Original Six franchises. When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 1961, they too brought the sport back after a decade or so of darkness. During the 1950s, the hole was so deep that the Blackhawks were not merely in a state of disrepair—they occasionally found themselves in any state that would have them. As you gaze at perpetual United Center sellouts now, consider this: The Blackhawks were so unloved locally that they barnstormed, staging “home” games in St. Louis, St. Paul and Omaha, Nebraska. Indeed, the viability of the Blackhawks in Chicago was so tenuous, the league considered moving them to another city, period.


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However, 50 years ago, a vibrant team featuring a couple twentysomething prodigies (Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita), a world-class goalie (Glenn Hall) and a robust blend of youth and experience brought the Cup to Chicago for the first time since 1938. If you’re into symmetry, the 1960-61 conquest occurred only a few seasons after a new and enlightened ownership rescued the Blackhawks from a quagmire; Chicago Stadium crowds of 3,000 were watching a squad with a paucity of talent representing little hope and betraying a lack of foundation.

When the Blackhawks began the 1960-61 schedule, they were not expected to run the table. (Then again, according to USA Today, the 2009-10 edition was listed as only a fifth co-favorite at 12-1 along with, coincidentally, the Philadelphia Flyers.) But, half a century ago, that Chicago team was expressing upward mobility, engendered by a sense of direction from entrepreneurs Arthur Wirtz and James Norris, who provided the funds to quell fiscal exhaustion, and general manager Tommy Ivan, who put his knowledge up against a virtually empty cupboard. Talk about rebuilding from scratch.

Ivan, hired in 1954 after a hugely successful tenure as coach of the Detroit Red Wings, praised Wirtz and Norris as “the most patient bosses in the world” and spent their money wisely on developing a farm system. From Buffalo’s minor league club in the American League, Ivan landed Pierre Pilote, who would become a Hall of Fame defenseman. From the St. Catharines, Ontario, Junior A club sponsored by Buffalo, the Blackhawks hit the lottery, securing access to Hull, Mikita, and Moose Vasko, among others. Ivan also wheeled, dealed, and in 1957, he made a trade with Detroit for Hall, another vital piece of the championship core. The Blackhawks were going places, and we don’t mean Omaha.

In 1959, for only the second time since 1946, the Blackhawks qualified for the playoffs. They were eliminated by the Montreal Canadiens. In 1960, the Canadiens again beat the Blackhawks. Come the spring of 1961, Les Habitants seemed destined to annex a record sixth consecutive Stanley Cup. Despite the retirement of Maurice “Rocket” Richard, the Canadiens finished first during the regular season, amassing 92 points. The Blackhawks took third with a record of 29 wins, 24 losses and 17 ties for 75 points—a modest report card, except that it represented their first above .500 record since 1946 and just their second since 1940. Remember what we said about that deep, dark hole? In 1951, the Blackhawks wound up with 13 wins. In 1954, they posted 12.

After splitting the first two games of the 1961 semifinal at Montreal’s Forum, the Blackhawks engaged the Canadiens in Game 3 before a shirtsleeve Stadium crowd on a balmy evening, March 23. Henri Richard tallied for the visitors to effect a 1-1 tie with just 36 seconds remaining in regulation. Then, at 52:13 of overtime, Murray Balfour scored on a power play for a 2-1 triumph with Dickie Moore sitting out the 26th penalty of the match.

Montreal coach Toe Blake, already edgy about what he deemed roughhouse tactics by the Blackhawks—especially Reggie Fleming—was so livid that he barged onto the ice and took a swing at Referee Dalton McArthur, registering a glancing blow. Blake was fined $2,000, a significant sum in those days.

The Canadiens tied the series, 5-2, in Game 4 but did not score again as Hall registered consecutive 3-0 shutouts to complete the upset. In the clincher, each member of the Hull-Eric Nesterenko-Bill Hay line scored. When the Red Wings spilled the Maple Leafs in the other series, Canada was left without a team in the final, shocking our neighbors to the north who anticipated a Montreal-Toronto showdown.

Brimming with confidence, coach Rudy Pilous’ Blackhawks split the first four games against the Red Wings, then won Game 5 with Mikita scoring twice. Game 6 was staged in Detroit’s Olympia on April 16, and the Blackhawks were ready. Fleming clicked for a shorthanded goal to make it 1-1. Then No. 16, Robert Marvin Hull, bore in on Hank Bassen during the second period, flattening the Red Wings goalie. A lonely puck lay there before the Detroit net but not for long. Ab McDonald tapped it in, the Blackhawks took a 2-1 advantage, then won going away, 5-1, for a 4-2 series conquest.

Hall, the unmasked man with the Canada dry humor, played all 12 playoff games, yielding only 27 goals. Mikita bagged six goals during the postseason, Balfour five, Hull four, and Pilote three.

In black and white films you can still see it. Captain Ed Litzenberger—NHL rookie of the year in 1955, acquired from Montreal for cash in one of Ivan’s earliest acts of legerdemain—grasped the Stanley Cup, surrounded by his teammates: Hull, Mikita, Balfour, Fleming, Pilote, Nesterenko, McDonald, Hay, Vasko, Ken Wharram, Ron Murphy, Tod Sloan, Dollard St. Laurent, Jack Evans, Wayne Hicks, Chico Maki, Al Arbour, Wayne Hillman, Earl Balfour and, of course, Hall. “Mr. Goalie” was working on an incomparable streak of consecutive games played.

That was before the mid-1960s when the NHL required each team to dress two goalies, not that he was one to call in sick anyway. But on that evening in Detroit, Hall was thinking only about a cold beverage. A snowstorm prevented the Blackhawks from returning home until the next day, so they held an impromptu party. When their hotel ran out of beer, team members—including a few from management—ran out for more.

“There’s a picture of me,” recalled Bobby Hull. “I’m standing in front of a blackboard in our locker room pointing at the playoff bonus we were to receive for winning the Stanley Cup. The total for our entire team was $54,000. Divided up among all of us! You figure it out. Doesn’t sound like a lot now, does it? What mattered more was that ring. I mentioned that to these current Blackhawks last spring. Stan and I were kids in 1961. We thought we’d be doing this all the time, winning Stanley Cups. We figured this was the first of many for us.

"Well, it was the first and only, which was the message I tried to convey to last year’s Blackhawks. You never know when you’ll get another chance. That’s why I was so happy for these kids who went out and did it. I didn’t realize 50 years ago how hard it was to win a Cup. That’s probably why I enjoyed theirs even more than I did mine.”