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The Verdict: Kuenster, '61 Hawks get to feel like kids again

Wednesday, 01.12.2011 / 1:00 AM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian
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The Verdict: Kuenster, \'61 Hawks get to feel like kids again
Goalie Glenn Hall (right) and John Kuenster pose with the Stanley Cup after the Hawks won the 1961 championship in Detroit.

John Kuenster still has the letter. It is from someone organizing the annual mens’ and boys’ banquet at North Austin Lutheran Church. Kuenster, a sportswriter with Chicago's Daily News, is asked to bring a friend of his to be a guest speaker for the evening. The date of the letter is Dec. 21, 1961, a few months after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. The request was for Bobby Hull.

“Hockey players didn’t do many appearances like that back then,” Kuenster recalled. “But Bobby was beginning to become a star, and they wanted him at the dinner. Bobby and I got along well. We were an afternoon paper, so we did more features than the morning papers. A year or so before, I had done a two-part series on Bobby as a guy who could make it big, and he never forgot that. Anyway, Bobby agreed to speak. He asked me how much he should get paid. He wound up getting $25. I told him, ‘Take whatever they offer you, Bobby. Your day will come.’”

THE VERDICT

Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.

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Did it ever. "The Golden Jet" became the greatest left wing in National Hockey League history and went directly to the Hall of Fame. During the Blackhawks' 50th anniversary celebration of the 1961 Cup champions last weekend, Hull and fellow legend Stan Mikita learned that they will be honored with life-size bronze statues outside the United Center by next season.

“If ever two players deserved this, it’s Bobby and Stan,” said Kuenster, 86, the last living journalist to have covered the Cup clincher in Detroit’s Olympia on April 16, 1961—a 5-1 victory for the Blackhawks, who eliminated the Red Wings in the best-of-seven final, 4 games to 2. Kuenster attended Sunday night’s pregame on-ice ceremony, along with son Bob and grandson Brian, 11.

“The young one was in heaven,” said John, “but I felt like a kid again, too.”

Eight players from the 1961 squad, plus various family members, were brought to Chicago for a weekend of first-class treatment that included five-star hotel accommodations, a “team meal” at Morton’s Saturday night—during which management presented each retiree a shiny replica ring—and Sunday night’s rousing introduction before another sellout crowd prior to the defending champions’ 5-0 rout of the New York Islanders.

“I don’t know what to say about this whole homecoming other than it’s been unbelievable,” gushed Glenn Hall, “Mr. Goalie”, who was accorded a standing ovation as he walked out on the red carpet, waving and smiling. “I used to throw up before games, as I’m sure you’ve heard, but I avoided that problem this evening. Not that I wasn’t nervous, mind you.”

Whenever you get Hull, Mikita, Hall, Pierre Pilote, Eric Nesterenko, Wayne Hicks, Bill Hay and Ab McDonald in the same room, stories tend to be resurrected and in some cases, revised. Hay spoke from the heart at Saturday night’s feast when he remarked eloquently about how a certain bond exists forever among the 1961 players, including those who are “no longer with us.” And John McDonough, president of the new Blackhawks, mentioned with justifiable pride that this reunion after 50 years was a first. Sad but true. Then there were the inevitable breakout sessions to straighten out details.

“I remember seeing Nesterenko taking cash every once in a while after a game, I think from Tommy Ivan, the general manager of that 1961 team,” Kuenster said. “I always thought they were paying Eric his salary for playing. I brought that up to him the other night. No, he told me, that was his money for commuting back and forth from Chicago to Toronto, where he was going to college. That was part of his deal when he came to the Blackhawks, that he could continue pursuing his education while also playing in the NHL. He was the only one doing that in the NHL, obviously. He said he was the only Canadian in the NHL who went to college, period.”

In April of 1961, Kuenster had switched off from hockey beat responsibilities to cover baseball. The White Sox happened to be in Detroit, but the game was postponed because of a snowstorm. Kuenster fielded a phone call from his sports editor in Chicago, Joe Rein, who instructed him to head to the Olympia for Game 6.

“I started with the Blackhawks in 1957, when they were just starting to come out of the dark ages,” Kuenster said. “We just covered home games. I did some baseball, of course, and wrote about the White Sox when they won the World Series in 1959. But I was more than happy to go to the Olympia that night. I honestly don’t remember what the Daily News would have done if the baseball game hadn’t been postponed. I can’t imagine that they didn’t have another writer there for the Blackhawks.

“It was a great story. Reg Fleming scored shorthanded to tie the game, 1-1, then McDonald got the winner after Bobby ran into Detroit’s goalie, Hank Bassen, who played instead of Terry Sawchuk, who was injured. I wrote two stories, got out of the Olympia late and walked into a blizzard. I couldn’t catch a plane home, but neither could the team, so I went over to the Leland Hotel and joined the party. Quite a bit of imbibing and a lot of guys wrestling. I wound up taking a train at 3 a.m. back to Chicago. I beat the team back home. The Stanley Cup story was important, but the bigger story in the Daily News was the snowstorm, the same one that had hit Detroit. It was nothing like what the current team had here last June.”

There was a message from last weekend’s festivities that could not be lost on twentysomethings who now wear the jersey representing a thoroughly rejuvenated organization. When statues are erected outside the building for icons who not long ago felt unwelcome inside the building, the Blackhawks have become a family, again and forever.