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85 Years of Blood, Sweat and Cheers: The Pony Line

Wednesday, 11.23.2011 / 1:00 AM / 85 Years Series
By Harvey Wittenberg  - Web Contributor
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85 Years of Blood, Sweat and Cheers: The Pony Line

In this edition of the "85 Years" series, former Blackhawks public address announcer (1961-2002), chicagoblackhawks.com contributor and author of "Tales from the Chicago Blackhawks" Harvey Wittenberg recalls watching "The Pony Line" of Bill Mosienko, Max and Doug Bentley.

I’ve been attending Blackhawks games since 1946, and I’ve seen plenty of great players and great lines. The thing that makes a line great – more than just a collection of talented skaters – is chemistry. You could have three All-Stars together, and if they don’t complement each other, it probably won’t add up to much.

But that is why I think the “Pony Line” was so special. They didn’t have the longevity of some other great lines in Blackhawks history – they only played together for two seasons between 1945 and 1947 – but the combination of Doug Bentley, his younger brother Max and Bill Mosienko was more than the sum of its parts.

"85 YEARS" SERIES

On November 17, 1926, the Chicago Black Hawks took the ice for the first time. 85 years later, the Blackhawks hold an important place in NHL history and Chicago sports.

In celebration of the Blackhawks’ 85th anniversary, Blackhawks Magazine and chicagoblackhawks.com will profile some of the greatest players to ever don the sweater, with essays written by the people who knew them best: teammates, rivals, broadcasters and other members of the NHL community.

Check chicagoblackhawks.com every Wednesday for another entry in the "85 Years" series.

Recent "85 Years" essays:
> Bobby Hull, by Pierre Pilote
> Patrick Kane, by Denis Savard

> Eddie Olczyk, by Pat Foley
> Stan Mikita, by Bob Verdi
> Doug Wilson, by Tony Esposito
> Eddie Belfour, by Darren Pang

Max and Doug were the youngest of six Bentley brothers, and both were taught to skate by their father, who was known as a great speedskater. The Bentley boys were built more like speedskaters than hockey players; I don’t think any of the Pony Line players weighed in at more than 160 pounds, but they used their speed and skating ability to outmaneuver their bigger competition.

What’s ironic about the Bentleys is that even though both are in the Hockey Hall of Fame now, neither one could crack an NHL roster when they started.

Doug was originally Boston’s property, but he was eventually dropped by the Bruins. A sportswriter told Hawks bench boss Paul Thompson about Doug, and after a strong showing in training camp, he made the team and managed to get a tryout for his brother Max as well. In a league with only six teams, there were a lot of good players who never made it all the way up and many more who had to change organizations in order to make it.

Though small, left wing Doug was a grinder and was the type of player who could dig in the corners when needed but could also score. Doug completed the first-ever Blackhawks playoff hat trick in 1944, and then he repeated the effort two nights later for good measure. More than 50 years after he played, he’s still ranked 12th all-time in franchise history for both assists and points scored.

Center Max was the playmaker of the group and, in my opinion, the best all-around player. He was a tremendous stickhandler, and he performed with a lot of flair. Originally the property of the Montreal Canadiens, he was dropped by the Habs because of a heart condition they said would prevent him from playing in the NHL. But like his brother, he became a steal when he made it to Chicago in 1940. By the time he left to fight in World War II after the 1942-43 season, he was the Blackhawks’ team leader in assists, and he regained the title the season he returned.

Right winger Mosienko, meanwhile, had joined the Blackhawks full-time while Max was in the war and Doug was away from the team, and he’d become a spectacular talent in his own right. Mosie had great vision, and he was amazingly fast; he scooted around the ice. Years later, he came back to play in an old-timers game at Chicago Stadium – he was close to 60 by then – and he still had a hop.

When the Bentleys returned in 1945, head coach John Gottselig paired them with Mosienko, and the media called them the “Pony Line” because each of them was so fast. I was young at the time, but just sitting in the stands and watching them was enough to know how special they were. It was an exciting line featuring three of the fastest players of their era; they made it easy to become a Blackhawks fan. They were some of the team’s earliest star players, and the fans loved them.

The Ponies were so effective that even though they missed 27 games between them in two seasons – a big portion of time with a 50-game regular season – they were still the highest-scoring line both years. With big defenseman Johnny Mariucci protecting the three small forwards, the Pony Line produced a Hart Trophy winner (Max Bentley in 1946) and two Art Ross Trophy winners (Max in both 1946 and 1947). But the one thing they couldn’t produce was wins on the scoresheet.

The 1940s and 1950s were a difficult time; the league was dominated by Montreal, Toronto and Detroit, and the Canadian teams had the edge in signing the top players and developing a farm system. Tommy Ivan was still years away from joining Chicago, and the Blackhawks were a depleted team. When the 1947-48 season began, the team was short on talent – even more when Mosienko suffered a broken ankle – and the team traded Max Bentley to Toronto for five players, which was an unheard of return even for the time. But it was the end of the Pony Line, and a sad moment for fans that had grown to love their game.

Max would go on to win three Stanley Cup championships with Toronto, part of a historical run by the Maple Leafs. Mosienko is probably best remembered for scoring the NHL’s fastest hat trick in 1952 – 21 seconds – with Gus Bodnar, who came over in the trade with Toronto, centering his line. Doug played with the Blackhawks until 1952 but ended his career in professional hockey nearly a decade later. All three were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

It’s well-known that chemistry matters in hockey, but watching the Pony Line is how I first learned that lesson. Max and Doug Bentley had great chemistry, but adding Mosienko really made all three great. None of them were better than when they were part of the line.

There is no doubt in my mind that all three of them could still play today, and they’d be All-Stars. The game has changed, the speed of the game has changed, but the talent is still there. A truly great hockey player can play at any time.

By the late 1950s, the Blackhawks had the start of a Stanley Cup team – Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Glenn Hall and Pierre Pilote included. It’s easy to overlook the Pony Line because they never brought a championship to Chicago, and most people today never saw them. I was very young, but even then I appreciated what they could do.

Though they may all be best remembered for what they did as individuals, for many like me, the Pony Line will always be remembered together, as one unit. They played an important part in the history of the Blackhawks, not just by being the best, but by giving the city and Blackhawks fans someone to cheer for even if the team was not winning. Many great players have worn the Indian Head since, but few have been as exciting while doing so.