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Pierre Pilote: Hall-of-Fame Blackhawk defenseman won a Cup in ’61; didn’t fit in Toronto

I’ve written in the past that there have been times in Maple Leaf history when some truly outstanding players arrived to play in Toronto a bit too late in their careers.

In other words, I wish they had been here sooner, in their prime, so they could have had the type of impact I, and I’m sure many Leaf fans, would have preferred to see.  (Click to read 12 Leafs I wish had been here earlier…) One such player came to the Leafs in the late 1960s, but a little context is in order.

After Doug Harvey’s prime (mid-late 1950s) and before Bobby Orr arrived at the tender age of 18 and changed the game in 1966-'67, Pierre Pilote was probably the best all-around defenseman I remember from my youth in the early-to-mid-1960s.  (see the great old Harold Barkley game-action photo of Pilote and Montreal's Jean Beliveau at right, from the oustanding Mike Leonetti book about the 1960s Leaf-Hab rivalry called  "Cold War".)  There were many outstanding defensemen in that era: Tim Horton and Allan Stanley in Toronto, Jacques Laperierre and J.C. Tremblay in Montreal, Bill Gadsby in Detroit and Harry Howell with the Rangers to name a few.  But Pilote, for me, stood out as the very best.

Pilote was one of a number of “kids” that Chicago Blackhawk management brought up in the latter1950s via the St. Catharines juniors or Buffalo in the AHL.  These young players eventually became the backbone of the team that won the Stanley Cup in 1961.  That club was built the way Brian Burke says he likes to build a team- from the goal on out.  Glenn Hall was a future Hall-of-Famer in net (acquired from Detroit), and they had big “Moose” Vasko playing with Pilote along with rugged Dollard St. Laurent on the blueline as well. 

This was an era when you generally only needed – and played with – four defensemen all year.  Vasko was a huge player for that era but could also carry the puck.  While Pilote wasn’t big he was skilled, scrappy and not afraid to mix it up.  They formed the core of a very solid Hawk defense- and team.

Pilote could lay out a big check but also carried the puck as well as any defender in the league.  He passed  very well and could effectively clear the front of the Chicago net.

In the end, the ’60s belonged to the Leafs and Montreal, though it’s still a bit amazing that Chicago didn’t win more Cups with all the talent they had.  Stan Mikita, Bobby (and later Dennis) Hull, Ken Wharram, Doug Mohns, Bill Hay, Erik Nesterenko and many other talented guys made them a contender every season.  (They did, as I mentioned, with it all in 1961, a team that included former Leaf stalwart Tod Sloan and future Leafs Eddie Litzenberger and Al Arbour.)

The Hawks were at times the best and most talented team throughout the ‘60s in the old “Original-Six” NHL days, but couldn’t close the deal, including when they were stunned by the Maple Leafs in the semi-finals in the spring of 1967.

Interestingly, after the 1967-’68 season, a season in which the Leafs missed the playoffs, then still General-Manager and coach Punch Imlach made one of his worst-ever trades.  He acquired Pilote, who by that time was somewhat in decline, for up and coming winger Jim Pappin.  Pappin went on to have several outstanding years with the Hawks while Pilote played one uncomfortable season with the Leafs in Toronto before retiring.

I say uncomfortable, because word got out that Pilote was actually being paid more than Tim Horton, the long-time stalwart Leaf defenseman.  Horton could not have been thrilled- until his own contract was upgraded, which apparently happened.

While Pilote finished the season in Toronto as a “plus” player, my memory of him is that he was nowhere near the impact player he was in his hey-day with the Black Hawks and did not seem to be the fit or leader he had so obviously been in Chicago.  He was a tough, winner-take-all leader and captain of the Hawks.  In Toronto, he wore a helmet and was not the same physical player he had been in his prime.

That 1968-'69 Leaf team was in a transition phase and was at a rather weak point in their history.  They had three over-the- hill defensemen in Horton, Pilote and Marcel Pronovost mixed with rookies on the backline who weren’t experienced in the league- Jim Dorey, Rick Ley, Mike Pelyk and Pat Quinn.  Each of Dorey, Ley and Quinn were tough as nails and gave the Leafs what little backbone they had as a team that season (and they all went on to solid NHL careers).  But it wasn’t enough to halt an embarrassing 4-game sweep at the hands of the tough Boston Bruins in the first-round of the playoffs.  Boston won the first two games 10-0 and 7-0, as the Leafs were too old/young, too small and too soft to handle a Bruin team that was in its prime and, a year later, would win the Stanley Cup.

While Pilote’s experience in Toronto was less than memorable, he was a classy individual who I, and many other observers, remember as one of the best players of his generation.  It would have been ideal if he had retired as a Black Hawk because that’s really the way people remember him best—and when he was at his best.  He was three times named the league’s best defenseman, and remarkably, was an end-of-season NHL All-Star eight times in only thirteen (full) NHL seasons.  An amazing record.

He was a worthy Hall-of-Famer.  I just wish he had been a Maple Leaf much sooner!


1 comment:

  1. At the Olympia, they used to holler "There's no none so fair as our Pierre." He was a very good player for the Hawks. But he was cooked by the time he got to Toronto. Unfortunately, the Leafs inspired the Red Wings, who did several trades like that during that same area ... and started a Dark Ages trend that lasted well over a decade.