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One time Leaf Pierre Pilote was a true Blackhawk—and hockey—legend

When I read that Pierre Pilote had passed away a few days ago at the age of 85, I wanted to write something about his marvelous NHL career.

You see, Pierre was an absolute standout during what was, for me, the most memorable era of my hockey-following youth:  the early and mid 1960s. While he played his final NHL season in 1968-’69 with the Leafs in Toronto, but he made his name as a stellar blueliner and leader with the Chicago Black Hawks. (I’m not sure when the Hawks officially changed their name to “Blackhawks”, but they were the Black Hawks back in the day.)

The Chicago franchise, like most long-time sports franchises, has had their times of triumph (that's certainly been so in recent years for the Hawks) and their periods of struggle. The Chicago squads of the mid and late 1950s had fallen into one of those difficult times. So much so that an interesting thing occurred. When future Hall-of-Famers Ted Lindsay in Detroit and Doug Harvey in Montreal set aside their intense hockey rivalry in the late ‘50s to try and help create a Players Association to start to protect the interests of the players of that era, then NHL owners had a predictable reaction: they were incensed.

Over time, at least by the accounts I read way back then, all of the players that had worked quietly behind the scenes alongside Lindsay and Harvey were traded to other teams—most often Chicago, which was considered the doormat of the league in those days. It was kind of a punishment to be sent there. (The owners would never have acknowledged this, of course; this was also a time when NHL players were not paid even remotely on the kind of scale today’s players are, and most took on second jobs to ensure a livelihood and steady income, given how fragile NHL jobs could be if you weren’t a full fledged star.)

In addition, it’s not like nowadays, when traded players have their first-class expenses and travel covered by their new teams. Back then, it was very much, “Don't let the door hit you on the way out; catch the next train for Chicago” or wherever.

In any event, Lindsay was one of those who ended up in Chicago, despite the fact that he was hugely instrumental in the Red Wings winning four Stanley Cups in the 1950s, as well as finishing first in the regular-season standings seven years in succession.  He was a gritty, wonderfully nasty and talented winger who helped change the culture in the Windy City for a franchise that had lived with losing for years. (I should add that, if memory serves, Tod Sloan, the well-regarded veteran Leaf, was among those cast off to the Hawks during the purge of the time.)

Now, what coincided with Lindsay’s arrival in Chicago, however, was a wave of emerging talent that would make the Hawks one of the best teams in the NHL for the next decade. Chicago didn’t quite turn out to be purgatory, after all.

They had acquired Glenn Hall from the Red Wings, who already had the great Terry Sawchuk—the goaltending backbone of the aforementioned Cup and league championships. Hall went on to an outstanding Hall-of-Fame career of his own with Chicago (and later the expansion St. Louis Blues).

But there was much more than Hall. The Hawks signed, developed and then promoted two gems from their St. Catharines Junior A team—Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. Throw in Elmer “Moose” Vasko, the biggest defensemen in the NHL in the late 1950s and 1960s (who brought not only size but was a dependable, mobile defenseman) and ex-Montreal Canadien (albeit briefly) forward Eddie Litzenberger (who became the team captain) and others, and you had the building blocks of a very good young team.

There were other significant contributors, too, like Murray Balfour, and another former Hab stalwart, defenseman Dollard St. Laurent, among others.

But the glue guy was Pilote. (The photo above is one of my all-time favourite hockey action shots. It shows Hab legend "Rocket" Richard trying to get around a very young Pilote to let go one of his patented backhands on Glenn Hall. The picture would have been taken in the late 1950s; Richard was Montreal's captain at the time and Pierre was wearing number 3. I don't think he wore number 3 when he first played with Chicago, but he certainly made the number famous for the rest of his career there.)

The funny thing is, when I look back now and think about watching Pilote play so often on television in those days, while he was tough and played with a real edge, for a guy who played a hard-hitting, rugged game, he was not a big guy. I don’t know what his size/weight numbers were, but as I recall (and over the years when I’ve enjoyed watching old-time “classic” games on various TV channels) he was an individual who was simply a tremendous all around player. He had great anticipation, saw the game and also thought the game so well. He had real offensive abilities, too.

The Hawks won “only” one Cup in that era, in 1961 against the favoured Canadiens, who were coming off having won five championships in succession between 1956 and 1960. (I say "only", because most hockey observers of the time figured the Hawks, with Hall in goal and all that talent, would have won more Cups through that period.)

Lindsay had retired before the 1960-’61 season, so did not get to finish helping Chicago achieve their Cup victory. But Sloan, St. Laurent and others like  former Leaf forward Erik Nesterenko all played key roles, along with those players I mentioned above like Litzenberger.

But the “kids” were central to the plot, especially Pilote, who went on to assume the captaincy after Litzenberger came to the Maple Leafs before the 1961-’62 NHL season (and went on to help Toronto win three Cups in a row—four in a row for Eddie).

For what it’s worth, I'm of the view that after Red Kelly and Doug Harvey (probably the two finest all-around defensemen in the NHL in the 1950s) and before the arrival of the one-of-a-kind Bobby Orr, Pilote was the best all-around defenseman in the NHL. Toronto's Tim Horton is certainly in that conversation along with Harry Howell in New York, and maybe J.C. Tremblay in Montreal, but Pilote was special.

After winning the Cup in 1961, the Hawks went to the finals in 1962, 1965 and again (after Hall and Pilote were gone) in 1971 and 1973, only to lose each time. They could have won any of those series, and came achingly close to doing so.

After the 1967-’68 season, the Hawks traded Pilote to the Leafs in exchange for Jimmy Pappin, who was a central figure in the last Cup championship the Leafs (and we fans) have experienced.  Jim went on to a fine career with the Hawks as a dynamite winger, including on those ’71 and ’73 squads that came so close to victory.

As for Pilote, his one year in blue and white was kind of anti-climactic.  (I recall that he wore a helmet, which I don’t believe he had ever in Chicago.) The Leafs made it back to the playoffs having missed them the year before, after winning the Cup in the spring of ’67. But they were hammered by the Bruins in the first two games of the playoffs in Boston and ended up getting swept.

That result triggered then Leaf owner Stafford Smythe to pull the plug on General Manager and coach Punch Imlach. Punch had been the architect of the Leaf franchise that rebounded to glory in the 1960s after becoming a perennial bottom-feeder like the Hawks through much of the 1950s.  (Imlach's last hurrah in Toronto was pushing and prodding the ’67 roster to an improbable triumph.)

Pilote retired quietly at the end of the 1968-’69 season. He had been an end-of-season (when it matters) first or second team All-Star eight times. He had three times been named the winner of the Norris Trophy as the best NHL defenseman.

Pilotte was just really, really good— the heart of a team that was so talented, had so much offensive firepower and was so much fun to watch in the early and mid 1960s.

Whenever you’d see Pierre interviewed during his career, in retirement and even in more recent years, he was unassuming, quiet, thoughtful and always humble. He is one of those individuals that has always had a warm place in my hockey memory bank.


  1. Good to see you back on the ice, Michael!

    I didn't realize that Jim Pappin was sent to Chicago for Pilote! I never really knew much about him being in my hockey infancy with only radio broadcasts to share with my Dad. My only real memories are the name and not much else, so thank you for sharing your memories to fill in the gaps so admirably and for starting the season right.

    Having basically missed your "most memorable era" I'm hoping that we are at the beginning of another!

    1. Thanks, InTimeFor62. Yes, Pilote was a tremendous player, for sure. But having been born in 1962, you were a bit young to have seen him play much, if at all.

      Those of us who were fortunate to be "old enough" to experience that 1960s Leaf era will always remember it fondly, for sure.

      As for the present, I believe the team is indeed poised to do something special- we'll see in due time.

  2. And another year begins...!! Not a moment too soon! Welcome back, Michael!
    I have similar memories of Pilote. He seemed small - he was paired with Vasko, wasn't he? Very mobile, and frustratingly frequently seemed to be in the right place to thwart the Leafs.
    Having said that, the Pappin trade is one of the low spots in Leaf dealings, for me. Pilote was at the end, and Pappin had a lot further to go.
    Still, in the Hall of Fame of my youth, Pilote ranks with the most formidable foes the Leafs had to face.

    1. Thanks for checking in, Gerund 'O.

      Pilote was a formidable foe, indeed. A class individual in all ways.

      And yes, a new season is upon us!