"It was All-Star. We were all proud to be invited. We recognized the League and the six teams were very competitive and there were an awful lot of good players out there waiting for us to make a mistake so they could take our jobs."
-- Bill Hay reflecting back on the 1961 All-Star Game
The All-Star Game activities in the age of the Original Six hold little resemblance to the last two games held in Dallas and Atlanta or to this year's contest in Montreal on Jan 24 and 25.
In fact, there was no All-Star Weekend in Toronto in 1947 or 1961 because the format was different. This year it will be an East versus West affair; back then it was a group of First- and Second-Team All-Stars playing the defending Stanley Cup champion prior to the start of the season.
In 1951 and 1952, First-Team All-Stars and others played a team of Second-Team All-Stars and others.
The League moved the All-Star Game to mid-season in 1966-67 and went to the East versus West format in 1969. The League has had variations on the format. In 1979, the NHL All-Stars took on the Soviet Union in a three-game series at Madison Square Garden, which was won by the Soviets, 2-1. Another year, 1987, the game was not played because of the Rendez-Vous '87 series between the Soviet Union and NHL All-Stars in Quebec City. The 2006 game was not played because of the Winter Olympics. Another format variation was tried between 1998 and 2002 when North American players faced World players.
In 1961, Bill Hay was a member of the defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks, and for the first time in five years, the Montreal Canadiens didn't host the contest.
"I guess (NHL President) Clarence Campbell set it up and I guess they thought it was a good way to go," said Hay of the All-Star format. "It was a good draw for the Stanley Cup champions and it was a reason to open the season. That was the first game. It started the season off and I think it was a marketing ploy. It was a League game, but I think the goaltenders didn't enjoy it that much because there was a lack of contact and lack of checking.
"The fans liked it because they were still hung over from the Stanley Cup from the spring before. They were so thrilled to have the All-Stars in town."
Hay said none of the Blackhawks ever had an interaction with members of the Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Bruins, Rangers or Red Wings in those days. They were strictly the enemy.
"(The game) was the only time they would talk to each other," said Hay. "But you know I didn't talk to them and you would not want to hear what I used to say to them."
But players did let their guard down very briefly for the game, according to Hay. In fact, it was the only time they opened up to one another. The All-Star Game featured about 40 players, which was probably 40 percent of the League. In those days, a bad All-Star Game could send a player to the minors, so it was important to play a good game even if it was just an exhibition contest.
"It was All-Star. We were all proud to be invited," Hay said. "We recognized the League and the six teams were very competitive and there were an awful lot of good players out there waiting for us to make a mistake so they could take our jobs."
Hay said that it makes so much more sense now to hold the game in the middle of the season because hockey can be a 10-month job, as opposed to his day when the season opened with training camp in September and was done by mid-April.
The All-Star Game was a big deal for the 1961 Blackhawks. There was pressure on Glenn Hall, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, along with the rest of the team, to beat the All-Stars.
"Yes, every time you get on the ice, you are under pressure to win. Nobody ever thought in our era of playing the game easy," he said.
The Blackhawks faced some familiar faces in the 1961 game. In fact, Hay lined up against an old adversary, Detroit's Gordie Howe.
"I checked Gordie Howe my whole career. It wasn't easy, but somebody had to do it," Hay said. "(Right wing) Murray Balfour and (left wing) Bobby Hull got together at Christmas 1959 and (coach) Rudy Pilous asked us if we could check Howe and (Alex) Delvecchio. I said, 'Rudy, you aren't looking at it right. Ask them if they could check our line.' You had to keep one eye on him (Howe) and on the bench as well. He had an awful lot of respect and we liked his competitiveness but you had to watch him."
The only time Hay and Howe were teammates was on the 1960 All-Star squad, which played Montreal.
The 1960-61 Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup because goaltender Glenn Hall was brilliant. But Hall never did like training camp all that much and was always late in reporting to the Blackhawks. But he somehow managed to show up for every opening night of the season All-Star Game between 1955 and 1965 except for the 1959 contest, when Hall was supposedly painting a barn in Stony Plain, Alberta.
"I think the barn burnt down," said Hay with a laugh. "He was a good friend and a grand guy."