With just one game left to play, the Blackhawks needed a win in their season finale against Montreal to clinch first place in the National Hockey League’s East Division. It would be an amazing feat, considering the team had finished last in the same division just a year earlier.
But the game itself would become an equally noteworthy event. The Montreal Canadiens, needing five goals to make the postseason, tried something so unconventional that it had never been done before: With nearly half a period remaining, they pulled their netminder for an extra attacker, leaving an open net for more than 8 minutes.
The path to the Blackhawks’ division title, and the game that would decide it all, would shatter the NHL record books and result in a stunning final game unlike anything hockey fans had seen before or since.
As the Blackhawks entered the 1969-70 season, the team’s unprecedented rise seemed unlikely, to say the least. The Blackhawks of 1968-69 had gone 34-33-9. Though the record would have easily made the playoffs out of the West Division, home to the six 1967 expansion franchises, in a division with the likes of Bobby Orr, Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe and Frank Mahovlich, competition was tight.
Meanwhile, the locker room seemed to be pulling in different directions. Bobby Hull was in the middle of a contract dispute, and center Pit Martin was unhappy with the way he felt the stars of the team were being treated by head coach Billy Reay and team management.
Bob Verdi (Blackhawks Team Historian/Chicago Tribune writer, 1967-97): Martin said there were two different sets of rules, one for superstars and one for the others. He took some grief for that coming into training camp. They called him “Perfect Pit.”
Harvey Wittenberg (Blackhawks P.A. Announcer, 1961-2002): It’s not that the team wasn’t talented; they had a great core of players, like Bobby, Stan [Mikita] and Jim Pappin. But they had some goaltending problems. Glenn Hall had moved to St. Louis in the expansion draft, and Denis DeJordy — not to take anything away from him — didn’t live up to the hype. In the meantime, some of the guys from the ’60s weren’t there anymore, like Pierre Pilote. It was a time of transition for the team.
The Blackhawks were looking for an infusion of young talent, and turned to some of their prospects in the college ranks to do so. Among those young players were Keith Magnuson and Cliff Koroll.
Cliff Koroll (Blackhawks winger, 1969-80): It wasn’t something that had been done very often up to that point, going from college up to the NHL level. Most players came out of Canadian junior hockey at the time.
Verdi: They get these rookies, like Maggie, that never spent a minute in the minor leagues, and he comes into camp and he lights everybody up.
As important was the addition of a young goaltender the Blackhawks had acquired over the summer off waivers from Montreal: Tony Esposito.
Dennis Hull (Blackhawks winger, 1964-77): From one year to the next, we had basically the same team and ended up in last place with DeJordy. But then we got this fabulous young goaltender… We probably scored as many goals as we did the year before, but Tony stopped a lot more.
Wittenberg: The year before, the Hawks’ goalies were DeJordy and Dave Dryden, Ken’s older brother, and their goals-against average was over three. Montreal knew Tony was talented, but their system was stacked with goaltenders. They had proven veteran goalies like Gump Worsley, and had Ken Dryden coming up. Tony O had just appeared in a couple games and didn’t have the track record.
Eric Nesterenko (Blackhawks winger, 1957-72): I don’t think I can remember seeing another rookie performance like that. Tony definitely was an extraordinary goalkeeper. I’m glad he played for us.
Tony Esposito (Blackhawks goaltender, 1969-84): I was just playing for the team. I never wanted to let them down.
Verdi: If you look in the record book, I think the Hawks were about .500 through the first half of the season. They lost the first five games of the season, and the fans were screaming for Billy Reay’s neck. Then Tony O started to heat up, and eventually Bobby came back from his holdout, and the team started winning. They lost a handful of games from New Year’s to the end of the season, which was incredible.
Dennis Hull: I don’t think Bobby came back for 15 games. But after a rough first few games, we went on a little bit of a winning streak, seven of our next eight. Bobby said, “Thanks a lot, you’re making it harder on me.”
Stan Mikita (Blackhawks center, 1959-80): We always managed to stay on an even keel. We never had to increase our intensity or try to force something, because our intensity level never really let up from the previous game. The most important thing was, we always thought we had a chance in every game.
Wittenberg: The way I would describe it is a “winning binge.” The team just picked up, and things started to click. Bobby and Stan were leading the team, and rookies like Maggie had become very important pieces overnight. But Esposito’s play was extraordinary.
Bobby Hull (Blackhawks winger, 1957-72): If it hadn’t been for Tony, that season would have gone very differently.
Dennis Hull: Now we had an All-Star goalie. He made a big difference.
Verdi: There’s no question that they played a tighter brand of hockey. It didn’t hurt that Tony O had 15 shutouts, still the NHL record. Then, just before the trade deadline, GM Tommy Ivan went out and got Bill White from Los Angeles, a really classic stay-at-home defenseman. Pat Stapleton was hurting then, but when he came back, he and White turned into arguably the best defense pairing in the league. Between them and Tony and Maggie, they were very tough to score on. I don’t know if Tony’s record will ever be broken — I doubt it, the way things are now.
Bobby Hull: We were a team that came together at the right time. After I came back, everyone bonded and we went on to have a great season.
After an 0-5-1 start, the Blackhawks steadily became a dominant team in their division, compiling a record of 30-9-4 after Jan. 1, 1970. Throughout much of the year, they fought tooth-and-nail with the Boston Bruins for the top spot in the division.
As the final day of the regular season approached, the division was still unsettled; the Blackhawks and Bruins were tied for points atop the division, the Detroit Red Wings had clinched third place, and the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens were battling for the fourth and final playoff spot.
The scenarios were set: With a Blackhawks win, Chicago would earn the tiebreaker over Boston and win only its second regular-season title in team history. Meanwhile, the Rangers not only had to win their final game and hope the Habs lost, but due to NHL tiebreaker rules, they needed to outscore the reigning Stanley Cup champion Canadiens by five goals in order to earn the postseason berth.
Wittenberg: The game had so much importance because of how it impacted the Blackhawks, needing a victory to get the overall division championship. The other factor was that Montreal was coming off two straight Stanley Cups, and they were on the verge of not making the postseason.
Bobby Hull: I remember that in the afternoon the Rangers played the Red Wings, and Detroit didn’t dress their best players; they didn’t want to let Montreal, who was still a very dangerous team, into the playoffs. That was their way of trying to stack the deck. If it hadn’t been for Tony, I would have said that we should let Montreal score eight and get into the playoffs, just to spite [Detroit].
Dennis Hull: I remember thinking it was a shoddy trip by Detroit. They didn’t compete against the Rangers, knowing that if New York won, the Canadiens would have to score a lot of goals to make the playoffs. They took their greatest players out, and it wasn’t very sportsmanlike. It still gets me a little riled up to this day. It was nice for everyone to have this great team out of the playoffs, but we just didn’t like the way Detroit did it.
Koroll: It’s not like Montreal was one of our favorite teams either. All those years of playing against one another, from before I entered the league, made the rivalry feel even bigger.
Nesterenko: They were probably the toughest team in the league at that time. The old Forum in Montreal was a dynamic place with rabid fans. They had so many storied players, played in historic games and won Stanley Cups. They had so much talent that every shift was dangerous.
Wittenberg: Billy Reay had especially bitter feelings toward Montreal. He played for the Habs and was passed over as a coach for Montreal. He had a lot of disdain for the Canadiens because he felt he got the short shrift.
Verdi: I think they realized that the Canadiens were the gold standard. They were the Yankees. When the Hawks won the Cup in 1961, if you were to ask Stan or Bobby, they’ll say that the first series, when they upset the Canadiens, who were trying to go for a record sixth straight Cup, was the biggest moment of that run. Stan says that once they beat the Canadiens, they knew that they were going to beat Detroit in the Final. Some way or another, it seemed like they always found a way to win.
Before a standing-room crowd in Chicago, the game got underway. Montreal’s Yvan Cournoyer scored first, and Habs netminder Rogie Vachon stayed perfect though most of the first period. Finally, Jim Pappin and Pit Martin dented the twine 95 seconds apart, and the Blackhawks led 2-1 at the first intermission. The one-goal margin stood through the second intermission as well, after Bobby Hull and Jean Beliveau tallied for their respective teams.
Finally, Martin broke through, tallying twice early in the third period to complete his hat trick. The Blackhawks were leading the defending champions 5-2 with 10 minutes to play in the regular season, and the division title was near!
Esposito: The fans started chanting “We’re number one! We’re number one!” The noise was deafening. I’ve never heard anything like it.
Koroll: We were celebrating. The Stadium was going crazy. We knew that we had to hold on, but we knew we had it. But then we look down toward the Canadiens net, and we see Vachon heading toward the bench. We thought, “What’s going on here?” Then all of a sudden it dawned on us that Montreal had to score five goals to beat the Rangers for that final spot. They were pulling the goalie for a sixth attacker. And we had 8 minutes of an open net.
Wittenberg: No one had ever seen anything like this. But finally it sunk in — it didn’t matter if the Canadiens gave up 100 goals; they needed three more to make the playoffs.
Mikita: Everybody jumped up and started rapping the boards with our sticks. The referees threatened to give us a penalty because we were making too much noise.
Verdi: The Canadiens’ pride was on the line. Their season was on the line. It wasn’t unthinkable that they could come back.
But Montreal Head Coach Claude Ruel’s plan backfired: Whenever the Habs goaltender vacated the crease, another Blackhawks player made them pay. First, Eric Nesterenko scored an empty-netter, then Bobby Hull, Dennis Hull, Cliff Koroll and Gerry Pinder.
Bobby Hull: Every time they came down to our end for an offensive chance, we’d find a way to get the loose puck and come back with a two- or three-man rush the other way. We’d be talking on the ice… “You put it in,” “No, you put it in.”
Mikita: If you needed one more goal, you’d be like, “Put me on the ice, coach!”
Koroll: Jimmy Pappin was stuck on 29 goals and he needed one more to get a pretty nice bonus for 30. He and Gerry Pinder had a two-on-one breakaway, and Gerry wouldn’t pass the puck to Jimmy; he took it himself. I don’t think Jimmy’s talked to Gerry ever since!
Esposito: You couldn’t hear anything, it was so loud. The whole period was like the national anthem at the Stadium — you know how loud that is. You couldn’t hear a whistle. It was just chaotic. The Canadiens were trying, but they knew they were out. That was the fun of it. It was a no-pressure situation.
Wittenberg: I don’t think there’s a way to count how many icing calls the Blackhawks got in that period… Every time the puck hit a player’s stick, he’d try to flip it into the net across the rink.
Mikita: It was a good night for everybody except for Montreal. Our job was done.
Finally, the horn sounded and the Stadium erupted. Not only had the Blackhawks sealed their division championship, they had ousted one of their biggest rivals with a 10-2 thumping.
Verdi: Billy Reay was wearing his red felt hat, and the players lifted him onto their shoulders and carried him off the rink. It was an unbelievable night if you were there. Not only to see what the Blackhawks were doing, but seeing the proud Canadiens scrape for a playoff spot like that. It was unbelievable.
Following the game, the NHL changed the tiebreaker rules for playoff standings, ensuring that another game like the one played at Chicago Stadium that April day would never happen again.
Tony Esposito won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender and the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league’s top rookie, recording a record 15 shutouts along the way, a mark which stands to this day.
While the Blackhawks fell in the second round of the playoffs to Boston, their season remains one for the ages, not just because of the way it ended, but also for the team’s staggering resurgence.
Esposito: I’m not sure anyone had ever played a game like that, before or since. But it was part of something bigger — we felt like we could compete with anyone.
Wittenberg: You can attribute that success to Tony O’s goaltending. You can credit the balanced scoring. Billy Reay was not prone to playing rookies, but the fact that he had to start playing guys like Tony O and Maggie and Cliff was a big reason for the turnaround. Once you add in veterans like Doug Mohns and Doug Jarrett, it changed the complexion of this team. Everything just clicked.
Bobby Hull: That was a great team — one of our greatest. But our 1967 team was also a great team, and ’71 was a great team. But you could talk about ifs and buts forever.
Verdi: When you think of how the season starts — Hull is sitting out, they’re losing, they’ve got a bunch of untested kids. The fans are chanting “Fire Billy” in the stands. This is how October started. It was really grim. To think how the season ended, it’s just unbelievable. It was a one-of-a-kind season.