Blackhawks Hall of Fame defenseman Pierre Pilote hasn’t skated in an NHL game in almost 40 years, but the accolades from his playing days just keep coming.
One of Pilote’s favorite recent stories involves an encounter with longtime Boston Bruins rival Johnny Bucyk, whom he met at a Hockey Hall of Fame golf outing.
“Johnny came up, sat beside me and all of the sudden looks at me and says, ‘Thanks a lot, you little bugger,’” recalls Pilote. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He says, ‘You separated my shoulder once.’
“After a while I say, ‘I didn’t know that – that’s great!’ It was a great compliment.”
Pilote spent 13 years in a Blackhawks sweater intimidating offenses with his physical play and surprising defenses with his adept passing ability. But when Pilote, a three-time Norris Trophy winner and eight-time NHL All-Star, discusses his career, he’s most satisfied that he played hard every game. Despite playing at a diminutive 5’10” and 165 pounds, Pilote gained a reputation as one of the NHL’s toughest hitters and most fearsome competitors, something he takes personal pride in.
|Pilote stands with the Norris Trophy during the number retirement ceremony on Nov. 12, 2008. |
“Defensemen, in those days, were always bigger than the forwards,” recalls Blackhawks Hall of Famer and former teammate Stan Mikita. “I looked at Pierre and he and I were the same weight and height. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Geez, if I get into a scrap somewhere is this guy going to be able to help me?’ I found out very quickly that he sure as hell could help you. He was not afraid to hit people.”
“He was a great player, no doubt about that,” says Blackhawks Hall of Fame goaltender and Pilote’s former teammate Glenn Hall. “We played ten years together, and he won the Norris Trophy three times. You don’t win the Norris by accident. To win one is something, but to win three… that’s something else.”
Pilote tallied 77 goals and 400 assists in his 13-year NHL career and helped the Blackhawks regain their competitiveness in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When Pilote joined the Blackhawks in 1955, he immediately became the physical presence that would protect offensive stars like Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Bill Hay, and provided the foundation for a solid blue line in front of goaltender Glenn Hall.
The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 1961, one of Pilote’s best years statistically: 6 goals, 29 assists and an NHL- and career-high 165 penalty minutes. He was one of the Hawks’ best players in the 1961 playoffs on the way to the Cup as well, tallying a league-best 15 points.
The Hawks met five-time defending Stanley Cup champion Montreal in the first round. Pilote registered six assists in the series against the Canadiens, two on game-winning goals in games 2 and 3, and the Blackhawks won the series 4-2 to advance to the finals. Pilote tallied a point in each of the series’ six games.
In the 1961 Stanley Cup Final against Detroit, Pilote again tallied six assists – including two more assists on game-winners – to go with two goals. The Blackhawks beat the Red Wings in five games to capture their first Stanley Cup in 23 years, marking the only time in the Original Six era (1942-67) a team other than Montreal, Toronto or Detroit won the Cup.
Pilote was named team captain for the 1961-62 season, a title he would hold until he left the Hawks in 1968. He played one more year with Toronto before retiring in 1969, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975.
“Pierre was a guy that tried to keep the harmony among the guys as captain,” says Mikita. “He always did a great job with that.”
A player who took on all challengers, large and small, Pilote opened himself up to his fair share of abuse.
“I remember the one time I really got hit. Once in Montreal, I had the puck behind their net and Bobby [Hull] was in front,” Pilote recalls. “If I made a backhand pass, I would be hit but Bobby would make the goal. I did pass the puck and he put it in the net, but Bob Turner just rattled my head off the glass. I got about 20 stitches, but we got the goal.”
No matter how much abuse Pilote took, it was all for a career and a game that he loved. Even during the roughest times and most exhausting games, hockey was always fun.
“We were young and we were doing something we loved,” says Hall. “I think that in itself speaks volumes about Pierre: when you’re doing something you enjoy, there’s nothing better. Pierre always enjoyed what he did.”
Even when the game was at its most physical, more often than not Pilote gave just as good as he got. One of his trademark fights took place against the Montreal Canadiens when he knocked brothers and future Hall of Famers Maurice and Henri Richard out cold during the same fight.
“Well, that story gets bigger as the days go by,” explains Pilote, who can’t help but chuckle while recalling it even nearly half a century later. “It was in my second or third year. I first went after the younger brother, Henri “The Pocket Rocket,” and I guess his brother Maurice wanted to defend him. Maybe he tripped… we’ll say he tripped.
“After that, there were a lot of guys who left me alone,” Pilote adds, grinning ear to ear.
“Pound for pound, he was the toughest defenseman I’d ever seen in the 23 years I played,” says Mikita.
“I didn’t want to fight all the time,” says Pilote. “But fighting – defending yourself – is an art of the game. I wanted to be known more as a complete hockey player. Two-way defensemen were … a rare breed – they are even now – but I wanted to be the best one.”
Pilote renewed his ties with the Blackhawks organization when he was invited to the Inaugural Blackhawks Convention this past July, where it was announced he would have his number 3 retired along with the late Keith Magnuson.
“I believe in family and I try to keep my family together,” says Pilote. “I think the Wirtz family always had a great family, right on from Arthur and Bill to his children. Bringing the old players back means keeping the Blackhawks family together.
“It’s really a great compliment and an honor. To be included with these great athletes [like former teammates Hull and Mikita], I feel humbled. I am proud for myself and proud for my family.”
Pilote is proud as well to be forever linked with fellow number 3 Keith Magnuson, who he calls “a great player and a great person on and off the ice.”
“I’m very happy to share the spotlight with him,” says Pilote. “He was a great contributor as a player and after he played hockey. We talked an awful lot about hockey and we really respected each other.”
“Pierre Pilote was a tremendous player and is a real gentleman,” says Keith Magnuson’s son, Kevin. “The fact that he’s sharing the night with our family makes it all the better.”
Hall, whose number 1 also hangs from the United Center’s rafters, says that Pilote’s wait will make the day even sweeter than it already is.
“I think because he waited so long for [his jersey’s] retirement, it’ll really be huge,” says Hall. “He was a great player, and he’s earned this honor.”
“It means he’s been respected by his peers and the organization,” says Mikita of the retirement. “It’s well-deserved, that’s for sure.”
Forty years after his retirement, Pilote continues his lifelong love affair with hockey and remains a student of the game. He owns a game-used puck from both Bobby and Brett Hull’s first 50-goal season, a piece of history that he calls a “one-in-a-million possession,” and still keeps up with the team and the city where he spent 13 years of his life.
“This year we’ve acquired Brian Campbell,” says Pilote of the Hawks’ free agent acquisition. “I’m not sure if he’ll be leading the rush, but he should be right there. I hope he has a great year.”
But what of his legacy, and the lifetime of achievements Pilote had on the ice? The accolades and awards mean little to Pilote. What matters more is the rush he felt while playing championship-caliber hockey in front of “the best fans in the NHL.”
“I’m not great at remembering the big things, but the little things I remember,” he says. “There are so many things… seeing Bobby going down on the left wing and blasting the puck in the net… the fans coming out of their seats… going into three overtimes against Montreal and winning the Stanley Cup. Those are the things I will never forget.”Get Pierre's autograph at the United Center Friday, Nov. 13 when the Blackhawks host the Toronto Maple Leafs.