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Don't adjust your televisions: Friday's "Classic" is a blast from the past

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
Bobby Hull skates against the Maple Leafs (Chicago Blackhawks Archives).

Do not adjust your television set, because the program you are about to watch will not be broadcast in color.

But don’t touch that dial, either. Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito star in throwback theater when Comcast SportsNet presents another edition of  “Chicago Blackhawks Classics” at 7 p.m. Friday:

Blackhawks vs. Toronto Maple Leafs in Maple Leaf Gardens, Dec. 11, 1971. It’s a must-see in black and white, an Original Six matchup featuring eight future Hall of Famers, including the aforementioned three icons, now ambassadors for the Blackhawks.

Moreover, Mikita appears in an exclusive interview conducted just a few days ago with “Blackhawks Insider” Tracey Myers, while his linemate and road roommate for a decade, Cliff Koroll, joins host Pat Boyle in the studio for analysis and recollections.


Blackhawks Team Historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.

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Let us turn back the clock. The Blackhawks, still chafing from a Game 7 defeat to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1971 Stanley Cup Final, were again in good form that following season. But as they took the ice in Toronto, they were tied at the top of the West Division with the pesky Minnesota North Stars.

Koroll aptly describes the difference in style from the NHL then compared with now. The pace wasn’t nearly as fast and the Blackhawks routinely carried the puck into opposing zones, rather than dumping it in. Thus, there were more stoppages in play, as a result of offsides. As for the rules, you decide whether the Leafs were in Tony-0’s crease (note the change in shape) on Guy Trottier’s goal early in the second period. Was Chico Maki cross-checked at the other end on Jacques Plante’s doorstep? No penalty back in the day.

“Tony saved all the big ones,” said Mikita, recalling how Esposito would finish the season with a microscopic 1.77 goals-against average, nine shutouts and a share of his second Vezina Trophy with sidekick Gary Smith. "Stan the Man" also traced the remarkable parallel careers he and Hull traveled: together as juniors in St. Catharines, Ont., albeit with Hull as a center and Mikita at right wing; their Stanley Cup triumph as twentysomethings in 1961; and those glorious seasons when No. 9 and No. 21 formed one of the league’s greatest 1-2 punches, packing the Stadium night after night.

The Blackhawks won Friday night’s rerun, 3-1, to take first place over Minnesota, which lost in Montreal. The next evening, the Blackhawks beat the North Stars in Chicago for their third of eight straight victories. They never looked back and won the division in a romp by 21 points.

As you look back on that Classic in 1971, take note of the following:

  • It was Black Hawks in those days, two words.

  • Only three players wore helmets, one of them being Mikita, who not only was at the forefront of donning such headgear, he designed a helmet and patented it. Stan said he didn’t worry about the helmet ruining his handsome face because, “I didn’t have one to ruin.” And nobody doubted Mikita’s grit. Said Hull, “Stan was tougher than a night in jail."

  • Plante, one of the greatest goalies ever, was playing with his fourth team and was also a transformational figure. After being injured with the Montreal Canadiens in 1959, he became a modern pioneer by donning a mask to finish the game while old-school coach Toe Blake bit his tongue.

  • The Hawks had no captain. Eric Nesterenko was designated as such, although he wore an “A” along with Doug Jarrett and Mikita.

  • Nesterenko and Lou Angotti were superior penalty killers. Also, observe Jarrett and his famous hip-checks and Bobby Hull on the point during power plays. As Koroll noted, coach Billy Reay briefly switched him off Mikita’s line, a rarity. But Reay was trying to shake things up a bit in the second period with Jim Pappin, another right wing, out of the lineup.

  • Paul Henderson of the Maple Leafs, also wearing a helmet, was not a star at the time. That changed in 1972, when he scored the most famous goal in Canada’s rich hockey history to beat the Soviet Union in an epic eight-game Summit Series.

  • Two Hall of Famers were on the broadcast for Hockey Night in Canada: Foster Hewitt and his son Bill, who providing the play-by-play along with analyst Bob Goldham, a former Blackhawk. As Koroll said, for a Canadian-born player to be on Hockey Night in Canada was the ultimate rush. North of the border, when "Hockey Night in Canada" came on the air, the country basically closed down. That still applies.

  • Koroll is effusive in his praise of Mikita. After the Blackhawks finished last in 1968-69, Koroll joined the team with fellow rookies Keith Magnuson and  Esposito. The Blackhawks staged a historic worst-to-first surge in one season, and as Koroll said, “Stan took me under his wing and showed me the way.”

  • Blackhawks players were very fond of Reay, a players’ coach, and the rivalry with Toronto was fueled by the fact that the Maple Leafs dismissed Reay before he came to Chicago. The guys knew that beating the Leafs felt just a little extra special to their boss.

  • Mikita and Koroll also touch on the advent of a rival league, the World Hockey Association. In December of 1971, it was just a rumor. Within months, the WHA went into business, largely because it made Bobby Hull an offer he couldn’t refuse to go to the Winnipeg Jets. So the Hull you see in Toronto is  playing his last season with the Blackhawks. Bobby called it the “biggest mistake I ever made,” but he’s back in the Blackhawks’ family after “a phone call from President/CEO John McDonough that changed my life.”

  • Does The Golden Jet score one of his 604 regular season goals with the Blackhawks in that classic at Toronto on Dec. 11, 1971? Tune in Friday at 7 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet. It’s there in black and white.                                   
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