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Pierre Pilote: Too Good To Be Forgotten

by Staff Writer / Chicago Blackhawks

Times passes, memories fade. Great games, great plays and great players are forgotten. Each generation has its heroes and each succeeding generation focuses on an ever-narrowing group of stars from earlier eras.

But there is a continuum in hockey, as in most other sports. Scott Niedermayer learned from Paul Coffey who learned from Denis Potvin who learned from Pierre Pilote who learned from Doug Harvey, etc.

Pilote was a key element in the great Chicago Blackhawks teams of the 1960s and their most valuable player when they won the Stanley Cup in 1960-61. The Chicago Blackhawks are honoring Pilote and the late Keith Magnuson Wednesday night by retiring Blackhawks' No. 3 sweater that they both wore.

"When I was at The Hockey News we did a story on who would have won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs in each year before the award was first given in 1965," said former editor Steve Dryden. "Pierre Pilote had the winning or tying goal in every Blackhawks' playoff victory in 1961. He would have won a Conn Smythe Trophy that year."

Pilote was born in Kenogami, Quebec, in 1931. He didn't play organized hockey until he was 17 and then wasn't allowed to play offense because his team needed defensemen. Of such things are Hall of Famers made.

"I was always offensive-minded. My favorite player was Edgar Laprade, a center for the New York Rangers," Pilote said.

Pilote anticipated the way the Soviets would change the game with their emphasis on puck possession as opposed to the prevailing dump-and-chase style.

"When I coached Triple A PeeWees, I told them my philosophy was that if you fought like hell to get a 100 dollar bill, would you just throw it away? You'd keep it, wouldn't you? That was my thinking with handling the puck. If I'm going to pass it, I'm going to pass it to somebody on my side. I'm not just going to dump it for the other team to get it back. I always believed in controlling the puck."

Pilote had great on-ice vision. He's also one of the smartest and hardest-working people you'll ever meet.

"Points came easy for me. It was like a game of checkers. I could always see the next move," he said. "I played with some good players. I could have been more offensive-minded, but if I had been with guys who couldn't score goals, the coach would have said dump it in. I had guys like Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull, who was my favorite target, and Kenny Wharram, who could always score goals.

"Another important thing about being an offensive defenseman, you have to have a good goalie back there. We had Glenn Hall, the best. Some people say Terry Sawchuk was better, but I think Glenn was. Glenn never played behind as good a team as Detroit had in the 1950s."

Pilote was a master at the give-and-go and in many historic photos he's visible near the opposing goalie, a rare place for defensemen in that era.

"If I passed the puck, I would step up and be available for a pass from you, then you can go. Every time I would pass the puck, I would give the guy the option to pass it back to me," Pilote said.

"There're always 10 or 15 square feet of space somewhere that you can skate into and be available to get the puck, get the pass and make another move. That's what hockey is all about and that's what you try to teach young players. The most important guy is not the one with the puck but the guy in position to receive it."

While Hull has cultivated his bon-vivant "Golden Jet" image in retirement, Pilote remembers him as an intelligent, highly competitive teammate.

"Bobby Hull could break or stay back. He was wonderful. He knew my style. I would give it to him, he would give it back to me and step into open space and I would give it back and he was gone," Pilote said. "We communicated very well just by looking at each other."

When told that his analyses and choice of terms like "philosophy of hockey" were reminiscent of the late Soviet coach Anatoly Tarasov, Pilote said it was not surprising. There's a universal language common to the game's deep thinkers.

"When you go to an All-Star game or play with real good players, they all speak the same language," he said. "They know the plays. I had a chance to talk to Peter Stastny after watching him for a long time. He had watched me when he was younger. We were with our wives and they said it was like we had known each other for years. They talk the same language. A lot of players don't understand the game the way some others do."

Teammates used to tease Pilote that he never broke a sweat, although he skated more and harder than they did.

"I played with some guys who played tense and never relaxed," he said. "To play this game, you have to be relaxed. That's the secret: You don't fear anyone, you just play your game. You can play a lot more time when you're relaxed, when you're not under tension. I think that's true of any job, you can a lot more done when you're relaxed and focusing on what you do. You see a lot of guys after they score a goal, they're all excited and jump up and down. I wasn't like that. I wanted to get back in position, ready to play hockey and do my best.

"When we won the Stanley Cup, I psyched myself up by saying, "You're ready. Do your best. Win or lose, do your best. That year, I led all scorers in the playoffs. I had 15 points, which is a lot for a defenseman."

"Growing up, I was a big Chicago Blackhawks fan, so I watched Pierre Pilote and Elmer Vasko, Doug Jarrett and all those guys that played on that team," Robinson said. "Before Orr, there was Pierre and Doug Harvey. Those were the guys who pioneered defensemen taking the puck and rushing up the ice with it and tried to control the play."

"What Pierre Pilote did for me was show me that a defenseman had to have his head up and the puck in front of him so that he is always ready to move the puck," said Potvin. "Starting in my junior career and later in the National Hockey League, that's the way I tried to play: Always ready to make a pass.

"Pierre was not a huge defenseman but he was one of the best ever at separating a player from the puck and that's very important. A defenseman's two most important jobs are to stop the opposition and generate the offense and I saw Pierre as one of the best at doing that."

"Years later, I had a chance to play with him in an old-timers game and I took the opportunity to tell him how much I respected him as a defenseman," Potvin said.

Pilote admires them for emulating him.

"I've heard people say why would you want to copy some player. I thought if someone put 20 years into studying something and all that research was put onto one page, I want to read it," he said.

"I copied. If I saw something that worked, I wanted to put it into my system. I'm a copier. I watched Doug Harvey and I used a lot of his stuff. Hockey's been played for a long time. Nobody recently invented the game. You watch players and film and pick it up. Incorporate things, if you can, into your system."

Pilote sees a lot of himself in a current top defenseman.

"Scott Niedermayer plays a lot like me. I wish I was as fast as he is and as good a skater," Pilote said. "What made the big difference between Bobby Orr and other guys was his skating ability. The game has changed and I'm sure Niedermayer had better instruction than I did and better skates growing up. My first pair of skates was my mother's skates. We did the best we could with what we had.

"Remember, even in the NHL, we had only one coach. Now, you have coaches for the goalies and the defense and they have video coaches, which is very important," he continued. "Teams have a guy looking ahead, studying opponents and telling you what they do. I used to do that in my head. I'd look at a guy, remember what he did, and put it in my head. When a guy came at me, I knew what he could do and couldn't do. A guy would drop his head and I'd just step in and take it."

Author: John McGourty | Staff Writer

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