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Setting the table for the '61 Cup

by Harvey Wittenberg / Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks went five long seasons without making the playoffs in the six-team NHL of the late 1950s. Naturally, it took time to build a Cup contender. After nearly upsetting the favored Canadiens in the l953 playoffs, which went seven games, the Hawks finished last the next four seasons before moving up to fifth in 1957-58.

Chicago owners Arthur Wirtz and Jim Norris made a key move upon taking ownership of the franchise: hiring successful Detroit coach Tommy Ivan away and instating him as the Blackhawks general manager in July 1954. Ivan's first tasks were building the farm system by getting the Hawks a junior team (St. Catharines) and adding Buffalo as their American League affiliate.

Ivan managed to pry Ed Litzenberger away from the talent-laden Canadiens in December 1954, and Litzenberger became NHL Rookie of the Year. The fruits of the farm system slowly began to ripen when the team added defenseman Pierre Pilote from Buffalo in 1955 and bulky blueliner Elmer Vasko from St. Catharines in 1956.

Another coup was getting promising forward Eric Nesterenko away from Toronto. Nesterenko was ready to give up pro hockey to go to college, but Ivan made him a deal: he’d play on the weekends only while he attended classes during the week.

The following season (1957-58), Ivan snared veteran forward Ron Murphy from the Rangers at the start of the season, in addition to adding another promising 'kid" from St. Catharines – Bobby Hull. The other big moves were getting rough, tough veteran Ted "Terrible" Lindsay and goalie Glenn Hall from the Red Wings. St. Catharines' coach Rudy Pilous took over behind the Hawks bench.

Ken Wharram got the call from Buffalo's AHL squad, and the busy Ivan pulled defenseman Al Arbour from Detroit; Dollard St. Laurent and Earl Balfour from the Cup champ Canadiens; hard-nosed Jack Evans from the Rangers; and classy playmaker Tod Sloan from Toronto.

Youngster Stan Mikita played in three games after coming up from St. Catharines, and at season's end the Hawks returned to the playoffs following a five-year absence.

The stage was set for the 1961 Cup run during the 1959-60 campaign when Ivan signed the team's first college grad, Bill Hay, who went on to win Rookie of the Year honors. Also, Ivan grabbed another gem away from Montreal, Murray Balfour, who teamed up with Hull and Hay to form the "Million Dollar Line."

The Blackhawks will honor the 1961 Stanley Cup champions with a Heritage Night on January 9, 2011.

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