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The Verdict: Blackhawk greats recall the 1969-70 season

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks hoist Head Coach Billy Reay on their shoulders after taking the Eastern Division in 1970.

During the 1969-70 season, the Blackhawks made National Hockey League history by finishing first one year after finishing last in the East Division, which included all Original Six franchises. Recently, four members of that team—Hall of Fame Ambassadors Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito, along with star defenseman Pat Stapleton—participated in a roundtable to discuss that memorable winter. Serving as referee/moderator was Bob Verdi, the Blackhawks historian who covered that team for the Chicago Tribune before and after he found his typewriter.

Verdi: OK, guys. Let’s go back to one of the great chapters in Blackhawk annals. Despite a winning record in 1968-69, you wound up sixth and last. Then, a revived team went on an unbelievable roll. What do you recall?

Mikita: Is this on TV? Where’s my agent?

Hull: Stan, do you see any cameras in this room? Bob has only a tape recorder.

Stapleton: We had a bunch of new players in training camp, like Tony. We got him over the summer from the Canadiens for $25,000 in the draft. What a steal.

Esposito: Montreal had Rogie Vachon and Gump Worsley as goalies, so they got rid of me. I was delighted. In Canada, they taxed 50 cents on every dollar. Plus, I couldn’t speak French.

Mikita: Couldn’t you talk to the natives in Italian?

Esposito: I played one of my few games the previous season against Chicago, and I was impressed. I thought the Blackhawks had a lot of talent. We beat them, but it was because every time we shot the puck, it seemed like it went in their net.

Stapleton: Didn’t you play a 0-0 tie in Montreal against your brother, Phil, and Boston?

Hull: Terrible trade, when we sent Phil to the Bruins. That was 1967, and we were still feeling the effects a couple years later. One of the worst trades ever. I didn’t know much about Tony, and I didn’t get to see him in training camp. I was up fishing somewhere.

Mikita: Contract problems?

Hull: Again. I was told they were going to do something about my contract and they didn’t, so I sat out the first 15 games of the regular season.

Mikita: Do we get dinner here or do we just talk? We started slow that season, didn’t we?

Esposito: Yeah, we lost our first five games and the fans were getting restless. But then we went into Montreal and won 5-0. That was the beginning of our roll.

Stapleton: First of 15 shutouts for Tony. Don’t think that record will ever be broken, not the way the game is now. Tony was the reason. He stopped everything.

Esposito: No, I wasn’t. Like I said, the team had talent. And we had a good defense. Solid, deep.

Hull: The year before—the year we were last—we had four 30-goal scorers: Stan, Jim Pappin, Kenny Wharram and brother Dennis. And myself. But finished last. Hard to do.

Mikita: Bobby, you had 58, right?

Hull: Maybe.

Verdi: During the summer, Pit Martin came out and criticized management for having two sets of rules.

Hull: Yeah, I guess that was meant in part for me. I don’t know that there were different rules for the so-called stars. But I do know, the next year, after I finally signed, kids were not allowed in our locker room. My boys couldn’t run around spilling things.

Stapleton: We had a few rookies who never had played in the NHL. Keith Magnuson came right out of college and became a regular on defense. A great kid, even though we tortured him with trade rumors. He’d fight anybody for the good of the team. And Cliff Koroll, who became a regular at right wing. Gerry Pinder too. Tony, is that your ring?

Esposito: This is the one from the 2013 Stanley Cup. Beautiful.

Hull: Big difference from the one we got in 1961. These people now do it right. And Pat is correct about Maggie. He had a lot of energy, that boy. When he came onto the ice for the warm-up, it was like he was in a race. Remember how he went around in circles?

Verdi: In early January of 1970, you were still only a .500 team with a 15-15-5 record. Then, you lost only seven games the rest of the way.

Stapleton: Gosh, you have a good memory. Is that the year we stole your typewriter on the flight to Vancouver? Why are you looking at me like that? You got it back, didn’t you? We didn’t really steal it. We borrowed it.

Esposito: It was an amazing run we went on. Thing is, the race was so tight, every game was crucial. Every game was like a playoff game. Remember, that was a couple years after expansion. But all six of the new teams were in their own division, the West. All six of the established teams were in the East. Very intense. Plus, we lost Pat, which could have killed us.

Stapleton: February 7. I hit the post. But I hit the post with my head. Then my knee wrapped around the post, and I was done. I watched the rest of the season from the press box, with all those hardworking writers. Gosh, you guys could really eat.

Mikita: Then we made a big deal with Los Angeles. Bill White, right before the trade deadline. He fit right in.

Stapleton: Great partner. Next year, when I got healthy again, we were put together and stayed that way.

Hull: That season came down to an incredible end. Last weekend of the regular schedule, last game of the regular schedule.

Mikita: We were tied with Boston for first, but had—what was it?—five more wins, which was the tie-breaker. The Bruins started before us at home on a Sunday night and they wound up beating Toronto. We had Montreal at the Stadium.

Hull: And the Canadiens were desperate just to get into the playoffs. Detroit was in third, and they lost an afternoon game in New York to the Rangers, who were fighting Montreal for the last playoff spot, fourth. The Red Wings didn’t even dress some of their stars in New York, they got whipped, and the Canadiens were furious.

Mikita: They had to either beat us or score five goals in a loss. That was the next tie-breaker, most goals. The Maple Leafs were already eliminated. So if Montreal didn’t make it, that would leave Canada out of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time ever, I think.

Hull: It was wild. We went up 5-2 on Montreal and the Stadium was rocking.

Esposito: Then their coach, Claude Ruel, decided to forget about winning the game. He was shooting to get three more goals to reach five so the Canadiens could pass the Rangers and take fourth place.

Mikita: So he pulled his goalie, Vachon, for an extra skater whenever he could starting in the middle of the third period. Whenever the Canadiens got possession of the puck, Vachon went to the bench for a sixth man.

Esposito: And whenever we got the puck, you couldn’t hear yourself think. It was so loud in that building. It was crazy.

Hull: There were are, shooting at an empty net. I remember Chico Maki coming down on a rush and instead of shooting, he passed it to me. That was Chico. Next time down, I passed it to him and just turned my back.

Verdi: Bobby, you scored on the empty net, along with Dennis, Eric Nesterenko, Koroll and Pinder. The final score was 10-2, and the Blackhawks took first place with 99 points—same as Boston—but with five more wins. And your team yielded 76 fewer goals, exactly one per game, than the previous season.

Stapleton: Tony, rookie of the year. He was the reason.

Esposito: Nah. Good team. I tell you, every game for the last three months was like life or death.

Mikita: Our college kids were important.

That night in 1970, fans in the Stadium were yelling “We’re No. 1! We’re No. 1!” We carried our coach, Billy Reay, off the ice. He was on his own then. No assistants, no strength coaches, no team psychologists. A different era.Bobby Hull

Stapleton: Yeah, when you think about it, at that time it wasn’t common for guys who went to college to make it to the NHL. But Maggie and Cliff went to Denver, and Tony came from Michigan Tech. So did Lou Angotti, also a Canadian who went to college.

Hull: Yeah, if people thought that guys who went to college weren’t tough enough, all you had to look at was Maggie. He had no fear.

Stapleton: That broke down a lot of barriers, when college kids started making it in the NHL. Look at the league now. Then, when Bobby left for the World Hockey Association in 1972, that’s when globalization really set in. Swedes like Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg went to Winnipeg with Bobby, and now the NHL has players from all over the world.

Hull: That night in 1970, fans in the Stadium were yelling “We’re No. 1! We’re No. 1!” We carried our coach, Billy Reay, off the ice. He was on his own then. No assistants, no strength coaches, no team psychologists. A different era.

Mikita: No nutritionists, either. Can you imagine if we had had experts in our locker room telling us what to eat? How to stay in shape during the offseason? I used to exercise during the summer. I cut my grass.

Stapleton: Yeah, different era. Guys now are bigger, and like I said, the game is so fast. Their shifts now are half as long as we had for half the salaries now.

Hull: Half?

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