When the Blackhawks won their last Stanley Cup in 1961, they were built according to a blueprint that never goes out of style. With astute drafting and timely trades, the franchise was pledged to upward mobility, just as it is now, 49 years and 24 teams removed from then.
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
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The Blackhawks had hit bottom, and taken up what seemed to be permanent residence there. For a stretch of 12 seasons, from 1944-45 through 1957-58, they missed the playoffs all but twice, often by wide margins. Nine times they finished last. You think it’s been tough around here lately? Interest around Chicago was so tepid, there were even whispers that the Blackhawks would move to St. Louis or dissolve. It took the ownership of James Norris and Arthur Wirtz—who took over the franchise in 1952 from Bill Tobin—to repel rumors and remind whatever fans existed that money was no object.
“I can lose $1 milliion a year on this team,” declared Norris. “And I can do it for the next 100 years.”
But the Blackhawks still needed a direction and someone to point them there, and that man was Tommy Ivan, who was appointed general manager in 1954 after coaching the Detroit Red Wings to three Stanley Cups. Ivan soon purchased the Buffalo minor league franchise for which a gifted defenseman, Pierre Pilote, played. Ivan also was provided funds to obtain a junior team, the St. Catharines Tee Pees, whose roster of youngsters included Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, and Moose Vasko. Clearly, Ivan had a nose for talent.
Then, in 1957, he pulled the big one. Ted Lindsay, a truculent and productive forward with the Red Wings, had worn out his welcome in Detroit for engaging in nefarious activities. That is, he was trying to gather support for a players’ union. The Red Wings shipped him to Chicago, along with Glenn Hall, a goalie who had won the Calder Trophy with Detroit in 1956. Ivan did not expect much from Lindsay, who was past his prime, but desperately needed Hall because the Blackhawks, for all the potential they were collecting, were not especially close to nurturing a quality netminder.
On April 16, 1961, at Detroit’s Olympia, it all came together when the Blackhawks defeated the Red Wings, 5-1, to win the best-of-seven Stanley Cup final, 4 games to 2. Hull, who had joined the Blackhawks in 1957 and was wearing No. 16 then, was a star of the post-season, as was Mikita. He pocketed six goals in 12 playoff games after scoring 19 in his second full year with the Blackhawks, a year in which he cut down his penalty minutes to 100 from 119 the previous season. No wonder he was referred to in French Canada as “Le Petite Diable” (the little devil). But that was before Mikita reformed and received consecutive Lady Byng Trophies.
Ab McDonald registered the winning goal in Game 6 after Hull made comprehensive contact with Hank Bassen, the Detroit goalie, who was inserted into the series after Terry Sawchuk, the legend between the pipes, was injured. With Bassen stunned, McDonald slipped the puck into the net and the Blackhawks coasted to their first Stanley Cup since 1938.
The game was televised to Chicago on Channel 9 with Johnny Gottselig providing the play-by-play, one of his various duties with the club for which he played over three decades—the '20s, '30s and '40s. He also coached the Blackhawks and served as their publicity director. His sidekick/analyst on the broadcast was Lloyd Pettit, who would become a famed voice of the team on radio and TV. The Blackhawks intended to return to Chicago for celebration, but a snowstorm grounded them in Detroit. No problem. Wirtz, Norris, Ivan and coach Rudy Pilous organized a party there.
“At the time, we were young and thinking that this would happen every year,” Hull mused recently. “You know, [winning] a Stanley Cup every year. Little did we know.”
In retrospect, the Blackhawks declared themselves in the previous series against the Montreal Canadiens, who had captured an unprecedented five consecutive Stanley Cups and were fully prepared to claim a sixth after finishing the regular season in first place with 92 points—17 more than the Blackhawks, who had landed in third. The best-of-seven first round bout (only two rounds in those days) fueled this rivalry with hiss and vinegar.
The Canadiens won the opener at home, but were not fond of the Blackhawks’ aggressive style employed by noted hit men, such as Reggie Fleming, and the smaller types, such as Le Petite Diable. The Blackhawks won Game 2 in Montreal, then took momentum of the tournament in Game 3 at the Stadium, in double overtime. Murray Balfour scored on a power play and the Blackhawks prevailed, 2-1. Montreal coach Toe Blake, infuriated at referee Dalton McArthur, took a swing at him after the game and it cost him $2,000.
Montreal outshot the Blackhawks, 60-21 in Game 4, a 5-2 triumph. But those were the last goals Hall would allow. He won the next two contests 3-0 and the upstart Blackhawks were off to the finals for the first time since 1944.
The Blackhawks were not content with their silverware. Even before the 1962 season began, Norris remarked that he would give $1 million for Frank Mahovlich, the prolific winger who had helped Toronto take the Cup by beating the Blackhawks in that year’s finals. One member of the Maple Leafs’ brass, Harold Ballard, at least pretended to take the offer seriously. So did Gottselig, who called Chicago newspapers from the NHL All-Star Game in Toronto to spread the word.
But the morning after the night before, Stafford Smythe, Maple Leafs president, dismissed this giant act of commerce as a stunt. “Party talk,” he snapped. The transaction never occurred. However, that picture is part of Blackhawks’ lore: Tommy Ivan holding a check for $1 million (Canadian), made out to the Toronto Maple Leafs, dated October 4, 1962, and signed by James D. Norris.