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Verdict: Pilote, an outlier in his era, was the heart of the Blackhawks

by Bob Verdi / Team Historian

Pierre Pilote, a Hall of Fame defenseman who won a Stanley Cup and three consecutive Norris Trophies with the Blackhawks, has died. He was 85.

Pilote was a latecomer who evolved into a perennial all-star. Born in Kenogami, Quebec, he moved with his family to Fort Erie, Ontario, where the only rink in town was destroyed in a storm. So, at age 14, he drifted to baseball. He did not play organized hockey until he was 17, and then as a center. With a crowd at that position, his coach switched Pilote to the blue line.

"I had to learn how to play there," he recalled, "but I was still inclined to think offensively."

Indeed, Pilote became somewhat of an outlier in his era -- a steady presence on the blue line but a proponent of moving the puck. The pace of games then was not nearly as brisk as it is now, and defensemen were preponderantly of the stay-at-home ilk. But after toiling for 4 and a half seasons in the minors with the Buffalo Bisons, a stunningly long apprenticeship given his skills, Pilote joined the Blackhawks late in 1956 and became an essential ingredient in the team's revival after years in the wilderness.

"Pierre was Bobby Orr before Bobby Orr," praised Glenn Hall, the Blackhawks' Hall of Fame goalie. Whenever Pilote heard that tribute, he always shrugged. Orr's revolutionary style as an "offenseman" with the Boston Bruins earned him eight straight Norris Trophies, but the last individual to merit anything even approximating that was Pilote, who won the Norris in 1963, 1964 and 1965. He finished second in voting in 1962, 1966 and 1967.

"I had a terrific partner in Elmer 'Moose' Vasko, who minded the store while I went up ice," Pilote said. "And we had guys like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, who knew what to do with the puck. Did they ever."

Pierre quarterbacked the Blackhawks to Stanley Cup in 1961, scoring three goals and adding 12 assists in only 12 games as the franchise achieved its first championship since 1938. The next year, Pilote became team captain, an honor he held until 1968. During that hallmark 1960-61 winter, Pilote also led the NHL with 165 penalty minutes. Despite his medium build, Pilote had a truculent side and initiated more physicality than he accepted.

"I had a few scraps," Pilote recalled. "One night in Montreal against the Canadiens, I got into it with Henri Richard. The next thing you know, here came his brother, Maurice, 'The Rocket.' That was interesting. Lucky for me, one of our guys, Harry Watson, arrived to help me out. There was more of that stuff then, and you had to establish yourself, or else."

Despite his fiery form while playing, Pilote was a soft-spoken prince of a gentleman with a dry sense of humor. Although proudly old school, Pilote keenly observed modern hockey and followed current players. When Doug Wilson won the 1982 Norris, Pilote lavishly extolled the young Chicago star. A popular and frequent attendee at the annual Blackhawks Convention, Pilote could often be found huddling with clone Duncan Keith. It was difficult to discern who was picking whose brain.

"Talk about a guy who can move the puck," Pilote gushed. "And he stays in shape year-round. In the summers, we did nothing."

Like so many former Blackhawks, Pilote was grateful to be treated as family.

"Unbelievable what the organization has accomplished under Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough," he said. "They've been wonderful to me."

In 1968, Pilote was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Jim Pappin. After one season there, Pilote retired and embarked on several successful business ventures. He played 890 games in the NHL -- 376 of them consecutively with the Blackhawks. As a fixture in all situations, notably the power play, Pilote amassed 400 assists, still eighth on the franchise list. Keith passed him last season.

In 1975, Pilote was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. On Nov. 12, 2008, the organization retired Pilote's No. 3 sweater in a ceremony at the United Center. That number was later worn by Keith Magnuson, another beloved Blackhawk. Deceased in 2003, Maggie would have been the first to tell anybody that he was not as gifted a hockey player as Pilote.

But Pilote would have none of it.

"It never occurred to me that I should be up there by myself," he said, gracious as ever. In 2013, Pilote's autobiography hit the stands: "Heart of the Blackhawks." In many ways, he was.

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