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Worst to First: The 1969-70 Blackhawks

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
The addition of Tony Esposito helped spark one of the greatest turnarounds in league history.

This story appeared in the 2010 playoff edition of Blackhawks Magazine, the official game program of the Chicago Blackhawks. You can get your copy of the playoff edition by calling the Blackhawks Store at 1-800-GO-HAWKS.

It was a brief news item from the NHL intra-league draft on June 11, 1969:

“Chicago drafted goaltender Tony Esposito from Montreal, who claimed Chicago’s removal, goaltender Jack Norris.”

One sentence in the sports section, small print, back near the tire ads. Tommy Ivan, the Blackhawks’ general manager, thought enough of Esposito to pay $25,000 for him; the  Canadiens, dusting off their lastest Stanley Cup, did not blink. They were loaded, as usual.

“Rogie Vachon and Gump Worsley were there,” recalled Esposito, who had played in only 13 games for the Canadiens the previous season and the rest with their Houston affiliate in the Central League. “I knew I would be going somewhere. I was hoping it would be Chicago. I’d seen them play in Montreal that year. I thought they had the makings of a good team.”

At the time, fans in the Windy City might have begged to differ. The Blackhawks had finished last during the winter of 1968-69. It wasn’t a deadly last, because they actually forged a winning record of 34 victories, 33 losses and 9 ties. But, like all Original Six franchises in the East Division, the Blackhawks feasted on expansion teams in the NHL West. Against their establishment brethren, the Blackhawks won only 13 of 40 games. What’s worse, against everybody, the Blackhawks yielded 246 goals — only three of the league’s dozen franchises were more porous. So, no, Tommy Ivan wasn’t trying to stop the presses with that rather obscure maneuver; he was simply trying to stop the bleeding.

Or at least, the grumbling. Chicago hockey fans approached the season somewhat restless and in ill-humor, a mood that was exacerbated when the Blackhawks got waxed, 7-2, in the opener at St. Louis, then dropped their Stadium debut to Oakland, 2-1. Coach Billy Reay started hearing a sarcastic hymn — “Goodbye, Billy… Goodbye, Billy” — but the beatings continued.

The Blackhawks lost their first five games, all the while wrestling with the residue of a summer broadside issued by Pit Martin, who had scorched the team’s management and labor in print for an absence of togetherness, compounded by what he perceived to be a different set of rules for superstars Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. Although Reay supported the critique, that didn’t prevent Martin from acquiring the nickname “Perfect Pit.” Talk about sarcasm. Hull, however, was not among those returning snide volleys because he would miss the first 15 games in a contract dispute. The Blackhawks, in other words, began October of 1969 in a bad way.

To compete, the Blackhawks brought in fresh blood from their farm system, including Keith Magnuson (above).
“But then we went to New York, played well, and tied the Rangers, 1-1, for our first point,” recalled Cliff Koroll, who scored the Chicago goal. “And then we went to Montreal, and we got our first win. Tony shut out the Canadiens. Slowly, things started to build. I roomed with Stan on the road, and if he was upset about what Pit had said, he never said so. Pit stood by his remarks, that the team needed to play better defensively, and Billy stressed it too. When Bobby finally signed, he was completely on board too. We had a very together bunch. When we got to the hotel, wherever we were, we put our bags in the room, then went to the nearest dark watering hole for a few beers. And everybody showed. All 20 guys. Then after we had a few beers, we’d all go to dinner. Again, you could feel something building.”

Koroll, who had played the entire 1968-69 season with Chicago’s Dallas farm club, spent much of his summer around his alma mater, the University of Denver. He worked out there with a couple of college pals, Jim Wiste and Keith Magnuson. All listened intently to Harry Ottenbriet, Denver’s assistant coach, who implored them to train vigorously because the Blackhawks were ripe for change. They needed new blood, jobs would be available, particularly the role of a policeman. Magnuson took up karate, and when he arrived at training camp with his fast-forward attitude, there was no looking back. What he lacked in natural ability, Magnuson compensated for with gumption. He never spent a day in the minor leagues and instantly evolved into the team’s spirit chairman.

“So, we wound up with a bunch of guys from college,” said Koroll. “The three of us from Denver — Maggie, Wiste and myself — plus Tony from Michigan Tech. That didn’t happen in those days. We might have helped open the door for players going to the NHL from school, instead of only the junior ranks. Harry was right. We had a chance to make it, and fortunately, we did. Plus, we had a couple other rookies, Gerry Pinder and Paul Shmyr. The team played well in front of Tony, but he was tremendous. I had played against him in college, but none of us had any idea how great he would be. We were a together group, on the ice and off. Whether it was meeting for lunch…or the snipe hunt.”

Ah, the snipe hunt. During training camp, veterans touted this traditional gala outing for the rookies. They would adjourn to the cornfields of Hillside one evening to go bird hunting. With straight faces, grizzled types such as Mikita and Pat Stapleton encouraged newcomers such as Magnuson to begin practicing their snipe whistles, all the better to attract these mysterious feathered creatures. Understand that Magnuson, bless his oversized heart, was impressionable. Some would say, gullible. You could have told him the mission was an elephant hunt.

“We gathered at a bar, naturally, then at night, Maggie and another rookie, Terry Caffery, go out into the cornfields,” Koroll said. “I had been at the previous training camp, so I knew all about it. They had lanterns, a net to catch the snipe, and Stan tells them, ‘if it doesn’t work when you whistle…then call them. ‘Here, snipe! Here, snipe!’ Maggie and Caffery are out there in the dark, thinking the rest of the team is also hunting snipe. We’re back in the bar, but the Hillside police, who are in on it, go to the cornfields and arrest them. We all go back to the station, there’s a judge there, we go to a courtroom and he charges them with illegal hunting of an endangered species — the snipe is like a bald eagle, he tells them — being Canadians hunting on U.S. soil, unlawful use of a lantern, everything. The judge tells Maggie he can make one phone call. He’s shaking, he’s in handcuffs and calls Billy Reay, who is also in on it. Billy gives it to him. Finally, we can’t hold it in anymore. We start laughing. Maggie realized he’d been had. A snipe is a bird, but I don’t think they fly around Hillside.”

After losing to Detroit on January 4, the Blackhawks were hanging around with a record of 15-15-5. Not even this eclectic group of guys, young and experienced, imagined what would unfold thereafter. The Blackhawks, clicking on all cylinders and possessed by a credo that became the title of Magnuson’s book — “None Against” —stacked victories as they climbed in the standings. Koroll, now the president of the vibrant Blackhawk Alumni Association, looks back 40 years and remarks, “It was as though we couldn’t afford to lose a game because we were in such a tight race, and we rarely did.”

Remarkably, over their last 38 games, the Blackhawks lost only seven — two more in January, three in February, one in March, and one in April. Every night felt like a main event, and the Blackhawks responded. Esposito was spectacular, authoring shutout after shutout toward a total of 15, still a modern record for goalkeepers. Bobby Hull notched his 500th goal on February 21, only hours after Ivan pulled off another masterful transaction by acquiring Bill White from the Los Angeles Kings in a multi-player deal. White, a classic stay-at-home defenseman, became a perfect complement to Stapleton and the blue line tandem was without peer in the NHL. The fact that Stapleton also acquired a willing partner in pranks only abetted to the team’s loose but purposeful personality.

“They tortured Maggie,” said Koroll. “But they nailed everybody. I lost my luggage at O’Hare on the way to a 13-day road trip. I had to buy all new clothes. We come back from the trip, I’m waiting for my new bag and there it is. Then, here comes the old bag on the carousel. I don’t know how they did it, but I know who did it.”

Teammates were not alone in suffering the wrath of Stapleton and White. On a flight to Minnesota, referee Bill Friday joined the Blackhawks. Soon, he noticed his equipment was missing. The suitcase did not appear until moments before Friday was to officiate their game against the North Stars.

“Right off the bat, he whistles four straight penalties against us,” Stapleton said recently from his home in Sarnia, Ontario. “Good thing we didn’t carry out our original plan. We were going to paint his skates white.”

During that wondrous winter, Hull, Mikita and Martin all reached the 30-goal plateau. Jim Pappin had 28. Esposito won the Calder Trophy as best rookie and was second to Bobby Orr in voting for the Hart Trophy as most valuable player. Lou Angotti, a selfless sort, was terrific in his second tour with the Blackhawks, as were Chico Maki and Eric Nesterenko.

After a final night, when the Blackhawks blitzed Montreal, 10-2, to clinch their worst-to-first journey (see sidebar on page 75), one number stood out: 170 goals against, 76 fewer than the previous year, exactly one per game. The Blackhawks swept Detroit in the first playoff round, then were swept by the Bruins, who won the Stanley Cup.

“We carried into the next year, basically the same group, and came so close to winning the Cup,” concluded Koroll. “The seventh game of the finals in 1971, a game that got away after we led 2-0, we lost to Montreal at home, 3-2. I believe if we had won, we might have gone on a little run. Maybe Bobby Hull wouldn’t have jumped. We wound up losing a lot of guys from that team of 40 years ago. But that season, it’s something you never forget. We had a great group … and a great snipe hunt.”

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