Ralph Backstrom, the 1959 Calder Trophy winner as NHL rookie of the year and a six-time Stanley Cup winner with the Montreal Canadiens, died Sunday at home in Windsor, Colorado, following a lengthy illness. He was 83.
Backstrom played 1,032 NHL games for the Canadiens, Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Black Hawks between 1956-57 and 1972-73, scoring 639 points (278 goals, 361 assists). Forty of his goals were game-winners. He played another 304 games for four teams in the World Hockey Association between 1973-77.
The native of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, retired to coach the University of Denver and in the minor pros, scouted for the St. Louis Blues from 1999-2002 and in 2003 founded the Central Hockey League's Colorado Eagles, now the American Hockey League affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche.
Backstrom's inventive mind took him to his workbench, where he tinkered with the development of carbon-fibre sticks and the creation of in-line skates as a means of summertime conditioning, the skates proving to be vital equipment in the Roller Hockey International League he co-founded in 1993 and served as commissioner.
Backstrom seemed destined to play for the Canadiens. He was such a fan of the team during his youth in Kirkland Lake, a mining town 375 miles north of Toronto, that he wrote the names of legendary 1940s Punch Line skaters Elmer Lach, Maurice Richard and Toe Blake on the three Montreal forwards of his table-hockey game.
Ralph Backstrom in October 2020 at home with his first NHL goal puck, scored Oct. 23, 1958, and in a 1960s Montreal Canadiens portrait.
A blue-chip prospect, Backstrom was signed by the Canadiens at age 17, assistant general manager Ken Reardon putting 10 $100 bills on the family's kitchen table in exchange for his commitment to the team.
Backstrom would move briskly through the organization, arguably the finest junior player in Canada who served as captain of the 1957-58 Memorial Cup-winning Hull-Ottawa Canadiens.
An impressive 1958 NHL training camp landed him on the Canadiens, for whom he would play into the early part of the 1970-71 season as the No. 3 center behind Jean Beliveau and Henri Richard.
"Ability alone is not enough," Backstrom said in 1964 upon scoring his 100th NHL goal. "Some of us have to work a little harder and I'm ready to do that. I'm convinced that my best years are ahead of me."
He had already been a member of Stanley Cup winners in 1959 and 1960, the final two in the Canadiens' run of five straight, then would be an integral part of championships in 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1969.
"It was an eye-opener, stepping onto the ice with those guys," Backstrom told NHL.com last October of his early years in Montreal. "I think any young player felt intimidated, going into that dressing room and playing with the Canadiens, and against the great players on other teams. It was a wonderful experience that I'll remember the rest of my life."
Strategically traded to the Kings 16 games into the 1970-71 season, Backstrom would in Los Angeles play a crucial role in the Canadiens' claiming of Guy Lafleur.
Ralph Backstrom holds the puck with which he scored his 100th NHL goal for the Canadiens on Feb. 29, 1964.
Scoring 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists) in 33 games, Backstrom helped lift the Kings that season ahead of the Oakland Seals, whose first-round pick in the 1971 NHL Draft had been acquired by shrewd Canadiens GM Sam Pollock. The Seals' last-place finish in the Western Division assured Pollock of Oakland's No. 1 choice, which he used to draft Lafleur.
Backstrom's last trip to Montreal was for the Canadiens' Dec. 4, 2009 Centennial game at Bell Centre, an event that saluted the 100th anniversary of the team. He joined many old friends and scores of former players for the event, held just a few miles from his beloved Montreal Forum.
"I have a lot of special memories, playing in that building," Backstrom said last fall. "I really appreciated the opportunity to play in Montreal. There were so many great players there, and a great management team."
And then with a laugh, as he awaited the resumption of the NHL that had been paused because of concerns about the coronavirus, said,
"I'm just looking forward to the game getting started again. I've got an old pair of skates here that I'm dying to lace up. Hopefully, I can score a few more before I'm done."
Photos: HHoF Images / Janet Backstrom / Montreal Canadiens