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100 Greatest Players

Elmer Lach: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Was rugged center on Canadiens' famed 'Punch Line' with Maurice Richard, Toe Blake

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

Forget, for a moment, Elmer Lach's three Stanley Cup championships with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1940s and 1950s, and his 215 goals and 408 assists in his 664 regular-season NHL games. Push aside his Hart Trophy in 1945 and his winning the inaugural Art Ross Trophy in 1948, his first League scoring title in 1944-45 predating the Ross award.

And even forget, for a moment, his title-clinching overtime goal against the Boston Bruins in the 1953 Stanley Cup Final, and his election to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966.

 

 

Video: Elmer Lach was rugged center for famed 'Punch' line

 

There's a better barometer of the career of "Elegant Elmer," as the almost indestructible center was known, and it's his hospital chart: 

He broke his nose seven times, best he knew.

His jaw was broken, twice, maybe three times, permanently wired after the third fracture. Lach didn't tell Canadiens coach Dick Irvin about one break for fear he wouldn't be allowed to play.

His cheekbone was shattered twice.

He had a foot sliced open with a skate, severing two veins, which he didn't notice until a teammate pointed to a pool of blood on the bench beneath his feet.

He fractured his leg.

He had stitches that must have numbered in the hundreds.

 

ELMER LACH CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 664 | Goals: 215 | Assists: 408 | Points: 623

 

In 1950, Toronto Telegram sportswriter Trent Frayne introduced Lach to Americans in a Saturday Evening Post profile, accurately headlined: "You Can't Kill a Hockey Player."

Lach was known to some as "The Nokomis Flash," nicknamed for the swift skates he brought from his Saskatchewan hometown.

To Canadiens wings Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Toe Blake, he was one-third of the magnificent wartime "Punch Line," the 5-foot-10 bulldozer who cleared the lanes, traded elbows in the corners and passed the puck as though it had eyes for Richard's stick.

During his 14-season career, and later in life, Lach saw nothing remarkable about his durability, or how he constantly rebounded from career-threatening injuries -- and even life-threatening ones.

"We recovered quickly," he said of himself and players of his day during a March 2005 talk at his suburban Montreal home. "We were in good physical condition and there was always a guy waiting for your job."

 

Fittingly, Lach was in a wheelchair that morning when he met a reporter at his door. He had fractured an ankle in two places 11 weeks earlier while scraping ice off his back porch. At age 87.

"My first major injury since I retired," he crowed, having hung up his skates 51 years earlier.

All his life, "Elegant Elmer" was modest to a fault, with virtually nothing known about him compared to his iconic linemates. With some work you could drag out of him a few stories that mesmerized even his wife, Lise, who had never heard them.

That 2005 morning, almost 60 years after the fact, Lach was still chuckling about a doctor's hands being wrapped around his neck in an emergency room.

It was Feb. 6, 1947, and he had been wheeled into Western General Hospital across the street from the Montreal Forum. A half-hour earlier, he had been savagely checked by Toronto Maple Leafs forward Don Metz, Lach's helmetless head smacking the ice.

"A specialist came in, put his hands around my neck, gave me a few hard shakes and said: 'Do you feel anything?' " he said, laughing. "When I told him I didn't, he said: 'Well, then, there's nothing wrong with you.' The next day, X-rays showed them I had a fractured skull."

From which Lach recovered to win the NHL scoring title the following season with 61 points.

The skull story set the table for another thigh-slapper, about Lach's first game of the 1941-42 season. It was his second season with the Canadiens, his only NHL team.

Lach was racing to the Detroit Red Wings net when he was tripped by Alex Motter, which sent him at full flight into the boards. He extended his left arm, and quite literally broke his fall -- he shattered his wrist, tore up his elbow and dislocated his shoulder.

"I thought my career was over," Lach said.

He missed the rest of the season as he healed, with doctors figuring the elbow would mend on its own. For six months, it had all the flexibility of a hockey stick.

"I'd go out to dinner, cut some meat, bring the fork up in my left hand," he said, demonstrating, "then stick it in my ear."

He related how doctors told him that in July that they'd have to rebreak and reset the elbow, then distracted him and kicked the joint to shatter it again.

Lach rolled up his sleeve to reveal the ragged scar, a reminder of where the bone fragments were finally trowelled out. Then he rattled off his career injury list, remembering with relish all the times his nose was broken "mostly because I skated crouched over the puck.

"The first time was in my rookie year. I went around big Chicago Black Hawks defenseman Earl Seibert a couple times and told him: 'You're too old to catch me.' Well, he caught me. Caught my nose with his elbow. They tinkered with it in the hospital the next day."

(It was rearranged for the final time, and most famously, in 1953, when he scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in overtime and Richard leaped into his arms, the Rocket smashing his forehead into Lach's nose.)

Lach had arrived at the Canadiens training camp in October 1940 on a train from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where he was starring for the senior-league Millers. With him were Ken Reardon, Jack Adams -- the future Detroit Red Wings coach and general manager -- and Joe Benoit, all of whom would be among nine rookies to make Montreal's roster that fall.

This wasn't Lach's first exposure to the NHL. A few years earlier, he'd been invited to the Winnipeg camp of the New York Rangers, who were so tight with a dollar that they told him to arrive with his skates sharpened.

Art Somers, the coach in Moose Jaw, had played four seasons with New York and knew of the club's shallow pockets. So Lach stayed home.

In those days, amateur players never knew who owned their negotiation rights. Lach was later invited to skate for Boston, but declined that offer, as well. But in 1937 he and future Hall of Famer Doug Bentley were scouted by Toronto. They arrived by train, each weighing barely 150 pounds, and plunked themselves down in the dressing room on either side of hulking wing Charlie Conacher.

Lach recalled Conn Smythe, the intimidating Maple Leafs boss, striding loudly into the room with: "They were sending me big guys from the West, but instead they've sent me peanuts."

Each passed on an offer of $1,500 for a season of senior hockey.

Lach hadn't played organized hockey until he was almost 17, when he spent one season with the junior Regina Abbots.

"The fellow who picked me up at the train in Regina asked me: 'Where's all your luggage?'" he said. "I told him: 'It's in my back pocket: a handkerchief and a toothbrush.'" 

The youngest of six children, Lach had learned to skate on a pond outside his home in Nokomis (population 600), borrowing a neighbor's blades on the days they weren't being used.

He graduated from Regina to a senior-league team in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, and moved on to Moose Jaw, where he caught the eye of Paul Haynes, an injured Canadiens forward sent west on a scouting mission. Lach, 22, was signed a contract for 1940-41 worth $4,000, plus a $1,000 signing bonus, for his first season with the rebuilding Canadiens. This would be his salary for his first seven years; his career high was $22,000, including bonuses.

Lach had seven goals and 14 assists in 43 games as a rookie, centering Tony Demers and Adams, but impressed more with his rugged play. Lach said he took one suture for each of his points.

He was sidelined the following season with his shattered elbow, then was inserted in 1942-43 between the veteran Blake and the promising rookie Richard, who broke his ankle 16 games into the season. Benoit was inserted onto the line at right wing and the trio clicked, hailed in Montreal newspaper cartoons as the "Punch Line" for its potency.

The Rocket was back in 1943-44, and he, Lach and Blake assumed the "Punch Line" label. They led the Canadiens to their first Stanley Cup title in 13 seasons that year, and another championship in 1945-46.

These three men had unique skills and perfectly complemented each other: Richard was the short-fused stick of dynamite with a gift for finding the back of the net; Lach was the tireless, indestructible playmaker and ice general; the veteran Blake was a superb positional player who anchored his teammates.

"We were just a line," Lach said, shrugging his shoulders, in an understatement. "I didn't sense anything special when Irvin put us together in practice. As a group, we were good. Individually, we were just average hockey players."

So average that in 1944-45, Lach, Richard and Blake finished 1-2-3, respectively, in NHL scoring. That season, when Richard scored his historic 50 goals in 50 games, Lach led the NHL with 80 points -- three years before the Art Ross Trophy was introduced -- and won the Hart Trophy as the League's most valuable player.

Lach would retire in 1954, two years before the Canadiens began their run of five consecutive championships.

"They started winning two years after I quit because they'd cleared out the deadwood," Lach said, laughing. "Skating was my game, and my legs were gone."

He moved on to a career in business, entertaining clients on the golf course, playing to a four handicap, and even dabbled in coaching, taking the reins of the Junior Canadiens and senior Montreal Royals. He coached Henri Richard in juniors, counseling him to find another line of work; Lach believed that, at 5-foot-7, 160 pounds, Richard was too small to make it in hockey.

"I suppose Henri's 11 Stanley Cups proved otherwise," Lach said, laughing again.

He was the last surviving member of the "Punch Line," and the NHL's oldest living player when he died on April 4, 2015, at 97.

One day nearly 15 years earlier, "Elegant Elmer" Lach was no longer a center, but the Rocket's right wing, a pallbearer at Richard's funeral.

"I still feel a part of the Canadiens," he said. "What amazes me is that people still remember me. All these years later, it's a great honor to be spoken of with the Rocket and Toe. And maybe we were a little better than average."

 

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