Elmer Lach, a Hockey Hall of Fame member who won the Hart Trophy in 1945 while centering the famous "Punch Line" with Maurice Richard and Toe Blake, and helped the Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup three times, died Saturday at age 97, the Canadiens announced.
Lach was born in Nokomis, Saskatchewan, on Jan. 22, 1918. He played 14 seasons in the NHL, all with Montreal, before retiring after the 1953-54 season. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966.
"The National Hockey League deeply mourns the passing of Elmer Lach -- center on Montreal's legendary 'Punch Line' with Toe Blake and Maurice Richard, owner of the sole assist on Richard's 50th goal in 50 games in 1944-45 and someone who, at 97 years of age, was just a few months younger than the League itself," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "The League sends heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of this three-time Stanley Cup champion, two-time scoring champion and 1945 Hart Trophy winner."
Lach had been the oldest living NHL player, according to The Associated Press.
He joined the Canadiens in 1940, but it wasn't until the 1943-44 season that coach Dick Irvin put him between Blake, a veteran left wing, and Richard, a 22-year-old right wing trying to shake the tag of being injury-prone. The line clicked instantly, providing the talent and toughness that helped Montreal win the Stanley Cup in 1944 and 1946.
Lach's crowning individual achievement was winning the Hart as the NHL's MVP in 1944-45. He finished with 26 goals and an NHL-record 54 assists for a League-leading 80 points in a 50-game season. Winning the Hart was all the more impressive because he had to beat out Richard, his linemate, who became the first player to score 50 goals in 50 games. The Punch Line's 220 combined points set an NHL record that lasted more than a decade.
When Lach won the scoring title again in 1947-48, one year after he missed much of the season with a fractured skull, he was the first recipient of the Art Ross Trophy, which is still given to the NHL's leading regular-season scorer.
Lach scored the Cup-winning goal in 1953, but after several injuries, he retired a year later. When he did, he was the League's all-time leading scorer with 623 points (including 215 goals) in 664 games, all with Montreal. He had 19 goals and 64 points in 76 Stanley Cup Playoff games.
Following his retirement, Lach was a prominent figure at Canadiens games and events, as well as a successful businessman. As part of their centennial celebration in 2009, the Canadiens retired Lach's No. 16, which had been previously raised to the rafters in 1975 to honor one of his protégés, Henri Richard.
"Every member of the Canadiens organization is profoundly saddened and touched by the death of Mr. Lach," Canadiens president Geoff Molson said. "Elmer Lach was a determined player who enjoyed a great career with the Canadiens and who became an important part of the community in Montreal. On behalf of the Molson family and all members of the organization,
I offer my sincere condolences to the members of his family."
Throughout Lach's retirement, he demonstrated the kind of toughness that was a signature trait during his playing days, a period that saw him break his nose seven times, crack his jaw twice, shatter his cheekbone and sever two veins on a skate blade. In 2005, Lach, then 87, refused to acknowledge any pain when he sustained a double fracture to his ankle. A month after his 93rd birthday in 2011, Lach fell shoveling snow at his home in Pointe Claire, Quebec, and broke his hip. He returned home 12 weeks later, joking with Montreal Gazette sportswriter Dave Stubbs that "I was still breathing, which was good."