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100 Greatest Players

Max Bentley: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Electric performer won back-to-back scoring titles for Black Hawks, Stanley Cup three times with Maple Leafs

by Bob Verdi / Special to NHL.com

Imagine the outright shock felt by hockey fans in Chicago when they arose on the morning of Nov. 4, 1947, and saw the banner headline on the sports section of the Chicago Daily Tribune:

"MAX BENTLEY GOES TO LEAFS FOR 5 PLAYERS"

 

Video: Max Bentley won two scoring titles, Cup three times

 

The monumental deal, transformational for the Chicago Black Hawks and Toronto Maple Leafs, reverberated throughout the NHL. Even President Clarence Campbell weighed in, saying he was "astounded." Bentley, after all, excelled in Chicago over five seasons, earning the Hart Trophy as most valuable player for the 1945-46 season and leading the League in scoring twice (1945-46 and 1946-47).

Bentley, an electric performer, enjoyed immense popularity in Chicago. Nobody realized that more than Bill Tobin, president of the struggling Black Hawks. As Edward Burns reported on the big news that day in the Daily Tribune: "The swap was broached more than a week ago in Toronto when Connie Smythe, managing director of the Leafs, suggested the deal after Tobin had gone there, screaming for help. Tobin was reported to have said that he wanted to 'talk it over with his mother.' At the time the reply was interpreted as a facetious comment by Tobin, who had been waving $100,000, not the deed to Bentley, in his belated effort to strengthen his cellar Hawks. Then he went to Ottawa and conferred with his mother."

The Maple Leafs sought the man, not the money, and the Black Hawks received forwards Gaye Stewart, Gus Bodnar and Bud Poile plus defensemen Bob Goldham and Ernie Dickens -- an entire unit, sans goalie. Stewart had won the Calder Trophy as best rookie in 1943 and Bodnar followed with the Calder in 1944. So the Black Hawks acquired quality and quantity, and needed both. Still, they would not make the Stanley Cup Playoffs again until 1952-53, by which time Bentley won the Cup three times in Toronto: 1948, 1949 and 1951.

 

MAX BENTLEY CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats 
Games: 646 | Goals: 245 | Assists: 299 | Points: 544

 

Those championships certainly validated Bentley's belief in himself, despite numerous obstacles, not the least of which involved his health. In 1938, when he and his brother Doug were to try out for the Montreal Canadiens, Max became gravely ill. Doctors diagnosed him with a serious heart condition and advised that he abandon playing hockey immediately, or face dire consequences. He obliged for a while, but returned to the game he loved in 1940, when he and his medicine bag joined Doug, who had played 39 games with the Black Hawks in 1939-40.

Both were on the small side; Doug was 5-foot-8, Max, 5-foot-10. When Tobin first saw Doug, he called him a "walking ghost." But Doug fit in as one of six rookies, pleasantly surprising Tobin. According to the Hockey Hall of Fame official website, Doug told Tobin, "You should see my brother … he's twice as good." Though Max was not an impressive figure, on skates he was spectacular, fast and fluid with an ability to accelerate off a single stride and then top it all off with a laser wrist shot. As a shifty center, Max should have been susceptible to heavy checks. But first, he had to be caught and hit. Max was eerily elusive, and could he ever pass the puck.

After brief minor league stints in Kansas City and Providence, Max made his NHL debut on Nov. 21, 1940, and scored his first goal Dec. 1 against the New York Rangers. After two modest seasons, Max scored 26 goals and 44 assists in 1942-43 to finish third in League scoring. With Max at center, Doug on the left wing and Bill Mosienko on the right, the diminutive "Pony Line" became one of the most entertaining and prolific in the NHL. At one point, with World War II affecting rosters throughout the league, the Black Hawks signed Reg Bentley, one of six Bentley brothers playing hockey at various levels. On Jan. 3, 1943, Max and Doug assisted on Reg's only NHL goal, against the New York Rangers. The all-Bentley line was short-lived; Reg played 11 NHL games.

In 1945-46, after serving two years with the Canadian Army during World War II, Max led the NHL with 61 points and became the first member of the Black Hawks to win the Hart Trophy. In 1946-47, albeit with a last-place team, Max again won the scoring title with 29 goals and 43 assists for 72 points. Bentley won the title on the final night of the season, getting a goal and an assist on March 23 to finish one point ahead of Maurice "Rocket" Richard, who had two assists that night. Only two other players had won consecutive scoring titles: Charlie Conacher of the Maple Leafs and Sweeney Schriner of the New York Americans, both during the 1930s. In 1947, Bentley scored in the inaugural NHL All-Star Game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Maple Leafs at Toronto.

Max and Doug enjoyed some memorable explosive games. On Jan. 28, 1943, the Black Hawks routed the New York Rangers 10-1, when Max scored four goals in the third period and had three assists to tie the League record for points in a game. Doug had two goals and assisted on Max's four goals. During that season, Max committed only one penalty on the way to winning the Lady Byng Trophy. On Feb. 26, 1947, the Bentley brothers were at it again, again tormenting the Rangers. Doug had four goals and Max three in a 9-7 romp at Madison Square Garden.

When Max was traded to Toronto, he groused that being separated from Doug made him feel, "like I lost my right arm." But after Max went 10 games without scoring a goal, coach Hap Day placed him on a line with Nick Metz and Joe Klukay. They clicked, as did Bentley and Klukay after Metz retired, to be replaced by Ray Timgren. Meanwhile, the presence of Bentley afforded the Maple Leafs exceptional depth at center, where Ted Kennedy and Syl Apps were mainstays. No NHL team could match that threesome in the middle. Toronto fans quickly took to the shifty Max, who was tabbed by writers "the dipsy-doodle dandy."

The Maple Leafs were the defending Stanley Cup champions when Bentley came aboard, and he wound up scoring 23 goals with 25 assists in 53 games. Toronto finished first and won the Cup again, a first for Bentley, who said, "I've waited a long time for this." Bentley dipped to 41 points in 1948-49 and the Maple Leafs finished fourth. But they surged in the playoffs and won the Cup for a third straight season. In 1950-51, the Maple Leafs claimed the Cup for the fourth time in five years, with Bentley contributing 13 points in 11 playoff games.

Bedeviled by a back injury, Max played 36 games for the Maple Leafs in 1952-53. Prior to the following season, the New York Rangers acquired the rights to Max and Doug. In 57 games in 1953-54, his final NHL season, Max scored 14 goals to boost his League total to 245, second to Richard among active players. He reached that total despite missing two potential prime seasons, 1943-44 and 1944-45, during World War II. He retired from the NHL with 544 points in 646 regular season games, along with 18 goals and 27 assists for 45 points in 51 playoff games.

After leaving the NHL, Max signed for 1954-55 with the Saskatoon Quakers, a farm club of the New York Rangers in the Western Hockey League. There he was reunited again with Doug, who was the Quakers' player-coach. Max's last season there was 1958-59. He later coached briefly with the Burbank Stars of the California Hockey League. Max enjoyed baseball, curling, and the family farm near his home of Delisle, Saskatchewan, during the summer. He and his wife, Betty, had two sons.

Max Bentley was born on March 1, 1920. He was one of 13 children, and the youngest of six boys. His father, Bill, was an accomplished speed skater, and Max first ventured to a covered rink in town at about age 4. A personable individual, Bentley always said he was small when he was little and stayed that way. But that didn't prevent his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966. A star who captivated fans in Chicago, Toronto and throughout the NHL after he didn't quite follow doctor's orders, Bentley died on Jan. 19, 1984, at age 63.

 

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