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100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Toe Blake: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Left wing on Canadiens' famed 'Punch Line' was embodiment of 'old-time hockey'

by Stu Hackel / Special to NHL.com

"[Darn] right he was tough," Elmer Lach once said about his teammate Hector "Toe" Blake. "One time, he took on the whole Detroit [Red Wings] team. They all came after him and he stood there at center ice swinging his stick, saying, 'Which one of you [guys] wants it first?' It was like a bunch of dogs trying to get at him."

To some, Toe Blake is one of the funny-named guys who symbolize "old-time hockey" in the film "Slap Shot." To others, he was the rough-looking, fedora-and-suit-wearing coach of the Montreal Canadiens who only seemed to smile when his team won the Stanley Cup -- which means he smiled at least eight times.

 

Video: Toe Blake was one of toughest players, best coaches

 

But it was Toe Blake the Hockey Hall of Fame player who made the other two possible.

Lach called him "the backbone" of the "Punch Line," one of the most prolific and dynamic trios in hockey history. With Blake at left wing, Lach at center and Maurice "Rocket" Richard at right wing, they combined speed, flair, aggression and power with unmatched chemistry, dominating the NHL and leading the Canadiens to four consecutive Prince of Wales trophies and two Stanley Cup championships.

As a goal-scorer, Richard smashed records, but Blake's scoring feats should not be forgotten. At his career's premature end in January 1948, Blake was the second all-time scorer in NHL history with 527 points, only 21 points behind Bill Cowley, who he might have caught that season. He had led all active NHL players with 235 regular-season goals. He scored 20 goals in six of his 13 NHL seasons, including five straight. He was also the all-time NHL leader in playoff scoring, with 62 points in 58 games.

 

TOE BLAKE CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 577 | Goals: 235 | Assists: 292 | Points: 527

 

Sportswriters in the low-scoring era called him The Old Lamplighter. Of course, Blake had a more common nickname. As a toddler, his sister Margaret couldn't pronounce Hector properly. It came out as "Hec-toe," and soon Toe was all anyone called him.

He wasn't particularly big (5-foot-10, 165 pounds), but few ever competed as fiercely the Canadiens' No. 6. As the Chicago Tribune noted in 1940, "Despite the fact that the Canadiens have spent most of the season furnishing themselves a more or less permanent place in the league basement, Blake continues to work as if every game is the deciding one for the Stanley Cup."

He augmented his ferocity by bringing a full toolbox to the job. Blake skated well and strongly, shot the puck hard and with accuracy, passed sharply, and played both ends of the rink and in all manpower situations.

The NHL honored his all-around excellence beginning in his second full season, 1937-38, when, although he finished 17th in scoring (33 points) and six other left wings had higher point totals, Blake made the NHL Second All-Star Team. The next year, he won the League scoring title (47 points) and the Hart Trophy, even though the Canadiens finished sixth out of seven teams, and made the First All-Star Team for the first of two straight seasons.

Blake captured all those awards before Richard and Lach were even in the NHL.

Born on Aug. 21, 1912, in Victoria Mines, Ontario, to Wilmer and Arzelie Blake, he was the oldest of 15 children, although four died in infancy from diseases. He grew up in that area, around Sudbury, in nickel-rich company mining towns where workers like Wilmer bought provisions from and paid rent back to their employers.

You couldn't describe Toe Blake or his childhood as soft. As author Michael Ulmer wrote in the "Canadiens Captains," "The 11 surviving children grew up in a four-room company house and their closets were nails in the wall." Blake himself once recalled, "It was a big day whenever we got beef drippings on our bread instead of lard for our school lunches."

The Blakes coped with poverty though sports, but because they couldn't afford skates for Toe, he started out in hockey as a goalie, a position he could play wearing boots. When he was 12, he got a job hitching horses to the milkman's delivery wagon before school and used the money to buy skates. Arzelie -- who spoke only French, making Toe bilingual -- was tough and direct, qualities her eldest inherited. She didn't want a hockey career for him, hoping he'd choose steady employment in the mines. Toe did work there as a teen, but hockey became his focus.

At 17, he began playing junior hockey for various clubs in the regional Nickel Belt League and the Northern Ontario League and, at 19, joined the Sudbury Cub Wolves as a center for their 1932 Memorial Cup run, earning praise for his skating and checking as Sudbury defeated Winnipeg in a three-game final.

Playing in the senior OHA for three seasons in Hamilton, Blake attracted attention from numerous teams. The Toronto Maple Leafs briefly had him on their negotiation list in 1932, then the Canadiens added him to theirs in 1933. As Canadiens owner and manager Leo Dandurand told Bill Roche in "The Hockey Book," he later permitted the Maroons to sign Blake to a pro contract in February 1935 on the condition they send Blake back to the Canadiens "on first call."

"He was 23 when he joined the Maroons in 1935," Mark Kram wrote in a 1965 Sports Illustrated profile, "a reckless, truculent and boisterous individual who seemed resolved that intimidation -- an often used weapon of NHL players -- would not succeed against him."

He played nine games for the Maroons, including one in the playoffs. It was enough to get his name engraved on the Stanley Cup after a three-game sweep of Toronto in the Final. At the start of the next season, the Maroons sent him to Providence of the Canadian-American League, where he threw around his weight, his fists and enough pucks for the Canadiens to trade for him in February 1936.

In Detroit a month later, as the Canadiens were being whipped by a superior Red Wings team, Blake refused to go quietly. He fought in turn Syd Howe, Hec Kilrea, Doug Young and Ebbie Goodfellow -- and then swung his stick at Goodfellow as they exited the penalty box, earning a match penalty. "He really went amok," Red Wings boss Jack Adams told Kram. "But he never backed away from any of them. He was a hell of a competitor."

Maturity began to take hold next season, perhaps because he wanted to impress his boyhood idol. The electrifying Howie Morenz, the greatest star in the NHL from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, had returned to the Canadiens for the 1936-37 season. "Hell, he was my hero, all right," Blake said. "When I was growing up in Northern Ontario, I used to call myself Howie."

However, following a career-ending leg injury, Morenz died on March 8, 1937, at 34. Morenz's inspiration must have lingered because Blake's career took off the season following his idol's death. Despite his rising star, the Canadiens' fortunes declined, both on the ice and at the box office.

When coach Dick Irvin moved from Toronto to Montreal in the summer of 1940, he saw only one bona fide NHL player on the Canadiens roster: Blake. He made Toe captain and started to rebuild around him.

Lach arrived that year, and the promising Richard came in 1942. A series of injuries to Richard caused concern that he might be too brittle for the NHL. After he started 1943-44 skating with Blake and Lach, another injury soon sidelined him. He returned to the lineup playing with others. But during a schedule break around Christmas, Irvin traveled to Saskatchewan to visit his family, leaving Blake to run practices. Foreshadowing his future as a coach, Blake put Richard and Lach back on a line with him, and Irvin kept them together when he rejoined the team for the Dec. 30 game against the Red Wings. That night, Richard -- who had four points on the season -- got three goals and two assists in an 8-3 win. The "Punch Line" was born, and hockey was never the same.

"That's when my career really got going," Richard told famed broadcaster Dick Irvin, the coach's son, for his book "The Habs: An Oral History of the Montreal Canadiens 1940-1980." Richard spoke no English at first and Lach spoke no French. Blake handled the translating and much more. Lach told the author Irvin that Blake "was good for me and Rocket. We called him 'The Old Man.' He was in his 30s. One thing about Toe was the way he practiced. Boy, how he would work. He always said, 'The way you practice is the way you played.' He never fooled around in practice. That's what made us successful."

Richard had 30 goals in the season's last 30 games, becoming the most explosive performer the game had seen, aided by his linemates. Each had a role. Although strong shooters themselves, Blake and Lach gladly hunted and fought for pucks to feed Richard, who was nearly unstoppable inside the blue line. All three understood where to be in certain situations and they could move the puck to each other without looking. "I knew by feel," Lach told the author Irvin. "It was very clear in my mind."

Richard was overjoyed to skate with the Canadiens star he had admired as a teenager. "My hero was Toe Blake," he told author Roger Kahn.

Fans filled the Montreal Forum as the "Punch Line" drove the Canadiens to a first-place finish in 1944 by a record 35 points and then to the Stanley Cup, their first in 13 seasons. After the Canadiens lost Game 1 of the semifinals against Toronto, Blake assisted on each of Richard's five goals in a 5-1 win in Game 2. The Canadiens didn't lose another playoff game. Blake's goal 9:12 into in Game 4 against the Chicago Black Hawks won the Cup, capping a furious late four-goal rally engineered entirely by Blake, Richard and Lach (he also had four assists). Blake's teammates lifted him on their shoulders as the Forum crowd roared. His 18 points in nine playoff games were a record for a single postseason.

The following season, Blake finished third in the NHL with 67 points and was named to the First All-Star Team for the third time. He also helped Richard score 50 goals in 50 games.

In 1945-46, Blake stunned the hockey world by reforming his rugged ways, becoming the unlikely winner of the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship. The Canadiens won the Cup again in 1946 as the "Punch Line" outplayed Chicago's great "Pony Line" of Max and Doug Bentley with Bill Mosienko in the first round and the Boston Bruins' legendary "Kraut Line" of Milt Schmidt, Bobby Bauer and Woody Dumart in the Final. Blake again scored the Cup winner, becoming the second NHL player to do so twice.

But in January 1948, a collision with Bill Juzda of the New York Rangers resulted in a compound fracture of his leg, ending his NHL playing days. His leadership was such, however, that Blake remained with the Canadiens the rest of the season, continuing to act as captain everywhere but on the ice, serving as the link between players and management.

He moved to the minor leagues as a player/coach for a couple of years, then devoted himself to coaching full time, coming back to the NHL in 1955 and guiding the Canadiens to an unprecedented eight Stanley Cup titles between 1956 and 1968 (he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a player in 1966). Blake was just as tough behind the bench as he had been on the ice. "It's the way I am," he said. "It's the only way I know how to get there."

Toe Blake was forever the embodiment of "old-time hockey."

 

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