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Blake's career, legacy captured in new biography

Hockey Hall of Famer won Stanley Cup three times as player, eight more as Canadiens coach

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

MONTREAL -- The scene lasts four seconds in the 1977 movie classic "Slap Shot." Forward Dave Hanson of the Charlestown Chiefs lines up beside heavily bearded Syracuse Bulldogs winger Andre "Poodle" Lussier, gives him a smile and politely asks, "Do you know Toe Blake? No?"

Lussier had arrived on the ice introduced thus by sportscaster/public-address announcer Jim Carr: "André, of course, has been living in semi-seclusion in northern Quebec, ever since the unfortunate Denis Pratte tragedy."

Poodle doesn't answer Hanson before pouncing on him, all heck breaking loose at puck drop. Now, more than four decades later, Poodle says that he indeed knew a great deal about Blake, but we'll come back to that.

It is for Hanson's question, and the fact that a puzzled Poodle doesn't react, that a generation of fans know the late Hector "Toe" Blake. Not for Blake's three Stanley Cup championships won as a player or eight more won as a coach. Not for his 1939 Hart or 1946 Lady Byng trophies, his 1966 Hockey Hall of Fame plaque or his 2017 selection as one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players.

"Toe Blake: Winning Is Everything," the newly released biography of Blake by author Paul Logothetis, should change that. The 288-page paperback published by ECW Press is an exhaustive, unvarnished study of an intense, complicated player and coach who left a rich legacy in Montreal and far beyond.

Author Paul Logothetis with his new book, and coach Toe Blake (right) with captain Jean Beliveau, Canadiens president David Molson and the 1965 Stanley Cup.

 

The book charts Blake from his birth in nickel-rich Victoria Mines, Ontario, in 1912, through his death in Montreal in 1995 following a nearly decade-long battle with Alzheimer's disease. Fourteen chapters and a timeline navigate a remarkable, potholed road from northern Ontario to the NHL as a player, then into coaching by way of the minor professional leagues.

Logothetis peels back the layers of Blake's 11 Stanley Cup championships -- his first as a player in 1935 with the Montreal Maroons, his next two with the Montreal Canadiens in 1944 and 1946, and a then record eight more over 13 years as coach of the Canadiens between 1955-68.

Blake's record stood until Scotty Bowman won his ninth as a coach in 2002 with the Detroit Red Wings. Bowman claims it remains bittersweet moving ahead of a dear friend and mentor.

"Toe Blake had such a formidable influence on my coaching career that it can feel very difficult to put my thoughts into words," he writes in the book's foreword.

The 1955-56 Stanley Cup-champion Montreal Canadiens. Fourth from left in the front row is rookie coach Toe Blake, who would win seven more as Montreal's coach.

 

Blake had 529 points (235 goals, 294 assists) in 577 games over 14 NHL seasons. He began his career with the Maroons in 1934-35, winning the Stanley Cup that season, before achieving far greater fame with the Canadiens, the crosstown rival to whom he was traded in February 1936. 

Through much of the 1940s, Blake was the steady left wing on the Canadiens omnipotent "Punch Line" that included Elmer Lach at center and Maurice "Rocket" Richard at right wing. In 1944-45, Lach, Richard and Blake finished 1-2-3 in NHL scoring.

Although a broken leg sustained during a game against the New York Rangers at the Montreal Forum on Jan. 10, 1948, ended his playing career, with hockey in his blood, Blake would cut his coaching teeth in the minors in Houston, Buffalo and Valleyfield before arriving behind the Canadiens bench in the fall of 1955, replacing Dick Irvin Sr. 

He would go on to win the Stanley Cup in each of his first five seasons as an NHL coach with Montreal.

Blake's life is fascinating for its twists and turns, for the personal relationships he nurtured and scorched, hockey and its demands both enriching and torturing him, and for the personal tragedies that marked a good deal of his life.

Toe Blake behind the Canadiens bench, (from left) Don Marshall, Henri Richard and Jean Beliveau in front of him.

 

Logothetis, 42, spent more than a decade covering the Olympics, Formula 1 racing, and World Cup and Champions League soccer before returning to his hometown of Montreal. He got to know Blake's son, Bruce, in their youth as each family owned nearby cottages in the country north of the city.

"Somehow I had goalie pads in the middle of the summer," Logothetis said. "I was in my teens, back from a hockey camp, and I heard that Toe was up to visit Bruce. Toe offered to test out my skills, so I strapped on the pads and he got a tennis ball out and started taking shots on me. It's always stuck with me."

Years later, Logothetis got to wondering how it was that Blake and his legendary playing and coaching career had to this day remained largely a mystery. He ran the idea of a book by Bruce Blake, "got his blessing in a sense," and went to work in January 2017. Three years later, the project was released.

As he dug, Logothetis grew increasingly impressed with Blake's Depression-era work ethic, cast in the mines in which the latter toiled even during his playing days to make ends meet. As Logothetis researched, he gained a huge appreciation for Blake's impact and legacy, and his great love of the game.

Coach Toe Blake between captain Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Doug Harvey, who in 1960-61 would succeed Richard as team captain

 

With Maurice Richard's No. 9 and Elmer Lach's No. 16 retired by the Canadiens in 1960 and 2009, respectively, Logothetis hopes that Blake's No. 6 will reunite the "Punch Line" in the arena rafters. When current captain Shea Weber eventually vacates the number, maybe that will happen.

"Even after he retired from coaching, Toe would say that what meant the most to him was being a player, being in the locker room with the players, with Elmer and the Rocket," Logothetis said. "Those moments were always his passion. With coaching, it was a way to be close to the action and the players. 

"Toe's love of hockey sometimes overtook that for his family. He was a product of his era, barely home, a distant father. From the moment he first started playing, before he could afford skates ... all the way through his life, his love of hockey was everything. He was always focused and determined and all he did was for hockey. His life was like a love letter to the game because everything he did was based around it."

Andre "Poodle" Lussier, played by Mark Bousquet, briefly considers Dave Hanson's question about his acquaintance of Toe Blake in the 1977 movie Slap Shot.

 

As for Poodle Lussier's knowledge about Blake? Mark Bousquet, 68, who played Poodle in "Slap Shot," eagerly replied Thursday in rich statistical detail, off the cuff, with a few observations:

"Toe was known for always wearing his fedora behind the bench, a strict disciplinarian and strategist," Bousquet said. "He was called 'The Old Lamplighter' because of his scoring ability, the 'Punch Line' the best offensive unit in hockey's glory years. But he also played the game with grit. Old-time hockey!"

Poodle will soon know a whole lot more about Blake, the legend he chose not to discuss with Dave Hanson, when he receives Logothetis' book, a gift that's coming from the author.

Photos: HHoF Images/Paul Logothetis/Universal Pictures

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