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Blake recalled by former Canadiens players as 'demanding' coach

Cournoyer, Marshall share memories at fundraiser in his honor

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs

VAUDREUIL-DORION, Quebec -- It wasn't with a meek, mild personality that Toe Blake became one of the greatest coaches in NHL history.

Author and former broadcaster Dick Irvin Jr., whose father was replaced by Blake as Montreal Canadiens coach in 1955, has remembered Blake "as an intense, profane, competitive man on and off the ice … [but] also a pleasant and generous companion, a great guy to be around when he was in a good mood, which was most of the time. … But with Toe, you were never quite sure."

Donnie Marshall, a forward who won five consecutive Stanley Cup championships with the Canadiens under Blake from 1956-60, shares that sentiment.

"You could walk down the corridor of the Montreal Forum and you'd see Toe walking toward you and not know if you should say hello or just turn your head," Marshall said late last month at the 24th annual Hector "Toe" Blake Celebrity Golf Tournament to benefit the Alzheimer's Society of Montreal.

Marshall, 85, was one of nine former Canadiens players taking part in the tournament at Summerlea Golf Club here, about 25 miles west of Montreal. He was joined by Hall of Famers Yvan Cournoyer and Guy Lafleur; event co-president Stephane Quintal, NHL senior vice president of player safety; and Pierre Bouchard, Rick Green, Rejean Houle, Yvon Lambert and Pierre Mondou.

Former Montreal Canadiens players gather at an Aug. 24 benefit golf tournament in Toe Blake's honor. From left: Don Marshall, Pierre Bouchard (back), Yvan Cournoyer, Réjean Houle, Guy Lafleur, Rick Green, Yvon Lambert and Stéphane Quintal.

Blake, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966 as a player, won 11 Stanley Cup titles, the first as a forward with the Montreal Maroons in 1935, then two playing with the Canadiens (1944, 1946), and finally eight more as the Canadiens coach between 1956 and his retirement in 1968. He died in 1995, having had Alzheimer's for some time.

The golf tournament began in 1994, a fundraiser organized by Blake's friends and some of his former players. It continued in his memory the following year and has raised about $2 million for Alzheimer's research.

Marshall has participated many times, driving north from his summer home in upstate New York.

"I was a member here for 35 years, but they've changed the holes -- they've made them all about 100 yards longer. Or maybe it's just the way I play," he joked.

A versatile center, strong role player and one of the best penalty-killers of his day, Marshall spent 10 seasons with the Canadiens, having played his minor hockey in Verdun, just a few miles from the Forum. He then played seven years with the New York Rangers before finishing his career with one season each for the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs, retiring after 1971-72 with 589 points (265 goals, 324 assists) in 1,176 NHL games.

Montreal Canadiens coach Toe Blake chats with four of his players during his team's 1959-60 training camp at the Montreal Forum. From left: Dickie Moore, Blake, Don Marshall, André Pronovost and Phil Goyette.

The Canadiens had high hopes for this smooth-skating center with a nose for the net, based on his fine junior and minor-pro offensive output. But Marshall, slotted by Irvin between wings Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Bert Olmstead, broke his ankle in 1954 during training camp and played sparingly with senior-league Montreal before he could rejoin the Canadiens. By then his prime position was lost, and Marshall was deployed by Irvin as a checker, penalty-killer and almost as a fill-in, as he was by Blake when the latter became coach in 1955-56.

Blake immediately led the Canadiens to their unprecedented five consecutive Stanley Cup titles, with Marshall one of the 12 players on the roster of all five champions. He says he's very grateful that he's one of three still alive, with Henri Richard and Jean-Guy Talbot.

An efficient goal-scorer, Marshall played the defensive role his coaches wanted without a murmur of protest, and he was one of the best of his generation. 

"I could do it, as simple as that," he said of being recast as a checker. "In the minor leagues, I killed penalties and scored goals. In the NHL, I killed penalties but didn't get the opportunity to score many. I knew I could play hockey, any position, and if I had to do what my coaches wanted to get on the ice, I'd do that. I had no problem with it."

The Canadiens of that era, he said, were simply expected to win, and a season without a Stanley Cup parade was viewed as a failure. Marshall, who was traded by the Canadiens to the New York Rangers on June 4, 1963 -- "I was going from a team that was very good to a team that wasn't so good," he said charitably with a laugh -- recalled Blake as a coach who was "very good" with his players, a ferociously intense man who had his own way of doing things.

Cournoyer, who had Marshall happily renew a friendship with him in the Summerlea clubhouse, has his own special memories of his first NHL coach. He won the first three of his 10 Stanley Cup titles under Blake, having made his NHL debut with the Canadiens in 1963-64, the season Marshall joined the Rangers, who had made the Stanley Cup Playoffs once in the previous five seasons in the six-team NHL.

"Toe was like my father when I joined the Canadiens," said Cournoyer, 73. "He really respected his players. To play for him, you had to win, first of all. He was really tough with the guys but he was really honest. Toe was very demanding on the defensive side. If I was on for a goal against, I'd look to see where he was behind the bench and take the door off the ice that was farthest from him, to give him time to cool off."

Then, with a spreading grin:

"But we liked to have fun with Toe, too. Whenever he had a team meeting in the dressing room, he'd play with the rolls of tape we had on a table. One morning, we gathered every roll we could find and he started to build a pyramid. It must have been more than two feet high at the end, rolls stacked on top of each other. We were all laughing but he was so involved with the meeting, I don't think he even realized it."

Montreal Canadiens coach Toe Blake gets a close look at the Stanley Cup after his team's 1965 championship win. From left: Bobby Rousseau, Henri Richard, Jim Roberts, Red Berenson, captain Jean Béliveau, Blake, Jean-Guy Talbot, Yvan Cournoyer, Dick Duff.

Over 18 holes and the dinner and charity auction that followed, former Canadiens players remembered Blake from firsthand knowledge and lore, with those who came to golf marveling at the stories that were shared.

"There were times when Toe didn't think that things were going well," Marshall said of those rare occasions. "He'd walk around the dressing room, pointing out flaws in each of our games. You just sat there and took it.

"But Toe," he said with a smile, "always seemed to skip the Rocket."

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