Thursday, 15 July 2010

Escaping The Tailspin

HBIC is back with another historical perspective. I'm quite fond of the Sports Illustrated online vault simply due to the overwhelming number of excellent articles produced back when hockey was still relevant to the magazine. Today's look back into SI history takes us to March 20, 1967 where Pete Axthelm looks at how the 1967 Chicago Black Hawks escaped their normal display of falling apart down the stretch had been replaced by a surprising run to the top of the NHL standings. There are a ton of interesting quotes and facts presented by Mr. Axthelm in his examination of the Black Hawks, and it's really a candid look back at how players were more than just teammates and contracts. In fact, I think you could say that this young squad was truly a family in how close their connections were.

Let's take a quick look at how the dust settled in 1967 after this article was written.

While the Black Hawks would not win the Stanley Cup in 1967 - the Toronto Maple Leafs dispatched the Hawks in the semi-finals four games to two - they showed an incredible improvement on previous seasons to win the regular-season standings, capturing the Prince of Wales Trophy. They finished with 94 points in 70 games, 17 points better than second-place Montreal, and racked up a league-high 264 goals-for while posting a league-low 170 goals-against. To put that in perspective, the Hawks scored 52 goals more than Detroit who were second with 212 goals-for, and gave up eighteen less goals that second-place Montreal. This Hawks team? Pretty darn good!

The Hawks would also dominate the accolades scene that year. Stan Mikita tied the NHL record for points in a season with 97, and Bobby Hull scored more than 50 goals for the third time in his career as he finished the season with 52 markers. Mikita would be awarded the Art Ross Trophy for leading the league in scoring, finishing 17 points better than second-place and teammate Bobby Hull. Mikita would also receive the Hart Trophy for being the league's MVP, and would add the Lady Byng for his gentlemanly play. Goaltenders Glenn Hall and Denis DeJordy would capture the Vezina Trophy for being the league's top goaltending tandem. The Black Hawks would finish the season with five players in the top-ten in scoring: Mikita, Hull, Ken Wharram (4th), Phil Esposito (7th), and Doug Mohns (9th).

Adding to the list of accolades, the Black Hawks saw five players named to the NHL All-Star teams that year. Defenceman Pierre Pilote, and forwards Stan Mikita, Ken Wharram, and Bobby Hull were first team NHL All-Stars, while Glenn Hall was named to the second team. These five players would square off in the 1968 NHL All-Star Game against the Toronto Maple Leafs to start the 1968 season. Mikita tied the game at 1-1 on a shorthanded goal at 19:53 of the first period from Hull and Montreal's JC Tremblay. The NHL All-Stars would go up 2-1 just 35-seconds into the second period when Ken Wharram notched a goal off a Stan Mikita pass. However, the All-Stars would eventually fall to the Maple Leafs by a 4-3 score, and Glenn Hall - now a St. Louis Blue in 1968 - would record the loss.

In looking back at the article, there are some amazing quotes that Mr. Axthelm puts forth:

  • "Patrick James Stapleton, 26-year-old gentleman farmer, father of five and an outstanding Hawk defenseman". How many 26-year-olds do you know that play in the NHL, are fathers of five children, and work farms in the off-season? It was simply a different era forty years ago.
  • "Last year everyone was preoccupied with Bobby Hull's drive toward a record 54 goals". That happened in 1966. Just five years after Hull scored 54, one-time Chicago forward and legendary Boston Bruin Phil Esposito would score 76 in 1971.
  • "[T]he mythical Muldoon Jinx—a curse allegedly pronounced by the team's first coach, Pete Muldoon, when he was fired in 1927". Much like the Chicago Cubs, it appeared that the Blackhawks had their own curse as they were only successful in capturing three Stanley Cups in their history before 2010's return to glory.
  • "Mikita, the best all-round player in the game, is a cinch to break Hull's record of 97 points". The first SI curse? Mikita would tie the record as he posted 97 points in 1967, but never surpass that scoring mark. He would score 97 points again in 1968-69.
  • "'Enjoy this?' he says. 'Are you kidding? I'm around here for one reason and that's the money.'" Goaltender Glenn Hall's speech should make him the idol of some members of the NHLPA.
  • "DeJordy can do almost everything Hall does, and since he is younger and more enthusiastic, he will undoubtedly be the goalie the Hawks protect this year in the expansion draft." Mr. Axthelm shows some very good hockey savvy as Hall was exposed in the expansion draft and picked up by the upstart St. Louis Blues. This, however, opened the door for another legendary Black Hawk as the Hawks claimed Tony Esposito on waivers from the Montreal Canadiens in 1969-70. The rest, as they say, is history.
  • "A few players declined Esposito's invitation to join him in a pheasant hunt. 'I don't know why,' Esposito said. 'I'm a very good hunter. As soon as something moves I shoot.'" Either Phil Esposito was an early incarnation of Dick Cheney, or he was simply preparing everyone for his future NHL success. If a goaltender moved, Esposito shot the puck at him.
I can't explain how much I love looking back into the NHL's history, but articles like this are exactly why I love these old stories. Mr. Axthelm does an excellent job in capturing the essence of that Black Hawks team, and the candid chatter with the players is something you never hear today. And what journalist gets that kind of inside access to a National Hockey League team?

Kind of makes me wish players were still like the players of yesteryear.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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