If Chicago wins the Stanley Cup, there will be suggestions that the assembled talent is good enough to keep a championship breeze blowing through the Windy City for years to come.
Don’t jump on the bandwagon. Remember that only a year ago there was supposed to be a dynasty brewing in Pittsburgh. Blackhawks fans need only study their own team’s history to learn how difficult it is to stay on top year after year.
The 1960-61 Black Hawks—two words back then—had the makings of a perennial champion. They had gifted young forwards Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita who would go on to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are displaying that same potential today but that’s where the comparisons end.
First off, Chicago was expected to do well this spring and that sure wasn’t the case 49 years ago.
The Hawks of Hull and Mikita finished third in a six-team NHL all of 17 points behind first-place Montreal and the prevailing view was that GM Tommy Ivan’s squad would be ousted in the first round by a Canadiens powerhouse seeking a sixth straight title.
A split of the first two games in Montreal buoyed the confidence of coach Rudy Pilous’ players though, and the Hawks moved ahead in the series on a power-play goal by former Hab Murray Balfour at 12:12 of the third overtime.
A Montreal goal had been disallowed in the second extra period because Donnie Marshall deflected the puck past goaltender Glenn Hall with his stick above his shoulders. Habs coach Toe Blake was so agitated about that and about the penalty to Dickie Moore that led to Balfour’s goal that he took a swing at referee Dalt McArthur. Blake got fined $2,000 but wasn’t suspended.
Chicago blanked Montreal 3-0 in each of the last two games and shocked the defending champions out in six. Habs GM Frank Selke sought out Hall in the Chicago dressing room.
“May I shake hands with a thief?” he said as he offered his right hand. “You killed us.”
Hall, one of the first goalies to use the butterfly technique, didn’t wear a mask and played every game. He’d get so wound up beforehand that he’d throw up and then chug orange juice.
The pre-NHLPA league was way different back then. Players clutched and grabbed and hooked, nearly all the players were Canadians who didn’t wear helmets and who carried wooden sticks, and many were paid little more than what was then the average family income of $5,000. Many worked summer jobs.
Next up was Detroit, and the Red Wings had finished fourth so the soaring Hawks weren’t underdogs for the final.
The Hawks were strong down the middle with Mikita, Bill (Red) Hay, captain Ed Litzenberger and Tod (Slinker) Sloan.
Hull played on The Million Dollar Line with Murray Balfour and Hay, who heads up the Hockey Hall of Fame today.
Mikita, who led all playoff goal scorers that year with six while in just his second full pro season, was on The Scooter Line with Kenny (Whip) Wharram and Ab McDonald.
Hull and Mikita were out of the St. Catharines, Ont., farm team and were 22 and 20 respectively, prompting comparisons to the current tandem of Toews, 22, and Kane, 21.
Eric Nesterenko, Ron Murphy, Earl (Spider) Balfour, rookie Chico Maki and Wayne Hicks, their only U.S.-born skater, also played up front for the ’61 Hawks. Nesterenko, from Flin Flon, Man., had an interesting post-NHL transition as he became a ski instructor in Colorado.
The defence included Pierre Pilote, partner Elmer (Moose) Vasko, Al (Radar) Arbour, Jack (Tex) Evans, Dollard St. Laurent, who’d earned four rings in Montreal, Reggie Fleming and Wayne Hillman. Pilote wound up tied with Detroit star Gordie Howe with a league-best 15 points when the playoffs ended, which was impressive for a small but hard-hitting D-man who didn’t begin playing organized hockey until he was 17.
The format for the championship series had the teams switching cities every game.
Chicago won the opener 3-2 at home. Murphy did a thorough checking job on Howe. Detroit goalie Terry Sawchuk hurt a shoulder and was replaced after one period by Hank Bassen. The uncertainty of their goaltending situation would hurt the Red Wings.
For Game 2 in the old Detroit Olympia, coach Sid Abel used Howe against Hull to get his star away from the checking of Murphy, and Howe led the Wings to a 3-1 victory. The series was tied 2-2 after Chicago prevailed 3-1 and Detroit squeaked through 2-1, setting up a Game 5 in which the Hawks broke loose to win 6-3. Mikita scored two goals including the winner. Sawchuk was back in the Detroit net by now and Hall outplayed him.
Murray Balfour broke his left forearm crashing into a post after being tripped by Howie Young in the third period so couldn’t dress for Game 6 the next night, April 16, 1961, in Detroit. Fleming, a five-foot-eight scrapper, was moved up with Hull and Hay.
The Red Wings, going back to backup Bassen, were leading 1-0 in the second period. Fleming then scored the biggest goal of his career after intercepting a Vic Stasiuk pass while killing a penalty. McDonald gave Chicago the lead later in the second, and Nesterenko, Evans and Wharram, with a breakaway beauty, scored in the third to make it a 5-1 final.
“They had too many big guns and too much muscle for us,” said Detroit GM Jack Adams. “We gave it a real good shot but that goal by Fleming while we had a man advantage killed us. We didn’t have enough left to match them when they accelerated after that break.”
The next day, after a snowstorm briefly delayed a return to Chicago, the players were whisked to city hall and greeted by a Dixieland band and Mayor Richard Daley, who boasted of the wonder of their achievement.
Most are in their 70s now. Others are gone. Murray Balfour died of lung cancer at age 28 only four years after the Stanley Cup celebration. Hillman died in 1990, Pilous in 1994, Evans in 1996, Vasko in 1998, Ivan in 1999 and Fleming in 2009.
Six are in the Hockey Hall of Fame—Ivan and Pilous in the builders’ category along with Hull, Mikita, Hall and Pilote.