There was a time many years ago when Pierre Pilote Jr., couldn’t help but notice how intently his father was watching a construction worker in action. The man was a ditch digger and the senior Pilote was studying him intently for reasons his son couldn’t figure out. “He said, ‘We have to dig a ditch for a dog kennel and I want to see how it’s done,’ ” the younger Pilote recalled. “He had just built a new home and he had some work to do and wanted to see how it was done. He was always doing that. He was a real big reader of ‘How-To’ books.”
That story would surprise nobody who knew Pilote as a player during his Hall of Fame career, the majority of which was spent with the Chicago Black Hawks. Legend has it that Pilote, who died of cancer over the weekend at the age of 85, didn’t actually play any organized hockey until he was 17 years old, a story that is backed up wholeheartedly by his son. “That’s absolutely true,” Pierre Jr. said. “I’m sure he played pickup and that sort of thing, and then he just played in a men’s league, an industrial league, then he went to junior and off he went.”
What Pilote lacked in experience he made up for with an analyzing mind. His ability to break down the games of other players was legendary. Pilote told a story about how he purchased a ticket for a Toronto Maple Leafs game when he was playing junior hockey with the St. Catharines Teepees and studied former Maple Leafs defenseman Bill Barilko, who was famed for the ‘Barilko Bump’ hipcheck. He watched intently and decided to use it in the next game, which was against the Toronto Marlboros and future Black Hawk teammate Eric Nesterenko. “They carried him out on a stretcher,” Pilote told The Hockey News. “Nester claims he’s never been hit that hard in his life. Well, that made me think I might learn from other guys. I began to watch and I learned a lot from a lot of stars. I studied (Doug) Harvey until I was able to anticipate many of the things he was going to do. I’d bet I’ve intercepted more of his passes than anyone in the league.”
It was that kind of dedication to his craft that allowed an undersized 5-foot-10, 165-pound defenseman become one of the greats of all-time. Literally and figuratively, Pilote punched way above his weight class. And he was the league’s dominant defenseman from the decline of Harvey to the ascension of Bobby Orr. In fact, in the almost 65 years the NHL has been awarding the Norris Trophy to the league’s best defenseman, only four men have won it three consecutive times. Ray Bourque hasn’t done it. Neither has Paul Coffey, Denis Potvin, Larry Robinson, Brian Leetch or Scott Niedermayer. But Pierre Pilote did it, along with Harvey, Orr and Nicklas Lidstrom. There’s a good chance you didn’t know that, and that’s OK. There are a lot of people who didn’t realize just how good Pilote was when he played.
Just as importantly, Pilote also was a huge component in the Blackhawks going from league doormat to legitimate Stanley Cup contender, although they managed to win the championship only in 1960-61. Pilote was part of a bumper crop of great young players the Blackhawks inherited when owners Arthur Wirtz and Jim Norris purchased the Buffalo Bisons’ American League franchise, which came with their St. Catharines Teepees affiliate that would produce Pilote and, later on, the likes of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. Pilote was the first player brought in by GM Tommy Ivan, who came over from Detroit to turn the Blackhawks around. And even though they won just one Stanley Cup, the Blackhawks were a legitimate Stanley Cup contender through the 1960s and early part of the 1970s. Pilote was a runner-up for the Norris Trophy three times as well and was known as a player who could play the position in all of its forms. He could score and create offense, play well in his own end, make good outlet passes to the talented Chicago forwards and was, pound-for-pound, one of the toughest players in the league.
He was once asked by The Hockey News what he looked for in a good defenseman and his answer was another testament to his reputation as a student of the game. “I like to check how a defenseman handles the puck in his own zone once he gets possession of it. How often does he get flustered and lose it again? That’s a real weakness. Does he keep his poise and work the puck out with accurate passes to his teammates? How well does he control the puck? If he blocks a shot under pressure, does he just rifle it out for an icing call or does he dump it out softly so one of his own men has a chance to pick it up?”
Pilote had settled in the Midland area in Ontario and his son said he was enjoying the game as much as ever to the end of his life. Pierre Jr. said that until his father got sick, he was playing what he called the best golf of his life. He was happy in retirement and was grateful that the Hawks included him in their Stanley Cup celebrations and retired his No. 3 in a joint ceremony along with Keith Magnuson in 2008. He might have been one of the more underrated Hall of Fame players of his era, but he was not as a friend or a father, said Pierre Jr.
“You can write that he was also a wonderful guy,” Pierre Jr. said.