THE VERDICT: History against the Leafs
By Bob Verdi
CHICAGO – During this defining decade, the Blackhawks have staged three truly exceptional home openers. In 2010, 2013 and 2015, they began the season as defending Stanley Cup champions. Before a puck was dropped, a banner was raised.
That won’t be happening this autumn, but for starters, here is a circle for your calendar. The Toronto Maple Leafs, venerable Original Six adversaries, will invade the United Center on Sunday, Oct. 7. It will be the 650th regularly programmed confrontation between these rivals, not to mention or forget nine playoff series, many of them impolite.
Among other notable home debuts, the United Center christening on Jan. 25, 1995, surely qualifies. With the National Hockey League campaign delayed by a management-labor impasse, the Blackhawks finally commenced an abbreviated 48-game schedule by defeating the Edmonton Oilers, 5-1. Joe Murphy scored the first goal in the shiny new building, assisted by Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios.
Going way back, the Blackhawks played their first game in the Stadium – itself a modern marvel at the time – by whipping the Pittsburgh Pirates, 3-1, on Dec. 15, 1929. Before the Stadium was completed for a princely sum of $6 million, the Blackhawks home was the Coliseum, a converted prison at 15th and Wabash that also hosted political conventions, roller derby and wrestling.
It was there on Nov. 11, 1926, that the Black Hawks (as they were then known) arrived to the NHL with a 4-1 conquest over the Toronto St. Pats, who were later renamed Maple Leafs. Some 7,000 fans witnessed the happening, well above seating capacity.
The Black Hawks won their second Stanley Cup in 1938, surprising themselves and the Maple Leafs. With a record of 14-25-9, Chicago somehow tiptoed into the postseason. But the Hawks upset the Montreal Canadiens and New York Americans to gain a berth in the Final against Toronto. Problem: Mike Karakas – the Hawks’ no. 1 goalie, their only goalie – broke a toe in the clincher against New York.
In Toronto for Game 1, the Hawks were not only prohibitive underdogs, they had a vacancy in the net. Dave Kerr, an outstanding goalkeeper for the New York Rangers, lived in the area but the Maple Leafs abjectly refused to let the Hawks borrow him as an emergency measure, nearly precipitating a fistfight featuring Chicago’s coach, Bill Stewart, and Toronto’s general manager, Conn Smythe. When order was restored, the latter suggested Alfie Moore, a minor leaguer who also resided nearby.
When the Hawks’ search party investigated that “nearby,” they discovered Moore in a local watering hole. He asked for tickets to that night’s game. The Hawks’ counter offer was the best seat in the house: between the pipes. Moore accepted the job, and downed abundant amounts of coffee, suited up and yielded a score by Gordie Drillon on Toronto’s first shot.
Then – in an entry to the ‘Can You Top This? Derby’ – Moore saved everything else, and the Hawks won, 3-1. Paul Goodman, Chicago property, tended goal in Game 2 and lost, 5-1, while the Hawks lost star Mush March to injury along with Doc Romnes, whose nose was rearranged from a cross-check by Maple Leafs’ defenseman Red Horner.
Really angry and motivated now, the Hawks went home and, with Karakas back in goal, eliminated the Maple Leafs, 2-1 and 4-1. The Hawks roughed up Horner en route, then gifted Moore with $300 and a gold watch. Where was the Stanley Cup? Still back in Toronto because nobody believed that it would belong in Chicago.
In 1962, their fifth playoff meeting, it was the Maple Leafs who did the upsetting. The defending champion Blackhawks, imagining they would be in for more glory with Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Glenn Hall aboard, lost the Final to Toronto in six games.
More agony befell the Blackhawks in 1967, after they had squelched the “Curse of Muldoon” by finishing atop the NHL for the first time during the regular season. The veteran Maple Leafs were a distant third. But in the semifinals, the Blackhawks were foiled, primarily by Terry Sawchuk. Relieving Johnny Bower in goal, Sawchuk was outrageously airtight in a Game 5 series tiebreaker at the Stadium. This, after he was flattened by a Hull rocket to the shoulder, one of 37 shots Sawchuk faced over the last two periods. He saved all 37 and Toronto prevailed, 4-2. The Maple Leafs eliminated the Hawks at home in Game 6 three nights hence.
That 1967 comeuppance vexed the Blackhawks. Their coach, Billy Reay, began his career behind the bench with the Maple Leafs but was fired by Punch Imlach, who coached Toronto and made the move to replace a shaky Bower with Sawchuk. Toronto went on to win the Stanley Cup in the last hurrah for the all-Original Six NHL before expansion. The Maple Leafs have not won another since. Meanwhile, the disappointed Blackhawks’ hierarchy made changes, some forced. Phil Esposito was traded to the Boston Bruins. Several players from that first-place team departed as the NHL doubled in size. Most significant: Hall was selected by the St. Louis Blues.
In 1940, the Blackhawks became the first team to charter a flight when they went to Toronto for the playoffs. It didn’t help. The Maple Leafs won a best-of-three series in two. In 1962, the two franchises created headlines before the NHL All-Star Game in Toronto, where the defending champions hosted. On the eve of the event – then held prior to the regular season – the Blackhawks offered $1 million for Frank Mahovlich, a 24-year-old scoring machine with the Maple Leafs.
Officials on either side sketched details on cocktail napkins, the Blackhawks paid $1,000 cash in good faith, and newspapers throughout North America blasted the “news.” But when Hawks’ General Manager Tommy Ivan brought a $1 million check to the Maple Leafs’ headquarters the next morning, Toronto president Stafford Smythe intoned, “I will not consider such a deal made at a party.” Remember the key to this almost blockbuster story: cocktail napkins.
The Maple Leafs were guests at the Stadium twice for 1994 real news. Hull, Mikita, Hall and Tony Esposito were honored at the final regular season game there. Banners bearing their retired numbers were lowered so as to be transferred across the street. The Maple Leafs won, 6-4, but the two teams would meet again in the playoffs. On April 14, 1994, Roenick’s overtime winner in Game 4 of the Conference Quarterfinals tied the series at 2-2. But his would be the last Blackhawk goal at the Stadium. The Maple Leafs registered two consecutive 1-0 victories to win the series.
For the record, the final goal in the Stadium belongs to Toronto’s Mike Gartner on April 28, 1994. If, after Oct. 7, the Blackhawks and Maple Leafs play again next season at the United Center, it will be like old times, with a Stanley Cup at stake.
Bob Verdi is the Chicago Blackhawks team historian.