Ralph Backstrom was still wet behind the ears, his palms damp in his leather gloves, but the awestruck Montreal Canadiens rookie center understood the sense of occasion. With a dash to the Montreal Forum net, he retrieved six priceless ounces of vulcanized rubber, the puck a personal milestone he still cherishes more than six decades later.
On this night, Oct. 23, 1958, Backstrom scored the first two goals of his 17-season NHL career, the eighth and ninth Canadiens goals in a 9-1 rout of the Chicago Black Hawks, as they were then known.
Backstrom had played 10 NHL games without a goal — two in 1956-57, two more in 1957-58, and the first six of the 1958-59 season. But then the Canadiens, bound for their fourth of five consecutive Stanley Cup championships, opened the floodgates against Chicago goalie Glenn Hall, scoring nine goals on 42 shots.
Backstrom’s first came on a long slap shot at 14:22 of the third period; he retrieved the puck and had it mounted on a base with an engraved plaque and two crossed hockey sticks. His second followed 1:20 later during a goalmouth scramble. Canadiens center Jean Beliveau also scored twice that night but took second billing in the morning newspaper’s headline:
“Backstrom, Beliveau Pace Habs 9-1 Win.”
“You want to talk about classy players, start with Jean Beliveau,” Backstrom, now 83, said this week from his home in Windsor, Colorado, about 60 miles north of Denver. “He was one of the all-time greats in the National Hockey League. It was such an honor to play with him and to be one of his friends.
“As for that night, I think I was in shock to score a couple of goals,” he said.
There were another 276 to come, along with a total of 361 assists, before his NHL days were done.
Backstrom would score 40 points (18 goals, 22 assists) in 64 games in 1958-59, and was voted winner of the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the NHL.
“It’s just great any time you win an individual award,” Backstrom said. “But winning the Stanley Cup was the only thing we had on our minds, and that’s why we played together so hard. It was a wonderful thrill to join the guys who were already playing for the Canadiens.”
Backstrom had grown up a huge Montreal fan in the mining town of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, 375 miles north of Toronto. On the three Canadiens forwards on his table hockey game, he wrote the names of Elmer Lach, Maurice Richard and Toe Blake, who formed Montreal’s “Punch Line” of the 1940s.
A blue-chip prospect, Backstrom was signed by the Canadiens at age 17, with assistant general manager Ken Reardon placing 10 $100 bills on the kitchen table in exchange for his commitment to the team. Backstrom would move briskly through the organization, arguably the finest junior player in Canada and captain of the 1957-58 Memorial Cup champions, the Hull-Ottawa Junior Canadiens.
An impressive 1958 NHL training camp landed Backstrom on the Canadiens, for whom he would play into the early part of the 1970-71 season. He was a member of six Stanley Cup championship teams.
“It was an eye-opener, stepping onto the ice with those guys,” he said. “I think any young player felt intimidated, going into that dressing room and playing with the Canadiens, and against the great players on other teams. It was a wonderful experience that I’ll remember the rest of my life.”
1957-58 Memorial Cup-champion Hull-Ottawa Junior Canadiens, captain Ralph Backstrom in the center of the front row. Coach Sam Pollock is third from the far left in that row, assistant coach Scotty Bowman third from the far right.
Traded to the Los Angeles Kings 16 games into the 1970-71 season, Backstrom ended up playing a vital role in Montreal’s drafting of superstar-to-be Guy Lafleur.
Backstrom played inspired hockey (14 goals in 33 games) for his new team, helping to lift the Kings ahead of the Oakland Seals, whose first-round pick in the 1971 NHL Draft had been acquired by Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock. The last-place finish in the West Division and the overall NHL standings by the Seals assured the Canadiens of the No. 1 pick, which Pollock used to select Lafleur.
Backstrom finished his 1,032-game NHL career by playing 16 games for Chicago in 1972-73. He played four more seasons in the World Hockey Association before retiring and moving into coaching at the collegiate and then the minor-pro levels.
He also turned his hand to invention, developing in-line skates and pioneering the activity as a means of summertime conditioning. He co-founded the Roller Hockey International League, literally writing the rulebook for the sport, and toyed with the development of carbon-fiber sticks.
Ralph Backstrom, winner of the 1959 Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year, presents the 2012 trophy to Colorado Avalanche forward Gabriel Landeskog.
After scouting for the St. Louis Blues from 1999-2002, Backstrom founded the Colorado Eagles, today the American Hockey League affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche. He and his wife, Janet, attend as many home games as they can.
Backstrom’s last trip to Montreal was for the Canadiens’ Centennial game, a salute to the 100th anniversary of the franchise, at Bell Centre on Dec. 4, 2009. He joined many old friends and scores of former players for the event, held just a few miles from his beloved Forum.
“I have a lot of special memories, playing in that building,” Backstrom said. “I really appreciated the opportunity to play in Montreal. There were so many great players there, and a great management team.”
And then he laughed.
“I’m just looking forward to the game getting started again,” he said. “I’ve got an old pair of skates here that I’m dying to lace up. Hopefully, I can score a few more before I’m done.”
Photos: Courtesy Janet Backstrom/HHoF Images/Getty Images