Now, on Oct. 30, 1943, opening night of the 1943-44 NHL season, there was optimism in Montreal. Ambidextrous goalie Bill Durnan, wearing a catching glove on each hand, was ready for his first NHL game. And as a line, assembled on a hunch by coach Dick Irvin, were center Elmer Lach, right wing Maurice “Rocket” Richard and left wing Toe Blake.
The Canadiens fell behind 2-0 to the Boston Bruins before a sold-out Forum crowd of 12,166 but clawed back to earn a 2-2 tie. Forty-nine games later, Montreal was the regular-season champion, their 83 points (38-5-7) leaving the second-place Detroit Red Wings (26-18-6) in their dust, 25 points back.
Nine playoff games after that, one more than the minimum, the Canadiens were Stanley Cup champions, having beaten the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-1 in a best-of-7 semifinal, then sweeping the Chicago Black Hawks for the title, their sixth of 24 to date.
The 1947-48 Montreal Canadiens. Coach Dick Irvin is front row, far right. Beside him: captain Toe Blake, Elmer Lach, goalie Bill Durnan and Maurice Richard.
Durnan, who would play seven NHL seasons, was a revelation. He won the Vezina Trophy six times, leading the League in victories on four occasions. His leadership was such that late in the 1947-48 season he was appointed the Canadiens captain, the last NHL goalie to actively serve in that role, replacing Blake when the latter sustained what would be a career-ending ankle fracture.
Durnan retired in 1950, in his prime at 34 but a man buckled by the pressure that came with playing goalie in Montreal.
Right wing Joe Benoit had left the Canadiens before the season, joining the Canadian army to serve in World War II. Benoit, Lach and Blake, skating together in 1942-43, had been nicknamed the “Punch Line” by Montreal writers for their explosive power. Richard, then a rookie, had watched from the sidelines, having broken his ankle 16 games into the season.
Irvin liked what he saw of Richard during training camp in the fall of 1943, slotting him into Benoit’s spot no matter that he was a left-hand shot.
“A forward is a forward and he ought to be able to play any forward position,” Irvin reasoned. “Richard will do all right over there.”
It would be one of hockey’s great understatements.
Maurice Richard with the 1960 Stanley Cup, the last of eight that he’d win, and at home in 1958 with his daughter, Huguette. Behind them is a mirror celebrating Rocket’s 400th career goal, scored Dec. 18, 1954.
Richard wore No. 15 in his abbreviated 1942-43 season, switching to No. 9 from at the start of 1943-44. He was captain of the Canadiens from 1957-60, leading the team’s final four of five consecutive championships.
Richard took No. 9 in tribute to his first daughter, Huguette, who was born on Oct. 27, 1943, three days before the start of the season. Richard didn’t ask for it, however, as his life story is told.
“My father gave Rocket the morning off practice with his wife about to give birth,” says Dick Irvin Jr., the late coach’s son. “When Maurice returned, Dad asked him about his new child, hoping all was well with the family. When Rocket said that Huguette weighed nine pounds at birth, Dad said, ‘Would you like to switch to that number?’ “
Richard made the change, scoring 539 of his team-record 544 goals wearing the No. 9 that the Canadiens would retire on Oct. 6, 1960.
The Montreal Canadiens’ fearsome Punch Line. From left, right wing Maurice Richard, center Elmer Lach and left wing Toe Blake.
Lach’s No. 16 was retired in 2009. Today, Blake’s No. 6 is worn by captain Shea Weber, though suggestions are made that when it eventually is vacated, it should join its linemates hanging above Montreal ice.
Durnan and the “Punch Line” are each a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Blake having been inducted as a player even if he’s best known for coaching the Canadiens to eight Stanley Cup titles in 13 seasons between 1955-56 and 1967-68.
Lach, Richard and Blake would terrorize opponents for four-plus seasons as the decade’s most potent line; the trio dissolved 32 games into the 1947-48 season by Blake’s fractured ankle.
In nine playoff games in 1944, they combined for an NHL record 48 points – Blake with 18 (seven goals, 11 assists), Richard with 17 (12 goals and five assists, including all five goals in a 5-1 Game 2 semifinal win against Toronto) and Lach with 13 (two goals, 11 assists). Durnan had a 1.53 goals-against average and a shutout that postseason.
Goalie Bill Durnan won the Vezina Trophy six times during his seven-season NHL career.
The three linemates had unique skills that perfectly complemented each other: Richard was the short-fused stick of dynamite with a gift for finding the back of the net; Lach was the tireless, indestructible playmaker; Blake was a superb positional player who anchored his teammates.
“We were just a line,” Lach would say with a shrug decades later. “I didn’t sense anything special when Irvin put us together in practice. As a group, we were good. Individually, we were just average hockey players.”
So average that in 1944-45, the year after leading the Canadiens to their drought-ending championship, Lach, Richard and Blake finished 1-2-3, respectively, in NHL scoring.
That season, when Richard scored his historic 50 goals in 50 games, the first to that 50-goal milestone, Lach led the League with 80 points (26 goals, 54 assists) — three years before the Art Ross Trophy was introduced — and won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player.
Photos: HHoF Images