Canadian hockey player
Hector "Toe" Blake was one of the most influential hockey coaches in the history of the National Hockey League. He won eight Stanley Cups as a coach, five of them in consecutive seasons, with the Montreal Canadiens. He had a .634 winning percentage as a coach, and was a mentor to Scotty Bowman , the only man to win more Cups as a coach, with nine. Many consider Blake to be one of the best coaches in any sport. In addition to his coaching career, Blake had a Hall of Fame playing career as left wing, primarily with the Montreal Canadiens, for twelve seasons.
Blake was born on August 21, 1912, in Victoria Mines, Ontario, Canada. He was given his nickname, "Toe," by which he was commonly known, by a younger sister who could not pronounce his first name. While hockey was already an important part of Canadian culture, Blake's mother did not want him to play hockey, but instead get a steady job in one of the local mines. Thus, before the age of 12, Blake played hockey as a goalie. In this time period, it was common for goalies to not wear skates to play the position. After getting a job hitching horses for a milk company to make their rounds, he bought own skates and began playing as a skater. Hockey soon became the focus of his life.
By the time he was seventeen, Blake began his playing career in the Sudbury-Nickel Belt League, first with the Cochrane Dunlops, then for the Sudbury Industries. From 1930-32, he played for the Sudbury Cub Wolves of the Northern Ontario Hockey Association. While playing for one of the Sudbury-based teams, Blake drew attention from NHL scouts. Blake then played in the Ontario Hockey Association Senior's League for the Hamilton Tigers from 1932-34. During this time period, Blake would play hockey in the winter and baseball in the summer.
Signed with Montreal
In 1934, Blake was signed by the Montreal Maroons, but only appeared in three games before being sent to the minor leagues, again with Hamilton. He was on the bench when the Maroons won the Stanley Cup in 1935. At the time, Blake was considered a fighter. Blake began the 1935-36 season in the minor leagues, playing for the Providence Reds in the Can-Am League, but was traded in February 1936 to the Montreal Canadiens with Bill Miller for goalie Lorne Chabot.
It was with the Canadiens that Blake developed his scoring ability, earning the nickname "Old Lamplighter." He still retained his toughness, however, and never backed down from a fight, no matter what the situation, even if losing. By 1937, Blake was playing in the All-Star Game. In 1939, he was the leading scorer in the National Hockey League. He also won the Hart Trophy that year as the league's most valuable player. Yet the Canadiens finished sixth in the league. It was not until the 1940s that the Canadiens began to win.
When Dick Irvin was hired as coach in 1941, Montreal began to rebuild and Irvin put Blake at the center of the process. But it took several seasons for Irvin to find the right linemates for him. Because Blake spoke both French and English, and was partially French Canadian, which earned the respect of other Quebecois players, he could play with both types of players. The most dominant line he played on was the "Punch Line" with Maurice Richard , a prolific scorer, on right wing and Elmer Lach at center. Blake made the line run, and the trio often led the team in scoring.
|1912||Born in Victoria Mines, Ontario, Canada|
|1934||Appears in three games with the Montreal Maroons|
|1936||Traded to the Montreal Canadiens as a player, for which he played until retirement|
|1943-44||Put with Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Elmer Lach to form the "Punch Line"|
|1944||Sets Stanley Cup record by scoring five assists in one game|
|1948||Forced to retire as a player on the Canadiens because of injury; becomes minor league coach in Houston, Texas|
|1948||Works as coach for the Buffalo (New York) Bisons in the American Hockey League|
|1949||Becomes coach of the Valleyfield (Quebec) Braves in the Quebec Senior League|
|1955||Becomes coach of the Montreal Canadiens on June 8|
|1968||Retires as coach of Montreal Canadiens|
|1995||Dies of Alzheimer's on May 17 in Montreal|
Won Stanley Cups
The Punch Line was put together during the 1943-44 season, when Montreal finished first in the regular season and won the Stanley Cup. In 1944 playoffs, Blake himself set an NHL record by scoring five assists in one game against Toronto. Blake followed up this accomplishment by scoring a career high sixty-seven points in the 1944-45 season.
In the 1945-46 season, Blake again showed scoring prowess during the regular season with twenty-nine goals. During the playoffs, he added seven more, again playing primarily with the Punch Line. The Canadiens won their second Stanley Cup in three years when they defeated the Boston Bruins in five games in the finals. In addition to winning the Stanley Cup, Blake also won the Lady Byng Trophy that year. The Lady Byng is given to the player who demonstrates the most gentlemanly play. This was considered somewhat ironic as Blake was known as a hard-nosed player who had numerous runins with referees throughout his career.
Retired as a Player
Blake's scoring numbers went down in the 1947-48 season, when he scored only nine goals. His season, and career, were cut short that year. On January 11, 1948, a hit to Blake's body resulted in a broken ankle and forced his retirement. The Canadiens did not make the playoffs in his absence. Over the course of his thirteen seasons as a professional player in the NHL, Blake scored 235 goals and 292 assists in the regular season, plus twenty-five goals and thirty-seven assists in fifty-seven playoff games. It was hard for Blake to retire. He missed the camaraderie and the games, but found a way to stay involved with the game.
Began Coaching Career
Before the 1947-48 season ended, Blake found employment as a minor league hockey coach. Though still on crutches because of his broken ankle, he coached a team in Houston, Texas, in the United States Hockey League to a championship in 1948. The next season Blake was hired to coach on a higher level in the minor leagues. He coached the American Hockey League's Buffalo (New York) Bisons, and appeared in eighteen games as a player, during the 1948-49 season. However, he quit in a disagreement with management. In the 1949-50 season, Blake coached the Valleyfield (Quebec) Braves in the Quebec Senior League for several seasons. He also played in forty-three games for them as a player in the 1949-50 season. These experiences led to Blake becoming a savvy coach.
Hired as Coach of the Canadiens
When Irvin, Blake's old coach, retired as head coach of the Canadiens after the 1954-55 season, Blake was the only man really considered to replace him. Blake had the support of Frank Selke, Sr., the managing director of the Canadiens. He was officially hired on June 8, 1955. As Robert McG. Thomas, Jr. wrote in the New York Times, "But for all his acclaim as a player, no one was quite prepared for what happened when Blake, his signature fedora on his head, took his place behind the Canadien bench for the first time in 1955 and found his true calling."
One immediate problem that Blake had to face was taking charge of a team consisting of many players he had played with before his retirement. Another issue was managing former linemate Richard, who, at 35, still had a tendency to lose his temper and fight instead of do what he did best: score. Blake convinced him that he did not need to prove himself in any way but winning the Stanley Cup. This helped form Richard's legacy. In turn, Richard fully supported Blake as a coach, which influenced the entire team's attitude towards Blake.
Related Biography: Hockey Player Elmer Lach
With Hector "Toe" Blake and Maurice "Rocket" Richard, Elmer Lach formed the Punch Line, which was the leading scoring line for the Montreal Canadiens from the mid-1940s to early 1950s and one of the most famous in the history of the NHL. Lach centered the line until he retired after the 1953-54 season. He was born in 1918 in Nokomis, Saskatchewan, Canada, playing his amateur career in his native province. He signed with the Montreal Canadiens during the 1940-41 season. Over the course of his fourteen-year career, Lach scored 215 regular season goals and 408 regular season assists, and nineteen playoff goals. In 1945, he won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. In 1948, he won the Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer. With the Canadiens, he won the Stanley Cup three times, including 1944 and 1946 with the Punch Line. Lach was a tough hardworking playmaker who played through a number of major injuries, including a skull fracture and cheekbone fracture in a game in 1947, throughout his career. He only played five complete seasons in his 14 years in the NHL. Lach was also known for his passing and checking abilities. For his accomplishments on the ice, Lach was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966. After retiring as a player, he coached for several years before founding his own business.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1935||Won Stanley Cup with Maroons, though on the bench|
|1937||Played in the All-Star Game|
|1938||Second team All-Star|
|1939||Was the National Hockey League's leading scorer; won the Hart Trophy as MVP; first team All-Star; voted Canada's outstanding athlete; played in the All-Star Game|
|1940, 1945||First team All-Star|
|1944||Won Stanley Cup with Canadiens|
|1946||Won the Stanley Cup with the Canadiens; won the Lady Byng Trophy; second team All Star|
|1956-60, 1965-66||Won Stanley Cup as coach of the Canadiens|
|1966||Inducted into Hockey Hall of Fame as a player|
|1982||Presented with the Order of Canada|
Blake inherited a team with a good, young goalie, great scorers, and a smart defense. With this core, Blake created a dynasty and won eight Stanley Cups over the course of his 13 year coaching career. Many believe these were some of the best teams in the history of the NHL. He had the respect of his players, but used a dictatorial style of coaching and would not coddle them. While he used humor and had the ability to motivate, he also had a temper. Blake would never call out a single player by name in front of the team and embarrass them. He got everyone to play better, to push themselves. Blake put as much into coaching as his players did into playing.
Won Stanley Cups
It took two seasons for the Canadiens to gel under Blake. Blake led the Canadiens to their first Stanley Cup as coach in 1956. They won the Cup each year through 1960. With each Cup, Blake was harder on himself and his players and others around him.
The team did not do well in the early 1960s, making the playoffs but not winning the Cup. While a master strategist as a coach, Blake still had the temper of a player. During a 1961 semi-final game, after losing to the Chicago Blackhawks, Blake hit referee Dalton McArthur after the game. McArthur had waved off two Montreal goals in overtime. Blake was fined the next day by the NHL. By the 1963-64 season, the Canadiens finished in first place again.
While Canadiens won Stanley Cups in the 1964-65, 1965-66 seasons, and 1967-68 seasons, Blake's temper became more evident. He was charged with attacking a fan in a game in Los Angeles on November 19, 1967. Blake was later acquitted of the charges.
Retired as Coach
Blake cut his coaching career short, retiring right after winning his eighth Stanley Cup in 1968. His Canadiens defeated the St. Louis Blues (coached by former protégé Bowman) that year. This eight Cup record stood until 2002, when his Bowman won his record ninth, and like Blake, promptly retired. As a coach, Blake had a record of 500 wins, 255 losses, and 159 ties. His playoff record was eighty-two wins, thirty-seven losses, with a series record of 18-5. Claude Ruel replaced him behind the Canadiens' bench.
Blake's reasons for retiring were complex. As the NHL expanded, there was more travel, more media to deal with, changing player attitudes, and little details like ticket demands that did not agree with the hard-lined Blake. In Bill Libby's The Coaches, Blake was quoted as saying "I had to quit. It's not that I had no new worlds to conquer. Every game, every season is a new challenge. But I'd been meeting these challenges as coach of the Canadiens for thirteen years. … The pressure was getting to be unbearable. On the day of the game I was getting to be unbearable. The afternoons were the worst. All the thinking. And then the waiting, waiting, waiting. I was no good to anyone, not even my family. … I had to quit."
Even after retiring, Blake remained with the Canadiens in some capacity, traveling with the team. He missed coaching, but never coached a team again. He remained in Montreal, and had a bar, Toe Blake's Tavern, for a number of years. This was a men's only bar near the Montreal Forum where the Canadiens played.
By 1989, Blake was in a nursing home in Montreal with Alzheimer's disease, and within a short time, he could barely recognize anyone. Many of his former players, family and friends helped raise awareness of the disease in Canada, which led to a number of fundraising activities. Blake died of the disease on May 17, 1995. His funeral was at Montreal's St. Ignatius Loyola.
|Canadiens: Montreal Canadiens; Maroons: Montreal Maroons.|
Blake's legacy as a player resulted in his election to Hockey's Hall of Fame in 1966, but it was his legacy as a coach that was longer lasting. He was the model for many a coach who followed him in the NHL. As Red Fisher wrote in the Montreal Gazette, "He was rough, gruff, intimidating, wise, compassionate, unforgiving, scheming and hard-working—all of it dedicated to winning his eight Stanley Cups as a coach …. Winning wasn't merely a worthwhile target—it was
everything. It was life itself. Blake wore his strengths as a coach on his sleeve: the dedication, the humor, and the violent temper." To Blake, hockey was everything. He was quoted by Fisher in the Montreal Gazette as saying, "Hockey has been my life. I never had the opportunity of getting one of those million-dollar contracts, but hockey was worth more than $1 million to me in plenty of ways."
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Sketch by A. Petruso
A "Remarkable Hockey Mind"
[Blake] was as splendid as the teams he ruled with an iron fist, because he was the best coach of his time—and beyond.
He wore his strengths on his sleeve: the dedication, the humor, the violent temper, the remarkable hockey mind and the unflinching loyalty to his players and to the Canadiens organization. He coached the way he had played in the National Hockey League for 15 seasons. Hard. Mean. Intimidating. All-out.
Source: Ottawa Citizen, May 18, 1995, p. D1.