Friday, April 2, 2010

No Billy Goat to Blame


     The Blackhawks have no billy goat to blame for their scarcity of championships, but they did have "The Curse of Muldoon." The story went like this: when the Hawks fired coach Pete Muldoon after the 1926-27 season, he raised his hands, rolled his eyes, and solemnly pronounced, “This team will never finish in first place.”
     In fact, the legend was invented by a Toronto newspaperman in the early forties. Nonetheless, it was also a fact that going into the 1966-67 season, their 41st in the league, the Hawks had never finished first—nor even come close until the past few years. Though laden with All-Stars like Hull, Stan Mikita, Pierre Pilote, Ken Wharram, and Glenn Hall, the Hawks hadn’t been able to get over the hump. They finished third in 1960-61, then stormed through the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup. They finished third twice more and second three times over the next five seasons. For all practical purposes, 1966-67 would be their last chance to overcome the imaginary curse, because it was the last season before the NHL expanded. If the Hawks were ever to finish first among the “original six” teams, it would have to be this year.
     The Hawks ran off a 15-game unbeaten streak early in the New Year to build up a substantial lead in the standings. Still, the skeptics could point to 1962-63, when the Hawks led all the way only to collapse in the last three weeks. But the Hawks kept winning, and finally, on the sunny Sunday afternoon of March 12, they had a chance to clinch the Prince of Wales Trophy (emblematic of the regular-season championship). The game against the Toronto Maple Leafs drew a capacity crowd to the Stadium and was televised throughout the United States and Canada—though not in the Chicago area.
     After killing off a two-man disadvantage early in the game, the Hawks drew first blood on a goal by Ken Hodge from Phil Esposito and Hull at 11:54 of the first period. Less than four minutes later, Hodge lit the lamp again, this time assisted by Esposito and Pat “Whitey” Stapleton. In the final minute of the period, Hodge, Stapleton, and Hull came driving out of their own zone. Hodge, on the right wing, sent the puck across to Stapleton, who carried it over the Toronto blue line and centered to Hull. The Golden Jet fired one of his patented slap shots from about 40 feet out. It sailed over goalie Terry Sawchuk’s right shoulder to give the Hawks a 3-0 lead.
     The Blackhawks’ first-period barrage had given Glenn Hall more than he needed, as he turned away 39 shots for a shutout. Lou Angotti scored twice in the third period for the final margin of 5-0. When the horn sounded, the fans showered the ice with hats, half-eaten hot dogs, paper cups, and rolled-up programs. The Hawks clomped downstairs to their dressing room for a well-earned celebration. Coach Billy Reay and general manager Tommy Ivan were thrown into the showers in their suits and ties. “I knew we were up for this one,” said Hodge as he wiped champagne from his eyes. “You could feel it before the game—everyone was raring to go. You’d have to be blind not to see it.”
     The 1966-67 Hawks were easily the class of the NHL, finishing 17 points ahead of the second-place Montreal Canadiens and scoring a then-record 264 goals while allowing only 170, lowest in the league. Mikita pulled off an unprecedented sweep by winning the Hart Trophy as most valuable player, the Art Ross Trophy as leading scorer, and the Lady Byng Trophy as most gentlemanly player. Hall and Denis DeJordy shared the Vezina Trophy for goaltending excellence.
     But when the Maple Leafs bounced the Hawks from the playoffs in the first round, Ivan decided that changes were in order. Hall was left unprotected in the expansion draft, while Esposito and Hodge were traded to Boston, where they won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972.

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