Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Splendid Seasons: Blackhawks MVPs

We're remembering the 19 Chicago athletes whose splendid seasons have earned them the Most Valuable Player award for their respective leagues. Four of these players have represented the Blackhawks, and they are remembered below.

Max Bentley,

     Except on the ice, where he was the slightly superior stickhandler and playmaker, Max Bentley always followed his older brother. Doug joined the Hawks in 1939, Max in 1940. Doug won the NHL scoring title in 1943, Max in 1946 and 1947. Doug was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1964, Max in 1966.
     On January 28, 1943, Max had four goals and three assists, Doug had two goals and four assists, and their linemate Bill Thoms settled for five assists as the Hawks blistered the New York Rangers 10-1. That season, Max compiled a grand total of two penalty minutes and, not surprisingly, received the Lady Byng Trophy as the league’s most gentlemanly player. He missed the next two seasons while serving in World War II, then returned to center the Blackhawks’ famous Pony Line, with Doug at left wing and Bill Mosienko at right wing, in 1945-46. Max won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top scorer, with 61 points on 31 goals and 30 assists. He also managed to lead the Hawks to a winning season—their only one between 1940 and 1961. For that feat, he received the Hart Trophy as Most Valuable Player.
     Max was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs (for five players) on November 3, 1947. “It had to be done,” said coach Johnny Gottselig, “because we needed fresh blood and no other club wanted any of our players except Max Bentley.” The Maple Leafs went on to win their second of three straight Stanley Cups that season; they would win four in five years. The Hawks finished last for the second straight year; they would finish last nine times in eleven years.

Al Rollins,

     In 1953-54, the Hawks had the worst year of the bleakest decade in their history. They set a franchise record with 51 losses, against 12 wins and 7 ties, for their sixth last-place finish in the past eight seasons. They were outscored 242 goals to 136. Yet Al Rollins, the Hawks’ goalie, was voted the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player—“apparently,” as George Vass wrote, “for extraordinary gallantry under fire.”
     Rollins posted a respectable goals-against-average of 3.23 while losing a league-record 47 games. In the four games he missed due to injury, the Hawks surrendered an average of more than seven goals.
     Only the third goalie to win the MVP, Rollins had looked at life from both sides now. In 1951 with Toronto, he’d won the Vezina Trophy with a sparkling record of 27-5-8 and a goals-against average of 1.77 as the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. Traded to the Hawks in 1952, he endured five seasons as their regular goalie, during which time they averaged fewer than 18 victories (out of 70 games) per year.
     Crowds at the Stadium dwindled to 4,000 a game, and rumors were rife that the Hawks would move to St. Louis or withdraw from the league altogether. To the rescue came Tommy Ivan, who had coached Detroit to six first-place finishes and three Stanley Cups in six years. Named general manager of the Hawks in July 1954, Ivan engineered a rebuilding program that culminated in a Stanley Cup championship in 1961.

Bobby Hull,
1965, 1966

     Handsome, personable, and extraordinarily talented, Bobby Hull was the first glamorous hockey star of the television age, ranking with such other luminaries of the sixties as Arnold Palmer, Jim Brown, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, and Wilt Chamberlain. He was the prototypical goal scorer—the fastest skater in the league, possessed of tremendous physical strength, able to shoot the puck at truly frightening speeds (almost 120 miles per hour). His 50 goals in 1961-62 tied the single-season record, which he broke with 54 in 1965-66. He led the NHL in goals scored seven times, in total points three times, and was selected MVP twice.
     Hull and teammate Stan Mikita monopolized the league’s top individual awards for most of the sixties. To say that Hull was the more electrifying of the two is no disrespect to Mikita. The Golden Jet drew people to the edge of their seats merely by stepping onto the ice. There was always a buzz in the arena in anticipation of what he might do—and he usually did something. “I get as big a kick out of watching Bobby as anybody else does,” Mikita said, dismissing rumors of jealousy between them. “I’d hate to play against him.”
     In 1968-69, Hull demonstrated that he was as tough and courageous as he was entertaining. After suffering a broken jaw on Christmas Day, 1968, he missed only one game (while his jaw was being set and wired), then played for six weeks during which he could eat no solid food. He finished the season with 58 goals, setting yet another new record.
     Hull was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983.

Stan Mikita,
1967, 1968

     “The guy has such tremendous reflexes and so much talent,” goalie Glenn Hall said of Stan Mikita, “that he can change his mind in mid-stride when he’s skating or shooting. And believe me, a guy who can do that drives goalkeepers nuts.” Mikita teamed with Bobby Hull to give the Blackhawks the most feared scoring duo in hockey during the sixties.
     Born in Czechoslovakia, Mikita was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Canada at the age of eight, escaping the Communist subjugation of his homeland. When he joined the Hawks 10 years later, at five-foot-eight and 152 pounds, he made up his mind to hit rather than be hit. “Either they were going to kill me and carry me out in a box, or I was going to survive,” Mikita recalled. “Luckily, I survived.” Mikita was among the most penalized players in the league early in his career, earning the nickname Le petit diable (“the little devil”) from French-speaking fans. Then, in 1966-67, he suddenly decided that he needed to spend more time on the ice and less in the penalty box.
     The new Mikita was a revelation. His high-powered Scooter Line, featuring Ken Wharram on right wing and Doug Mohns on left wing, accounted for 91 goals and 222 points as the Blackhawks broke the NHL record for goals scored in a season. The Hawks won their first Prince of Wales Trophy as regular-season champions, and Mikita was rewarded with three trophies of his own: the Art Ross as the league’s top scorer, the Lady Byng as its most gentlemanly player, and the Hart as the player “adjudged to be most valuable to his team.” No player had swept the three coveted awards in one year before, and no one (not even Wayne Gretzky) has done it since 1968—when Mikita repeated the feat.
     After Bobby Hull defected to the upstart World Hockey Association in 1972, Mikita stayed on for almost another decade. In all, he played for the Hawks from 1959 to 1980. Mikita is Mr. Blackhawk. Like Hull, he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983.

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