Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Roar from the Crowd

Forty-five years ago today, on March 12, 1966, Bobby Hull of the Blackhawks broke the NHL record for goals scored in a single season. Below is an account of that moment from the recent book Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports.

     In the first five decades of the National Hockey League’s existence, only three players scored 50 goals in a single season—Maurice “Rocket” Richard of the Canadiens in 1944-45, Bernie “Boom-Boom” Geoffrion of the Canadiens in 1960-61, and Bobby Hull of the Blackhawks in 1961-62. No one had scored 51.
     As the 1965-66 season progressed, hockey fans and the media began to consider it a cinch that Hull would go to 51 and beyond that year. He scored his 50th goal on March 5 against the Detroit Red Wings. “I think it took a lot of pressure off me,” said Hull. “The monkey is off the back now.” Hull was averaging nearly a goal a game for the season, and he was certain that the record-breaker would come in the next game or, at the very latest, the game after that.
     But not only was Hull shut out in the next game, so were the Hawks. The same thing happened in the next game. And in the next. It was unbelievable: the league’s highest-octane offense failing to score in three straight games. In the fourth game after Hull’s record-tying goal, he and the Hawks again struggled. They trailed the New York Rangers 2-1 entering the third period.
     When the Hawks went on the power play with a little over five minutes gone in the period, the sellout crowd at the Stadium buzzed in anticipation. But almost immediately, New York’s Reggie Fleming picked off an errant pass and started up ice with a chance for a shorthanded goal. Lou Angotti of the Hawks was able to disrupt Fleming inside the Chicago blue line. Angotti kicked the puck across to Hull, who gained control and headed out of his own zone.
     As Hull crossed the Rangers’ blue line, goalie Cesare Maniago braced himself for a slapshot. Hull’s was the most wicked in the league, clocked at up to 118 miles per hour. As Maniago tried to get set, the Hawks’ Eric Nesterenko cut in front of him. Hull fired. It was a low screamer that, thanks to Nesterenko’s screen, Maniago didn’t see until it was too late. Before he could react, the puck was in the net. “Nesterenko lifted the blade of my stick,” Maniago said after the game, “and the puck went under it.”
     The Rangers’ protests were in vain. It was number 51 of the season for Hull, and it touched off a riotous celebration in the Stadium that delayed the game for several minutes. Hull skated around the ice shaking hands with fans who stuck their arms out over the glass. Galvanized by all the excitement, the Hawks scored twice more in the remaining minutes to pull out a come-from-behind win, 4-2. When reporters asked Hull what the key to the record-breaking goal was, he had an answer that wasn’t surprising to anyone who had ever attended a hockey game in the Stadium. “It was the crowd,” he said. “The roar from the crowd.”
     Hull finished the season with 54 goals and won his second consecutive Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player. He broke his own record with 58 goals three years later. After he retired, he said, “When I played in that great building, Chicago Stadium, and I picked up the puck, I could feel every voice. It was like the fans were coming up the ice behind me.”

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