From the archive: Winning was everything

 

Blake might have been the best coach in any sport (First published Jan. 16, 2009)

 
 
 
 
Bernie Geoffrion (left) and Maurice Richard lift coach Toe Blake after winning the Stanley Cup in 1957. It was the second of five straight Cups under Blake.
 

Bernie Geoffrion (left) and Maurice Richard lift coach Toe Blake after winning the Stanley Cup in 1957. It was the second of five straight Cups under Blake.

Photograph by: FIle, The Gazette

Winning, as the Canadiens have learned, starts with legendary general managers such as Frank Selke and Sam Pollock, but you don't win without coaches getting the best out of the best players. My choice: Toe Blake, whose teams lost only 255 of 914 games.

He was rough, intimidating, wise, compassionate, unforgiving, scheming and hard-working - all of it dedicated to winning eight Stanley Cups in 13 seasons as a coach, including a record five in a row in the last half of the 1950s. Winning wasn't merely a worthwhile target for Blake. It was everything. It was life itself.

Left-winger Frank Mahovlich, an 18-season veteran of the NHL, was one of Blake's greatest admirers, even though he never played for him. He felt Blake was responsible for 50 per cent of what was needed to win.

The suggestion was put to Blake.

"I've always felt that a good coach is the one who wins," he agreed. "But 50 per cent? If that had been the case with me, my teams would have won a lot more games."

Goalie Gump Worsley once was asked what made Blake special as a coach.

"There are 20 guys in that dressing room," Worsley replied, "and it's seldom you find even two of them alike. Toe knew each individual - the ones who worked from the needles, the ones who needed another approach. Between periods, he never blasted an individual. He'd say some guys aren't pulling their weight. The guys who weren't knew who he was talking about and you'd see the heads drop. But he'd never embarrass anyone in front of everyone. His ability to handle players - I guess that's what made him great."

Scotty Bowman, winner of five Stanley Cups in eight seasons with the Canadiens, was a Blake disciple. The biggest lesson he learned was that the best teams don't win Stanley Cupp unless they're prepared to work the hardest. Blake always felt that if you weren't prepared to work your hardest, you didn't play - and his players, to a man, respected him for it.

Dickie Moore, to this day, still recalls: "He would tell us: 'I can't coach you guys. You're too good.' "

Blake played to win off the ice as well as on it, whether it was during hours-long games of hearts on the train carrying the Canadiens on an 18-hour trip to Chicago, or during exchanges with opposing coaches. Woe to any of the three media people who travelled with the team in those days who gave him the queen of spades. And a pox on those opposing coaches who chose to challenge him in a war of words before or after games.

Bowman's strength was that he always knew more about what was going on with other teams in the league than most of the people running those teams. The telephone was an extension of his mind, arms and ears, absorbing information about other players, about other coaches. He was always one step ahead of the opposition.

That was Blake's strength as well. Always thinking about what was needed to win. Always looking for strengths and weaknesses in others - before and during games. He retired at a time when he was on top of his game - and so was his team, which finished that 1967-68 expansion season with a league-best 42-22-10 record, swept the Boston Bruins in four, the Chicago Blackhawks in five and the St. Louis Blues (coached by Bowman) in four.

Blake could read hockey people on and off the ice - such as the time Bernie Geoffrion replaced Bowman as coach for the start of the 1979-80 season. The Canadiens were to play a preseason game in Ottawa. Toe and I sat together in the rear of the team bus. Most of the players had boarded the bus at the Forum at 3 p.m. A few had received permission to join their teammates at Dorval at 4 p.m. - and all of them, except one, were there when the bus arrived.

Serge Savard climbed aboard 20 minutes late - to the sarcastic whoops and hollers of all the players. Not a word, though, from coach Geoffrion, seated at the front of the bus. You can be sure that if Blake still had been coach, he would have had a lot to say, starting with ordering the driver to leave promptly at 4 p.m.

Now, though, Blake sat tight-lipped at the rear of the bus, the colour rising in his cheeks.

Finally:

"Know something?" he said.

"What?"

"That could be the end of Geoffrion's coaching career!"

Seven games into the season (the Canadiens had won six and tied one) Geoffrion complained to me: "Those guys will put me in a coffin!"

Several days before Christmas, with the Canadiens enjoying a 15-9-6 record, Geoffrion quit as coach.

How good a coach was Blake? In my view, not only was he the best in NHL history, he also might have been the best in any sport, due in no small measure to the loyalty he had to his players - even to those very few he didn't like.

Jacques Plante, for example.

Plante frequently would drive Blake into a rage, particularly on those nights he would tell Toe he wasn't certain whether or not he was ready to play.

"It's my asthma," Plante would tell Blake before the pre-game warmup. "It's been bothering me all day. I'll tell you if I can play after the warmup."

Eventually, Blake had enough of Plante and convinced GM Frank Selke to trade him to the New York Rangers, but I can still remember asking Blake one day who he considered the best goalie he's ever seen during his playing days or during his coaching career. Blake had played with the great Bill Durnan and coached against others such as Terry Sawchuk and Glenn Hall.

"Plante," he promptly replied. "During our five consecutive Stanley Cups, Jacques Plante was the best. No question!"

"I thought you didn't like the guy," Blake was told.

"Doesn't matter," he snapped. "During those five years, he was the best!"

rfisher@thegazette.canwest.com

General manager: Sam Pollock

Coach: Toe Blake

Tomorrow: Best goalie

- - -

Canadiens Head Coaches

Jean-Baptiste (Jack) Laviolette 1909-10

Adolphe Lecours 1910-11

Napoléon Dorval 1911-13

James Henry (Jimmy) Gardner 1913-15

Edouard (Newsy) Lalonde 1915-21

Edouard (Newsy) Lalonde and Léo Dandurand 1921-22

Léo Dandurand 1922-26

Cecil Hart 1926-32

Edouard Lalonde 1932-34

Edouard (Newsy) Lalonde and Léo Dandurand 1934-35

Sylvio Mantha 1935-36

Cecil Hart 1936-38

Cecil Hart and Jules Dugal 1938-39

* Albert (Babe) Siebert, 1939

Alfred (Pit) Lépine 1939-40

Dick Irvin 1940-55

Hector (Toe) Blake 1955-68

Claude Ruel 1968-70

Claude Ruel and Al MacNeil 1970-71

Scotty Bowman 1971-79

Bernie Geoffrion and Claude Ruel 1979-80

Claude Ruel 1980-81

Bob Berry 1981-83

Bob Berry and Jacques Lemaire 1983-84

Jacques Lemaire 1984-85

Jean Perron 1985-88

Pat Burns 1988-92

Jacques Demers 1992-95

Jacques Demers, Jacques Laperrière and Mario Tremblay 1995-96

Mario Tremblay 1996-97

Alain Vigneault 1997-2000

Alain Vigneault and Michel Therrien 2000-01

Michel Therrien 2001-02

Michel Therrien and Claude Julien 2002-03

Claude Julien 2003-05

Claude Julien and Bob Gainey (interim coach) 2005-06

Guy Carbonneau 2006 to date

* Named coach in summer, but died before 1939-40 season began.

 
 
 
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Bernie Geoffrion (left) and Maurice Richard lift coach Toe Blake after winning the Stanley Cup in 1957. It was the second of five straight Cups under Blake.
 

Bernie Geoffrion (left) and Maurice Richard lift coach Toe Blake after winning the Stanley Cup in 1957. It was the second of five straight Cups under Blake.

Photograph by: FIle, The Gazette

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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