MONTREAL — Elmer Lach was rolling a 1940s National Hockey League puck in his gnarled paws; he was studying its orange, octagonal crest and its alarmingly sharp edge, the puck of that era a lethal weapon before a gentle contour would be introduced to lessen at least a little of its flesh-slicing danger.
“When you got hit with this, you’d bleed,” Elmer said, running a bent finger along the honed edge, pressing the puck into the valley of a scar on his cheek, then against a bushy eyebrow.
The receptionist at this Canadiens legend’s West Island retirement home had told me I’d probably find Elmer in his room on mid-afternoon of Boxing Day. Which I didn’t.
“Try the dining room,” she suggested upon my return. “He sits in the corner.”
There was just one resident in the room at this hour, chin on his wide chest, catching a few winks at a table now set for supper.
But even if it had been packed, I’d have recognized Elmer Lach from his breadth of shoulders and his distinctive head of thick, snow-white hair.
Elmer will turn 96 on Jan. 22, both the oldest living Canadien and the senior-most Hockey Hall of Famer. His stories remain finely spun, usually quilted with rich detail of events that took place more than seven decades ago.
It’s been nearly nine years since I sat for the first time with the man who centred Maurice Richard and Toe Blake on the Canadiens’ iconic Punch Line, the most explosive NHL trio of the 1940s.
I had read many hundreds of thousands of words, and written more than a few, about the Rocket, the fiery French-Canadian superstar who was not nor ever could be “just a hockey player” that he claimed himself to be.
I had also digested a great deal about Toe Blake, a blue-collar winger of the Montreal Maroons, then the Canadiens, and finally the brilliant, powder-keg head coach of the Habs.
I learned much more about these two men upon their deaths, Rocket passing in 2000, Blake predeceasing him by five years.
But the more I read about Richard and Blake, the deeper the mystery grew about Elegant Elmer, the product of Nokomis, Sask., who arrived in Montreal in 1940 at age 22 with just a toothbrush and a handkerchief, one of nine rookies who would make the 1940-41 Canadiens.
So I sat for hours in the winter of 2005 with Elmer, whom I would profile as the most modest superstar I had ever met — a hard-rock centreman who said then, and still insists today, that he was just an adequate talent doing his job as playmaker for Richard, arguably the most electrifying, dynamic forward of his generation.
He instantly became one of my favourite people and my visits are always revelations, Elmer matter-of-factly relating two or three more breathtaking stories from a seemingly bottomless cache about his playing days.
I dropped in on him again on Thursday, the ideal time to ask him about playing on Christmas and New Year’s days.
From 1941-53, Elmer would play a combined 16 games on those holidays, but only once at the Forum. Seven times, his Canadiens skated in Chicago; four times in New York; three times in Toronto; once in Detroit.
“Just part of the game,” Elmer said with a shrug of riding the rails more than a dozen times on the eve of Christmas and/or New Year’s. “That was the business.”
That got him talking about the Original Six barns in which he played.
“I liked to play in Chicago — the stadium was big and loud,” Elmer said, some things not having changed in the Windy City.
“Detroit? It was terrible. It was a lousy rink. There was just something about it. The ice was good but even your equipment didn’t seem to fit.
“Boston was pretty good,” Elmer continued. “But New York was almost like the people were at the wrong game. It’s like they often expected to be seeing something other than hockey.
“And Toronto was terrible. You never knew what (Maple Leafs owner Conn) Smythe had up his sleeve. He had a rink board that was in the visitors’ corner for two periods, and it was funny about two or three inches above the ice. When the Leafs fired it in, the puck would deflect off right that board and wind up in front of our net.”
Elmer doesn’t get to the Bell Centre home of his alma mater these days, having played all 740 regular-season and playoff games for the Canadiens. Upon his retirement in 1954, he was a three-time Stanley Cup champion who had scored 234 goals, assisted on 453 more, won the 1944-45 Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player and 1947-48’s inaugural Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading point-scorer.
(He also topped the NHL in points in 1944-45, three seasons before the Ross award was created.)
Having the Rocket as a wingman, Elmer said, “made my position the easiest to play. Because he was always in the clear, I just had to make sure my timing was correct for both of us. When he was in the clear, he knew that if I had the puck, he was going to get it eventually.
“I knew where Rocket was all the time. Irvin had taught us to know what the other guy would do, long before he did it.
“I just had to make a good pass,” said Elmer, who took his greatest bruising punishment when he drew two opponents to his off-centre lane, thus giving Richard more daylight.
“I just had to get Rocket the puck when he was ready to go.”
Which was always.
“As for Blake, he was a hell of a guy. When he became coach, he must have told some of the rookies some great stories about how to play the game. When he was playing, Toe would say to me, ‘You’re the centreman, you have to control the game by having control of the puck. And doing that would result in a lot of minor injuries.
“A lot of them were my own fault,” he said, chuckling, his word “minor” being a thigh-slapper.
Today’s fact-shrouding teams vaguely catalogue upper- or lower-body injuries. In Lach’s day, the Canadiens reported this, in detail, about their indestructible centreman:
Wrist broken, elbow shredded and shoulder dislocated in a single full-speed crash into the boards in the first game of his sophomore 1941-42 season. The elbow healed with the flexibility of a hockey stick, so that summer doctors distracted him then literally kicked the joint to break it again before resetting it;
Beak broken seven times. “This morning, I considered my nose,” he used to tell giggling school kids. The first break was in his rookie year, when he twice breezed by hulking Chicago defenceman Earl Siebert, taunting him with, “You old bastard, you’re too old to catch me!” The third time Elmer tried, his nose was spread across his face by Siebert’s elbow — “so they tinkered with it in the hospital the next day.”
Jaw broken twice but probably three times. It is now permanently wired. On one occasion, he didn’t tell Irvin it was fractured for fear he’d be scratched from a game;
Cheekbone shattered twice;
Instep carved open with a skate, through his leather boot, severing two veins. He didn’t notice it until a teammate pointed to the blood pooling at his feet on the bench;
Stitches in the hundreds;
And in the past decade: a double ankle fracture and a hip broken in separate accidents at home.
“I won a trophy they never created — the best healer in the league,” Elmer joked. “If only I had a buck for every time a doctor told me, ‘You’ve played your last game.’ ”
In the prime of his career, an insurance company unsuccessfully offered him $17,000 if he’d quit hockey, his claims a financial siphon on the firm.
Ted Reeve, curator of the Hall of Fame in the 1950s, said that if a pictorial record was to be made of the 1940s NHL, Elmer’s X-rays would be a necessary part of it.
The man had so many X-rays, it’s a wonder he doesn’t glow.
If Elmer is now an armchair observer of the game, he is a devoted fan of Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, saying it’s not been since Chicago’s Max and Doug Bentley that he’s watched a player this closely.
“Crosby does a lot of things that are different than anyone else,” he said, echoing a common sentiment. “I love to watch him doing things I wish I could have done. He’s the best player in the world.”
There’s much about the modern game Elmer admires, but he’s sickened by the head shots and blindside checks.
“Awful,” he said. “We hit hard, but we respected each other.”
He has slowed a step but his mischief is fully intact. Elmer ribs a “young friend” at the retirement home — a whippersnapper in his early 90s — that this fellow chases the waitresses around but wouldn’t have a clue what to do should he catch one.
Fan mail continues to arrive, 60 years next spring since he played his last game. And Elmer still fondly remembers his season with the senior Weyburn Beavers two seasons before he came east from Saskatchewan to the Canadiens, the prairie town famous almost a century ago for its psychiatric hospital that pioneered lobotomies and electroshock therapy.
“Do you think,” Elmer said as he considered his remarkable life, a grin lighting up his broad, puck- and stick-scarred face, “that I should have checked in?”
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