They were the Dirty Dozen of hockey, a group of castoffs, mostly discarded by Detroit and Toronto because of age or infirmity. But in one last collective gasp of “We’ll show them!” these Black Hawks united in Chicago and did what had been thought impossible. The ‘Retreads Inc.’ somehow managed to push themselves into the 1952-53 playoffs for the Windy City’s first post-season experience in seven years.
The overnight transformation from indignity to Black Hawk dignity was difficult. Starting in 1946-47, Chicago had finished dead last in the six-team league in five out of six years. A similar fate was forecast in 1952-53 pre-season polls despite some revolutionary moves by GM Bill Tobin.
For starters, Tobin shocked the hockey world by pulling over-the-hill center Sid Abel off the Detroit scrap heap. Abel was 34 and coming off his worst offensive season in four years. The Hawks GM signed ‘Old Bootnose’ not only to play but also coach the team, even though Abel had never coached before. Even worse, Abel inherited virtually the same lineup that stumbled to a 17-44-9 mark under Ebbie Goodfellow the previous season.
But two additional newcomers – both from the Maple Leafs – would infuse a winning mentality to the Black Hawks. The first key player was defenseman Gus Mortson, a four-time Cup winner. The 27-year-old Mortson was sent packing from Toronto because of an insulting remark he made to his employer, Conn Smythe, who never forgot it. “That’s why I got traded to Chicago,” said Mortson in The Leafs In Autumn, an oral history written by Jack Batten.
At the time, The Hockey News publisher Ken McKenzie asserted that “Mortson is the leader who actually could lift Chicago to the post-season.”
In the same package, Smythe’s other mistake was dealing goalie Al Rollins, who helped Toronto win the 1951 Cup. Goalie Harry Lumley went the other way, from Chicago to Toronto. Both Rollins and Lumley were 26, but Smythe was convinced Lumley was the better stopper. “At Leafs training camp,” Mortson recalled, “there were 18 regulars and 40 other guys trying to make the team. With the Hawks there were 18 regulars, and that was it.”
Apart from Abel, seven other members of Detroit’s 1950 Cup-winning squad – Pete Babando, George Gee, Doc Couture, Jimmy Peters, Jimmy McFadden, Al Dewsbury and Lee Fogolin – landed on the Hawks. By the time the puck dropped on the 1952-53 season, the only significant Chicago holdovers were veteran forwards Bill Mosienko and Gus Bodnar.
Abel didn’t score much – just five goals in 39 games – but he sure could coach, and motivation never was a problem. “We all had something to prove,” Babando said. “We actually felt we could make the playoffs.”
Nobody else did. The Maple Leafs, who had won four of the past six Cups, figured to have a lock on the race for the fourth and final playoff berth. But every time the Chicagoans got knocked down, they rebounded. By March, one of the NHL’s most dramatic races to the finish line pitted Toronto against Chicago, with Abel’s able-bodied skaters hanging on by a gossamer two-point lead heading into the final weekend.
It all came down to the season finale on Sunday, March 22 – Hawks at Rangers, Leafs at Boston. Toronto got its two points with a 3-1 win. But at Madison Square Garden, castoffs Gee, Couture and Peters delivered goals – and the long-awaited playoff berth for Chicago – in a 3-1 win over New York. In the end, Rollins proved better than Lumley while Mortson starred all season, just as McKenzie had predicted.
The March 28, 1953, edition of The Hockey News succinctly said it all: “This was one of the most exciting finishes in the history of the National Hockey League!”
In the end, Chicago couldn’t keep it going in the playoffs. Rallying from a 2-0 series deficit against Montreal, Chicago won three straight before losing 3-0 in Game 6 on home ice, then 4-1 in Game 7 at Montreal.
But just getting into the post-season was an amazing feat. “For some of us,” said Babando, “it was like winning the Cup.”