The past year has been a pleasant one for baseball, football and hockey followers in Chicago. First the Cubs got going. Then Northwestern. Now the Black Hawks, in their fashion the most interesting team of all. When Rudy Pilous became coach in the middle of last season, the Hawks were hopeless. They had finished in last place for four straight years, and had made the Stanley Cup playoffs only once in 12 years. The Chicago Stadium could have passed for the house of the dead. Some Chicagoans thought Pilous might be a masochist; and Bill Furlong, an elf who writes for the Daily News, was so shocked that he wondered in print why Pilous "accepted the martyrdom of coaching the Black Hawks when he might have lived in comfortable obscurity in St. Catharines, Ont. all his life." Not content with Furlong's flippancy, a couple of disgusted fans wrote in to report, "Since the Hawks have been on television, the sale of ice skates has dropped sharply in the Chicago area. The only nice thing about the Hawks is that they have—how many games left to play?"
Now, almost exactly a year later, Pilous seems to be more sadist than masochist, and the fans are delighted instead of disgusted. At this writing, the Hawks are battling New York for second place in the National Hockey League, behind the incomparable Montreal Canadiens. While they're not so far ahead of sixth-place Toronto—this is a tight five-team race behind the Montreal superclub—they still, knock wood, are a vast improvement over last year when they struggled to finish fifth. For the first time in years, Chicago is a good bet to reach the treasured Stanley Cup playoffs. As for the stadium, it's a jumping joint. A couple of Sundays ago a crowd of 16,482, the largest in nine years, jammed inside to see the Black Hawks play the Canadiens.
The big question, naturally, is, how come? Well, the answer may astound some, but most of the credit for the rejuvenation should go to James D. Norris, the onetime president of the International Boxing Club, who goes partners in the Hawks with Arthur M. Wirtz, a closemouthed entrepreneur who once refused to tell a reporter where or when he was born. "When you go over all of this, Jim Norris has to be given a lot of credit," says Tommy Ivan, the former Detroit coach whom Norris brought over to Chicago as general manager five years ago. "He's been patient. Jim's a good hockey man. He likes the game, and it was a challenge to him, and I think he had faith that the thing would go."
One of the first things the Hawks did under the rebuilding program was expand the farm system. Center Bobby Hull and Defenseman Elmer (Moose) Vasko are two of the rewards the Hawks have reaped so far from the farms. Norris and Wirtz also began laying out cash. Ivan estimates they've spent at least $1 million in the last four or five years. In addition, there has been a lot of trading—so much in fact that there isn't a player on the club now who was with it at the start of the 1954-55 season.
Without carping, it should be realized that Norris is an influential man in the NHL, sometimes dubbed the "Norris House League." Besides co-partnering the Hawks with Wirtz, he has a big piece of New York, and his sister Marguerite and his half brother Bruce own Detroit. As a result, he is able to wheel and deal in friendly surroundings. For example, the Hawks got Ted Lindsay, one of hockey's great left wings, and Glenn Hall, their superb goalie, from Detroit in exchange for cash and a pride of players named Joe. This is not to say this was wrong. On the contrary, any club likes to swing a good deal. Jack Adams, the Detroit general manager, is one of the shrewdest hockey men in the business, and when he made the Lindsay-Hall deal with the Black Hawks he was certain that it would prove an advantageous one for the Red Wings. That it has not, so far, does not indicate anything more than that Adams was, this time, wrong. Still, the circumstances of club ownership in the National Hockey League annually excite questioning about whether a monopoly—ah, there, IBC—exists. The questioners like to apply a baseball parallel and point out that if Phil Wrigley, say, owned not only the Chicago Cubs but Cincinnati and St. Louis as well, he could boost the Cubs' chances by trading the bat boy for Stan Musial. And, of course, while it is a coincidence, since the trades were made the once-poor Black Hawks have been showing signs of going onward and upward.
Oddly enough, the Black Hawks suffered at first this season from the abundance of players who had begun to flow their way. During training and the first month of play, so many new faces swarmed around Pilous he had to tinker with the team before he could find the right combination. The Hawks opened the season with a tie, won the next three, then went into a three-game tailspin climaxed by a 9-1 drubbing at Montreal. Ivan, irked, called the defeat "a lousy effort on the part of the players who call themselves major leaguers" and fined each Hawk $100. Fortunately, a week or so later Pilous found the combination he'd been looking for—Tod Sloan, obtained from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the summer, at center, Lindsay at left wing and Ed Litzenberger at right—and the Hawks began to move.
Their finest hour began on December 27 with a 2-2 tie against Toronto. In fifth place at the time, the Hawks went on to beat the Maple Leafs in the next game 4-3, and they kept winning or tying until they ran into a 1-0 defeat at Montreal on January 10. All told, they were unbeaten in eight games, only one short of the club record set by the 1939-40 team.
Lately, the Hawks have looked hot and cold. They tied Montreal 1-1 before that huge stadium crowd, but then looked like the Hawks of old as they played ragged hockey, losing 3-2 to a Detroit team that had not won a game since December 28 and was using a substitute goalie to boot. But despite their current on-and-off play, the Hawks appear convinced that they're a winner. "The way the guys feel now, they just defy anyone to beat them," says Litzenberger. "And that's the way it should be. We felt that we had a pretty good club, but it meant getting a winning complex, or rather getting rid of a losing complex." To which Lindsay adds, "There's no weaknesses on our club. Oh, we could use 20 goals a game, but you're not going to get 20 goals a game. So why even talk about it? We feel what we have is good enough. We feel our 18 fellas should make a pretty good showing in the league."
In spite of what Lindsay says, the fate of the Hawks this year depends mainly on three men—himself, Litzenberger and Sloan. Known as the "pappy line"—they average 30 years of age—they'll have to keep scoring or the Hawks will run out of gas. Chicagoans are keeping their fingers crossed. They saw the Cubs give it a go, then sag. Northwestern did the same thing. Now it's the Hawks' turn. The betting here is that they'll make it. One out of three just has to come through.