More than 17,000 fans were in Chicago Stadium on the night of April 12, 1938. Most had come to root for the Chicago Black Hawks, who, after winning only 14 games in 20 weeks of National Hockey League competition, suddenly had caught fire to take six games in less than three weeks of the Stanley Cup playoffs. And on this particular night these improbable Black Hawks needed only to beat Toronto to win the cup itself.
The coach of the Chicago Black Hawks, and the man most responsible for the team's unexpected Stanley Cup play, was 43-year-old William J. Stewart. Ironically, Stewart, who spent his summers umpiring baseball games in the National League, had been chief of National Hockey League referees the previous season. The owner and president of the Black Hawks, Frederic McLaughlin, had been impressed by the fiery manner in which Stewart did his officiating and felt that Stewart might be the man to instill some of the same spirit into the lackluster team. Stewart was given a two-year contract, assurance that the owner would not interfere and a club with a losing complex.
"It was a team," Bill Stewart said recently, "made up mostly of men who had played for several other clubs in the league. My boys had some bad playing habits—some could skate well to one side but not to the other, some would get trapped on the boards. We spent a lot of time working on these weaknesses. Sometimes I'd take a player and just the two of us would go out on the ice and work.
"When we were in Muskegon for preseason training I told everyone how I felt about conditioning and drinking. I told them they would have to get in shape and stay in shape if they wanted to win. I said I didn't mind if they had a few drinks, as long as it was not on the day of a game and not in public.
"We were like one big, happy family. I used to joke a lot with the boys and sometimes I'd wrestle or box with them in the locker room."
Stewart did more than get his players into condition, teach them fundamentals and create a relaxed atmosphere. Realizing he had no individual stars and little bench strength, he built his strategy around tightly integrated team play. To compensate for his squad's lack of depth, Stewart became a quick-change artist, installing and withdrawing entire five-man units after just two or three minutes' play. This maneuver was as successful as it was novel, for it helped keep the players fresh and enabled Stewart to develop two good offensive lines. This didn't show up in the Black Hawks' regular season record, for the 1937-38 team didn't win any more games than the hopeless 1936-37 team. However, by Stanley Cup time, Bill Stewart's hard work and sound strategy began to show results.
Still, few experts and fans had any high hopes for the Hawks in the Stanley Cup. The Chicago players themselves regarded their chances lightly. Defenseman Roger Jenkins bet Goalie Mike Karakas a wheelbarrow ride through Chicago that the Hawks wouldn't win the cup.
It looked like a good bet, too, after Chicago lost its first game in the playoffs to the Montreal Canadiens. One more loss and the team would be eliminated from further Stanley Cup play. But Karakas saved his bet, and the Black Hawks, by shutting out the Canadiens while his teammates scored four goals. Two nights later the Hawks won 3-2 in overtime and suddenly Chicago was in the semifinals, instead of the favored Canadiens.
The Black Hawks turned right around their next time out and dropped the first semifinal game to the New York Americans. Once again, Chicago had to win two straight games to stay in the playoffs.
The second game went through three regulation periods without either team scoring. As the overtime was about to start, Stewart took Earl Seibert, his all-star defenseman, aside, and said to him, "If Cully [Dahlstrom] gets the face-off, he'll pass to you. I want you to go into the left corner. They'll chase you. When they do that, you pass back to Cully, who'll be skating along slowly, and he'll try for the goal."
When Seibert and Dahlstrom got the chance, they tried Stewart's play. Seibert took the puck to the left, luring two defenders with him. Dahlstrom was open. Seibert passed back. Dahlstrom shot. Goal. The game was over. The series was tied 1-1.
The Black Hawks followed up with a 3-2 win, and the team that didn't rate a chance was in the Stanley Cup finals. They had played six games in 12 days, traveling back and forth between Chicago and Montreal three times and between Chicago and New York three times. They had lost the first game both times and had come right back with two wins in a row. Now they would have to meet the Toronto Maple Leafs, first-place winners in the Canadian Division of the NHL. And they would have to do it without their superb goalie, Mike Karakas. A hard shot had broken his big toe in the last game of the semifinals.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, on the other hand, were in good physical shape. They had swept their only series in the playoffs and had been resting for a week while waiting to find out who their opponents would be in the Stanley Cup finals.
About the only thing the Black Hawks had going for them was the calculating mind of Bill Stewart. Against the Canadiens he had ordered his players to increase their body checking and this had upset the timing of the Montreal wings. In the New York series, Stewart had noticed that the Americans' goalie had trouble handling low shots. The Black Hawks aimed the puck along the ice after that. For the Maple Leafs, Stewart worked up a different strategy. He figured that the potent Toronto attack could be contained if the Maple Leaf centers were bottled up.
Chicago was still without a goalie 45 minutes before the start of the first game with the Maple Leafs. NHL President Frank Calder and Toronto General Manager and Coach Connie Smythe had turned down the goalie Stewart wanted to use. Just before the game, he was told by the Toronto officials that Alfie Moore, a Maple Leaf castoff, would be in the nets for the Hawks. Moore had finished his season on the Toronto farm team in Pittsburgh and had not been on skates in two weeks.
Stewart said to the Toronto officials, "I'm surprised you didn't tell me sooner." Then, as Stewart recalled recently, "Smythe, who was standing beside and almost behind me, took a swing at my head. He barely grazed me but that was too much for me. I dived for him. At that point Baldy Cotton, a Toronto scout, took a potshot at me and just nicked me."
By the time the ruckus ended, Stewart had a goalie he didn't want, a trickle of blood on his cheek and a thoroughly aroused team of hockey players. When it was almost time for the game to start, Stewart patted Moore on the back and wished him luck. "I'll make 'em eat the puck," answered Moore.
He did. Moore was good that night, and when he wasn't good, he was lucky. Once he turned around to look for a shot he thought had gone past him. Actually, the puck was a few feet in front of the net. While Moore had his back turned, a Toronto player fired point blank. The seat of Moore's pants stopped the shot. Moore made 25 other saves and when the game ended, the Black Hawks had won 3-1.
The Toronto front office suddenly reconsidered its choice of Moore as goalie for Chicago. They notified the Hawks that they had better get one of their own farm hands in the nets for the rest of the Stanley Cup finals. Paul Goodman, a 28-year-old minor leaguer with no NHL experience, was rushed over from Winnipeg. He had not played in three weeks and looked it, as the Maple Leafs crushed Chicago, 5-1, in the next game. It was a rugged, bruising brawl and the Black Hawks took severe physical punishment from the heavier Maple Leafs.
"The next day I went to the Garfield Park Hospital in Chicago to see my injured boys," said Stewart. "It was like a scene from a war movie. Half a dozen of them were laid out with cuts and bruises, and Doc Romnes, one of my centers, had a broken nose. I knew the boys were upset, so before the game I told them, 'Now listen, no matter what happened in Toronto, let's go out there to win this game, and don't look at it as a chance for revenge.' "
Stewart's patched-up athletes went out on the ice at Chicago Stadium for the third game before the largest crowd (18,496) in NHL history. The slightly built Doc Romnes wore a Purdue University football helmet to protect his broken nose. Mike Karakas, the hero of the earlier playoff games, was back in the nets, his broken toe pulled into place.
Toronto scored first. The game quickly turned into another bruising battle in which fights broke out in the stands as well as on the ice. Through it all, Stewart's tactics—bottling up the Toronto centers, shifting units of players every few minutes, keeping his defensemen constantly on the move—stopped Toronto from scoring again.
The Black Hawks tied the score in the second period and, with less than five minutes remaining in the game, Romnes, Mush March and Paul Thompson flashed in all alone on Toronto Goalie Turk Broda. Thompson passed to March, who passed to Romnes. Romnes let go a shot that whistled by Broda's shoulder for the last score of the game. The Chicago Black Hawks led the Toronto Maple Leafs, two games to one. They needed only one more victory to become the 1938 Stanley Cup winners.
April 12 was primary day in Illinois. Most of the state's citizens, however, were more concerned about the fourth game of the Stanley Cup playoffs that night than the day's election results.
The Black Hawks took a fast lead on Dahlstrom's goal early in the first period. The Leafs came right back two minutes later and tied the score. Opposing goalies Turk Broda and Mike Karakas turned back shot after shot after that and three-quarters of the way through the second period, the score was still 1-1. Suddenly, Center Carl Voss stole the puck from a pair of Toronto defensemen and triggered a 10-foot shot past Broda. The Black Hawks led 2-1.
One minute and 13 seconds later, one of the most incredible goals in hockey history was made. Bill Stewart had sent in Right Wing Jack Shill with instructions to "Let the puck go when you get near center ice." This was intended to be a time-consuming defensive measure to run out the second period. Shill didn't wait to get to center ice though. He lofted the puck high into the air while still some 150 feet from the Toronto net. Broda came out of the cage, confidently dropped to his knees for what appeared to be an easy stop, and then stared in disbelief as the puck skipped over his stick and into the net. Chicago led 3-1.
Now it was Toronto which suddenly faced elimination. The Maple Leafs put on one furious assault after another to try to overcome the Hawks' lead. Instead Chicago made it 4-1 on a third-period goal by Mush March.
With about two minutes left in the game, Stewart instructed Johnny Gottselig, the league's best stick handler, to get the puck and keep Toronto from gaining possession.
"And that's just what he did," said Stewart. "He skated around those Toronto players as if they weren't there. I never saw anything like it."
When it was over the Hawks lifted Stewart to their shoulders. Even this gesture proved to be typical of the Black Hawks. They almost dropped him. But, using much the same collective effort that had sustained them throughout the playoffs, the Black Hawk players held on.