Watch him at a hockey game and then compassionately slip him a straight razor. It seems the only kind thing to do as Hector (Toe) Blake, coach of the Montreal Canadiens, spends an evening in his small, rectangular cell at rinkside, in the shadows of a larger, more perceptible hell inside himself. During the game Blake's teeth, like jack-hammers, forever blast into a chunk of gum and at times, it appears, his lower lip. His head rolls like a cue ball with English on it, and his voice—constantly discharging epithets—is that of a foreman in a stamping mill. High-voltage moments send him bolting up and down in a jagged line but, when confronted with obvious defeat or victory or excruciating blunder, he somnambulantly stumbles about in tight little circles. Right now the thing most troubling Toe Blake, the Captain Bligh of the National Hockey League and everybody's candidate for a long vacation in a nice, quiet country place with high walls around it, is the fact that the experts have once again picked his team to finish in first place.
A Canadien game is always, quite simply, the third day at Gettysburg for Blake. Think of hockey in any other way and you had better deal around him. The long run with Blake toward success is never a tranquil trip. He is, true, avuncular at times, but more frequently he is despotic or desperate—a human fusillade of stinging ridicule and penetrating anger. "It's the way I am," says Blake. "It's the only way I know how to get there."
Since 1955, when he succeeded the Habs' highly obstreperous and successful coach, Dick Irvin, Blake has flogged both his opposition and his players. He has given the Canadiens 385 victories, 187 defeats and 128 ties in the regular-season schedule, seven league titles and six Stanley Cup championships, five of them consecutive. His most recent cup victory—the first in four years—came last season, to the bewilderment of every expert in hockey and the embarrassment of all those who have persisted in portraying Blake as just a caretaker coach.
From time to time last year it seemed that Blake was doomed to defeat. The Canadiens went into the playoffs with no Rocket Richard or Boom Boom Geoffrion or Bert Olmstead or Jacques Plante to make things easy. Of course, Jean Beliveau, their brilliant and adroit center for so many years, was still there, but Jean had been brilliantly maladroit and ineffectual (for Beliveau) most of the season. Henri Richard, The Rocket's brother, was out six weeks with an injury. The goaltending, perennially Montreal's reliable hole card, had been excessively generous to the opposition. Despite all this, Blake made a good run at the regular-season title, but still no one was giving the Canadiens much of a chance in the playoffs. Their fine defense-man, Jacques Laperriere, and Gilles Tremblay, their good-scoring left winger, were out with injuries.
November 22, 1965
Nevertheless, at cup time, sparked by a suddenly rejuvenated Beliveau, the Canadiens handled Toronto in six games in the first round. In the finals against Chicago the lackluster goalies, juggled from game to game on the basis of Blake's whims and figures, began to deliver. Tremblay came back, and Blake extracted solid performances from him and Dick Duff, a former Ranger conspicuous only for his ineptness. The formidable Bobby Hull was stopped by sacrificing the scoring potential of Claude Provost, who—continually prodded by Blake—shadowed Hull throughout the series and followed him everywhere but to the Chicago bench. It made all the difference: Hull scored only two goals. The longest and deepest drink from the Stanley Cup belonged to Blake.
As a result of this, Blake and his Canadiens are now unanimous choices to win the league title and the cup in 1966.
"How can they overlook us completely one year," Blake snorts, "and then pick us to win it all the next?" His complaint is not just another case of a coach's "poor mouth." Blake simply has a very real and gnawing fear of what such conjecture can do to a club. He has seen the debilitating power of complacency. "I recall one great Canadien team," he says, "during my playing days. We lost a few games, and the players weren't particularly worried. They kept telling themselves they'd win the next one. But the next one never came around. By the time we started to play up to our potential we were out of the playoffs."
The frayed script about every great hockey player depends heavily on the moment his mother bought him his first pair of skates. Blake's mother was adamantly opposed to his participation in such foolishness as hockey. She had hoped that Hector (or Hec-toe, as his younger brother called him) would be fortunate enough to acquire a "nice and steady" job—in the mines. Even if she had given her approval, a pair of skates would have been out of the question, with eight children crowding the Blake table three times a day. "It was a big treat," Blake once told a friend, "whenever we got beef drippings on our bread, instead of lard for our school lunches." Lard was a mainstay on the luncheon menus for many youngsters in northern Ontario's Victoria Mines, a smelter and mining community whose families too often could afford only too little.
When he was 12 Blake got a job hitching up horses and delivering milk before going to school. The money enabled him to buy a pair of skates and freed him from the boredom of playing goalie—that hateful position that can, if necessary, be filled by a man without skates, in neighborhood games. From then on, except for an occasional fiercely contested game of old maid with his sisters, Blake had little time for anything but hockey. School was a distraction, but a sympathetic teacher allowed the kids to wear their skates into the old wooden-floored classroom so that hockey games during recess could get under way promptly. In the summer Blake played baseball and was a mascot for an older team. He occasionally forgot to pick up the bats, but he never forgot to be a small aggravation to the umpires when a decision went the wrong way. This early distaste for officials would later prove to be an expensive phobia.
Blake, unpolished and rugged, made the usual stops in the network of kid, junior and senior hockey leagues in Canada. He was deadly serious and unmoved by most social distractions, but every so often his coach would walk by his room and see a dim light under the door. Curious, he would step in and find Toe desperately trying to fill an inside straight when he should have been in bed.
Blake first caught the attention of the NHL somewhat obliquely when its scouts were looking at a youth named Nakina Smith, his teammate on a minor league club in Sudbury. Smith was the talk of most of the NHL scouts, who saw great potential in him, but when Eddie Girard, coach of the now defunct Montreal Maroons, wired his scout, Sam Rothschild, about Smith, he got the reply, "Forget Smith, Blake's the one you want."
Nakina Smith never made it big in the majors but Toe Blake did. He was 23 when he joined the Maroons in 1935, a reckless, truculent and boisterous individual who seemed resolved that intimidation—an often used weapon of NHL players—would not succeed against him. Too busy fighting his own battles to play effectively or be much help to his teammates, Blake was soon sent back to the minors.
Later in the season the Maroons traded him to the other Montreal team, the Canadiens. He joined them just in time for a bad mauling in Detroit's Olympia Stadium. Blake and Detroit's Ebbie Goodfellow were leaving the penalty box together when Blake decided Good-fellow would look better decapitated. Blake's stick was deflected by a Red Wing player, and in seconds Blake was prone on the ice, being pummeled by almost the entire Detroit team. The Canadiens, whether pleased or merely discreet, just stood by and watched. Blake was rescued by the police. "He really went amok," says Jack Adams, former Red Wing coach. "But he never backed away from any of them. He was a helluva competitor."
Blake's metamorphosis from pugnacious brawler to mature hockey player began at the start of the 1936-37 season and reached its fulfillment more than two years later. That year he won the Hart Trophy as the game's most valuable player and was voted Canada's outstanding athlete. He was now as gentlemanly as a hockey player can afford to be, and continued to be so to such an extent that years later he won the Lady Byng trophy, an annual award given to the player who "best combines sportsmanship and outstanding play."
This change in Blake contributed to the devastating success of the Canadiens from 1943 to 1947. Blake was captain of those teams and left winger on the fine Mad Dog Line, which included The Rocket and Elmer Lach. It was a curious trio. Richard, though phlegmatic off the ice, was a volatile player. Lach was cocky and loquacious whether in or out of uniform. Blake, cool, resourceful and somewhat paternal, was the "rock," often calming Richard and Lach when they lived up to the line's nickname.
Blake's playing career ended on the night of January 10, 1948, when a body check shattered his ankle. In 13 years he had scored 235 goals and 292 assists. He had been a star—but not a superstar. He had been a scuffler who had to work hard for his success. "I could never let up," he says. "Others could, but I had to drive myself." He was to prove no different as a coach.
A month after Blake's injury Frank Selke Sr., then general manager of the Canadiens, asked him to take charge of Houston, a team that was having problems. Blake did, and he won the league title. Selke promoted Blake to the coaching position at Buffalo in the American Hockey League. He had trouble at Buffalo with the front office, and when the situation became untenable he quit in January. "They said I was too easygoing," says Blake. Three weeks later the Valleyfield Braves of the Quebec Senior Hockey League approached him with a coaching offer. Blake accepted and stayed until the end of the 1953-54 season, when he quit again to devote his time to running the tavern in Montreal that he still owns.
Meanwhile the Canadiens' board of directors was searching for someone to succeed Dick Irvin. Selke immediately injected Blake's name into the discussions. Billy Reay, now coach of the Chicago Black Hawks, was being solidly endorsed for the job, but Selke, a sort of patriarch in Montreal hockey, persisted. "Blake is no theorist," Selke pitched. "He does not talk glibly about the game. But if you want someone who will get the maximum out of players Blake is the man." The directors yielded to Selke. Blake promised to work hard to help Montreal retain its "royalty" designation in the NHL.
Seven years later, despite a magnificent start in his first year, Blake's most notable accomplishment lay in getting Montreal eliminated from the playoffs for three straight seasons. Then, as he often did last season. Toe Blake incessantly talked of retirement.
"Will you be back, Toe?" a Montreal reporter asked.
"I want the whole month of May to think about it," replied Blake.
"Why the hesitation?" he was asked.
"Let's put it this way," he answered. "I want to live like Toe Blake used to live." He just could not, it seemed, bear the thought of being a loser.
This contempt for himself, for his players and for anybody else who might share the responsibility for defeat has been a source of much trouble for Blake, but it has also been one of his most potent weapons as a coach. True, he is a technically solid hockey man, a patient master at handling young players and one who is consistently successful at getting competence from those who do not have it to give too often, but it is his attitude and his cutting tongue that drive the Canadiens. After a series of defeats or just one game notable for desultory play, Blake can usually be heard profanely disparaging the abilities of his players. "The dressing room just shakes," says one reporter.
"I'm not sure such a technique is right," says Blake. "I've tried the silent treatment on them, but it gets me more upset than it does them."
Toe's players respect him, but there are a few who resent his bludgeoning approach. One such was Goalie Jacques Plante. "Plante was the greatest goalie I have ever seen," says Blake, "and I never said anything to him for seven years. Then when I did he couldn't take it." Blake, perhaps more restrained with Plante than with any other player he had ever coached, soon became completely disenchanted with his goalie. Plante, something of a hypochondriac and a source of dissension on the club, was traded to New York for the Rangers' indifferent Gump Worsley. "I never even gave it a second thought," Blake says. "It got so I never knew when he would be well enough to play."
The Plante-Blake feud did not end with the trade, however. When Plante joined the Rangers he immediately began making caustic remarks about Blake and Montreal to the press. Later on, when informed that he had been picked as coach of the year, Blake said: "They made a mistake in picking me. They should have given the award to Plante. He was the one that got our players hot."
Blake does not opt for dialogue when he disagrees with an official. He prefers getting right to the point, which may be located anywhere on the anatomy of the referee in question. In 1961, in the semifinals of the cup playoffs, Blake became incensed over a tripping call. He raged across the ice and threw a long, looping right hand at Referee Dalton MacArthur. Even though he missed, he was fined $2,000. During the finals against Chicago last April, Blake was exasperated by some of Vern Buffey's calls. After the game he skidded toward Buffey, intent upon elevating that referee's jaw. His players restrained him, but on his way into the dressing room Blake managed to uncork his right at a fan—and missed again. Moments later he popped his head out of the dressing room and bawled to reporters: "You all saw the game. You all saw what happened. Now let's see how much guts you've got."
Although the majority of the press—despite its painful association with him—is fond of Blake, he has shown little inclination to return the affection. His estrangement from reporters was provoked during the playoffs of 1963, when he tangled with Referee Eddie Powers (SI, April 8, 1963). Infuriated as usual at the officiating, Blake ranted after one game: "They oughta investigate the conduct of officials who handle themselves in such a way you'd think they bet on the outcome." Blake said then and says now that, like any other coach during heated moments, he was just "talking to the wall." One reporter did not think so, however, and Blake's remarks turned up in the French-language paper Matin. Powers insisted his honor had been impugned. Blake was fined $200. Powers, obviously annoyed at the fact that his honor was worth only $200, quit the NHL and took legal action against Blake. The case was settled out of court in Toronto, but Blake was forced to harness his emotions until the settlement. He avoided squabbling with referees. He was cautious with reporters. He was a man in chains. He never did forgive the press.
"I'd say," says Blake, "that the toughest job for a coach today is handling the press after a game. Particularly when you lose. You have to be a politician and a diplomat. They're all looking for an angle. That's what they call it. An angle. I tell you it's wicked."
Toe Blake is 53 now, and his 10 years of big-league coaching have marked him badly. He has frequent and persistent headaches, and he doesn't sleep well. He is a loner who is lonely. On the road, away from his family, there is nobody to drain the frustration and misery of defeat from his mind. Sometimes he can shake it by walking the streets, but usually he can be found in his big hotel suite late at night, alone and moving from the bed to the chair to the bed and back to the chair again. Once in a while he will turn on the late show, and just when his mind is being hooked by, say, a story of lost love in a western town, gossamer figures on skates will glide through his thoughts in slow motion. Damn it, Blake, why were you so tough with the players before the third period? Are you sure you had the right combination on the ice in that big moment of the second period? He never remembers the good moves, nor does he ever remember the good things he has done for people.
Blake is not an insensitive man. He knows that his circle of friends is not as large as it once was. He knows that he has hurt some people profoundly—through his words and his actions. He has, for instance, had to bench or release old friends at various times during his career, and he has never been callous about it. Each time they have taken a piece of Blake with them. "It is a very, very difficult thing to do," he says. He is also aware of the deep scar that has been inflicted by his job. "Once I was a very happy man," he says. "I am a bitter man now, a very bitter man."
There was no evidence of this bitterness during a recent visit to New York. Indeed, with his team tied for the lead, as advertised, Blake was talkative and generous with his time. But you could be sure his high spirits would not last, even if the lead did. A month from now Blake will not be smiling but sitting alone in the same hotel suite in front of a television set, punishing his mind and thinking: "That Nakina Smith! He was the lucky one."