Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - One on One with Toe Blake
One on One Treasure Chest Pinnacle
One on One with Toe Blake

2 JAN 2009
Prior to signing with the Montreal Maroons, Toe Blake excelled with the Hamilton Tigers of the Ontario Hockey Association senior level throughout the 1930s. (HHOF Images)
There are but a handful of personalities who, it could be argued, should be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as both player and builder. Dick Irvin, Hap Day and Toe Blake are three who could be so honoured in both categories.

Toe Blake was born August 21, 1912 in Victoria Mines, Ontario, a mining town built on the railway line just outside of Sudbury. When Mond Nickel moved to nearby Coniston, so did many of the buildings and families, including the Blakes. Victoria Mines is now a ghost town, while Coniston has been absorbed into the Greater Sudbury Area.

Although his given name was Hector, no one knew him as anything but 'Toe,' a nickname he picked up because a sibling, unable to pronounce 'Hector,' called him 'Hec-toe'.

The Blake family was comprised of eleven children, although four died as infants. Without the resources to buy skates, Toe began his hockey career as a goaltender, manning the crease in his boots. But the twelve-year-old Blake was hired by a dairy to hitch their horses to the milk carts, and with his earnings, he purchased his first pair of skates. Much to the chagrin of his mother, who wanted him to become a miner, Toe fuelled a passion for the game that remained for the remainder of his life.

Blake officially joined the Montreal Canadiens in February of 1936 and after an eleven game stint became a regular in the line-up the following season. (James Rice/HHOF)
By 17, Blake was starring with the Cochrane Dunlops of the Nickel Belt Hockey League. By the next season, he was a much-coveted member of the Sudbury Cub Wolves of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League as well as Sudbury CIL of the NBHL. In 1932, his second year with the Cubs, Blake led the NOJHL in scoring and Sudbury went on to win the Memorial Cup as junior champions. While playing with the Cubs, a scout for the Montreal Maroons noticed the prolific scorer and kept tabs on Blake.

In 1932-33, Blake played the first of three seasons with the Hamilton Tigers, a senior hockey club in the Ontario Hockey Association who challenged for the Allan Cup that spring.

Toe signed with the Montreal Maroons on February 21, 1935 and turned professional, playing eight games with the Maroons during that 1934-35 season while spending much of the season playing senior hockey with Hamilton's Tigers. That year, the Maroons trumped the Toronto Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup. Blake played one playoff contest, but none in the best-of-five Stanley Cup final, yet got his name inscribed on Lord Stanley's legacy.

The Maroons were in need of a goaltender, and in order to secure Lorne Chabot from the Montreal Canadiens, they sacrificed some of their future. On February 13, 1936, Blake, Ken Gravel and Bill Miller were sent to the Canadiens. Although Miller never made much of an impact with the Canadiens, and Gravel never played in the NHL, Blake would spend the rest of his professional life assisting the Montreal Canadiens win championships.

(Front row, left to right) Maurice Richard, Elmer Lach & Toe Blake know as the 'Punch' Line, teamed up in 1943 and subsequently led le bleu blanc rouge to the Stanley Cup. (Turofsky Collection/HHOF)
Known more as a tough forward, Toe's talents were refined while with the Canadiens, and he became a proficient playmaker and scorer. In his first full season with the Canadiens (1936-37), Blake scored 10 goals and 22 points, then followed with 17 goals and 33 points in 1937-38, a season in which he was named to the NHL's Second All-Star Team. In February 1939, Toe Blake was leading the NHL in scoring when he injured his knee in a game against Toronto. Nonetheless, he played all 48 games that season, winning the scoring championship with 47 points, was awarded the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP and was selected for the league's First All-Star Team, a feat he repeated in 1940. That season, he picked up the nickname 'The Old Lamplighter' for his scoring prowess.

In 1943, Montreal coach Dick Irvin experimented putting Blake at left wing with centre Elmer Lach and right winger Maurice Richard. The trio, tagged the Punch Line, became one of the most dynamic trios in hockey history. The line led the Canadiens to Stanley Cup championships in 1944 and 1946, with Toe Blake scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal in both years. In 1944-45, Lach, Richard and Blake finished one-two-three in scoring during the regular season. Blake's 29 goals and 67 points were both career bests. All three linemates were selected for the NHL's First Team All-Star that year. Blake added a Second Team All-Star nod in 1946. Recording but one minor penalty all season, Toe added the Lady Byng Trophy as the league's most gentlemanly player in 1946.

In 1944-45, Toe Blake notched a personal best 67-points while helping his teammate Maurice Richard become the NHL's first 50-goal scorer. (Turofsky Collection/HHOF)
Late in the third period of a game against the New York Rangers on January 11, 1948, Toe was checked by Bill Juzda and fell awkwardly into the boards. "Toe seemed to catch his left skate in the ice," reported the Montreal Gazette. "He trierd to get up but fell back again and players and officials crowded around him. As he was carried off the ice on a stretcher, the crowd of 11,211 seemed stunned into silence." X-rays indicated leg broken badly in two spots. The injuries forced him to miss the remainder of that season. When he was offered the chance to coach Montreal's American Hockey League affiliate in Buffalo beginning with the 1948-49 season, Blake accepted the challenge and began a second hockey career that arguably eclipsed the first.

After coaching the Buffalo Bisons of the AHL, Toe coached Valleyfield of the Quebec Senior Hockey League in 1949-50 and remained there until 1955. That summer, Dick Irvin, the coach of the Canadiens, left to coach the Chicago Black Hawks. General Manager Frank Selke invited Blake to step behind Montreal's bench as head coach. Selke had a not-so-hidden agenda. He needed a coach who could handle the mercurial Maurice Richard. Blake fit the bill perfectly — coaching experience, playing experience, including being a friend and teammate of Richard's, bilingual. It was a perfect match.

A broken leg forced the 36-year old team captain to end his career in January, 1948. He quickly joined the coaching ranks and went on to replace the legendary Dick Irvin behind the bench at the start of the 1955-56 season. (Turofsky Collection/HHOF)
In his first five seasons as Montreal's coach, the Canadiens captured the Stanley Cup. This unprecedented feat alone would earn Toe a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame. But in thirteen seasons as coach of the Canadiens, his teams finished first nine times and won the Stanley Cup on eight occasions! So strong were his teams, in fact, that the NHL adopted a new rule following the 1955-56 season. Montreal's powerplay was comprised of Jean Beliveau at centre flanked by Maurice Richard and Bert Olmstead. Doug Harvey was joined by 'Boom Boom' Geoffrion on the points, and the inimitable Jacques Plante was in goal. The five skaters racked up goals so frequently on the powerplay that the old rule of penalized players serving their entire two-minute minor was commuted to allow the penalized player to return to the ice should a goal be scored by the opposition during his time in the penalty box.

Toe Blake was a stern fixture behind the bench, sporting his trademark fedora. Intense, he set the bar high each season he coached. The singular goal was to capture the Stanley Cup. "Toe was the ultimate coach," claimed John Ferguson. "He treated the players like men. He had a great feeling for the game and could mastermind behind the bench in a way nobody has ever been able to."

On May 11, 1968, having just won his eleventh Stanley Cup championship as a player and as a coach, Blake stated, "I've had enough! The pressure is too much!" In 914 regular season games, the Canadiens under Toe won 500 contests, tied 159 and lost 255. In 119 playoff games, Blake-led charges won 82 times, losing just 37. A taskmaster, Blake knew how to massage a team in order to get the most out of its players.

Under Blake's guidance, former linemate Maurice Richard kept his temper under control as the club captured five consecutive Stanley Cup Championships.
(Turofsky Collection/HHOF)
"Toe Blake hated to lose so much that he made us the same way," stated defenceman J.C. Tremblay. In 1972, four years after retiring as coach of the Canadiens, the team held a special dinner in his honour. At that time, he was given a special trophy, purportedly created from the silver of a missing band from the original Stanley Cup.

Although his coaching career overshadowed his playing career, Hector 'Toe' Blake was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Player Category in 1966, having registered a career total of 235 goals and 292 assists for 527 points in 577 regular season NHL games. In 1998, The Hockey News ranked Blake at sixty-six in their list of 100 greatest players.

In 1982, Blake received the Order of Canada, the country's highest civilian honour. Toe Blake died on May 17, 1995 at the age of 82.

Thirteen should have been Toe Blake's favoured number. After playing for thirteen seasons, he coached for thirteen more. Hockey was lucky to have been graced with the skill of Toe Blake — outstanding player; extraordinary coach.

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.