Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - One on One with Butch Bouchard
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One on One with Butch Bouchard

11 APRIL 2008
(left to right) Kenny Reardon, Bill Durnan and Butch Bouchard pose for a photo. Bouchard and Reardon were paired together once Reardon returned from the military in 1946.
(HHOF/Turofsky Collection)
Through fifteen National Hockey League seasons, Emile 'Butch' Bouchard wore the sweater of but one team — the Montreal Canadiens. And during eight of those campaigns, Bouchard proudly wore the captain's 'C' for the Canadiens. The 100th anniversary of the Canadiens' franchise will showcase a broad range of Montreal greats, but few served so effectively or so loyally 'Butch' Bouchard.

Born September 4, 1919, the son of a carpenter and painter, Emile Bouchard grew up in a poor Montreal household made destitute by the Depression. Without the money to buy skates, the young man didn't even begin to skate until the age of sixteen, and that was only when he could scrounge up the nickel it cost to rent skates on the outdoor. But playing with nothing more than skates and a stick, Emile almost immediately showed an aptitude for the game. Tall and fit, Emile had begun weightlifting while in high school, improvising by using railway ties with steel plates added for weight. In addition, he was a boxer, a very good baseball player and starred on his high school's field hockey teams.

As his abundant skills rapdly developed, Emile was encouraged to play organized hockey, but without the monetary resouces to do so, was unable to play in a league. He borrowed $35 from his older brother and purchased his first set of equipment in order to play for the Verdun Maple Leafs, a squad in the Montreal City Junior Hockey League.

Montreal coach Dick Irvin Sr. In front, Maurice Richard, goalie Bill Durnan (with C) & Butch Bouchard. (HHOF Images)
Emile had always been entrepreneurial, too, so in order to earn his own money, he set up an apiary and became such a successful beekeeper that while going to school during the day and playing hockey many evenings each week, Emile was able to produce 15,000 pounds of honey each year, using the revenues to purchase a home for his parents.

Beginning with the 1937-38 season, Emile played three seasons with Verdun. It was during this time that teammate Bob Filion began calling the big defenceman 'Butch,' a nickname that stuck for the rest of his life. In 1938-39 and 1939-40, the Maple Leafs won the league championship and faced the Oshawa Generals for the George T. Richardson Trophy as Eastern Canadian champions, but were thwarted both years. Maurice Richard was briefly a member of the team in 1939-40.

'Butch' joined the Montreal Canadiens of the Quebec Senior Hockey League for the 1940-41 season, and on February 21, 1941, was signed by the Montreal Canadiens of the National Hockey League. He was sent off to join the Providence Reds of the American Hockey League for a 12-game stint, and proved he was ready for professional hockey.

Butch Bouchard welcomes us to his humble abode. Prior to his pro hockey career, Bouchard worked as a beekeeper and earned enough revenue to purchase a home for his parents. (HHOF/Turofsky Collection)
Invited to the Montreal Canadiens' training camp in St. Hyacinthe in September 1941, Bouchard made the 50 km. (35 mile) trip by bicycle. Dick Irvin was in his sophomore season as coach of the Canadiens, and found that his line-up was being decimated by players joining the military. 'Butch,' who as a farmer had been deemed exempt from military duty, came into camp fit and eager. In fact, so eager that his physical play during scrimmages left potential teammates reminding him that ultimately, they'd play for the same team. "I wanted very much to make that team," he said.

In fact, he impressed Coach Irvin so much that he was signed by the Canadiens and made the roster. "I was a determined, enthusiastic young fellow in those days," he stated. "That's what you need to make a success in life. You work hard, you're enthusiastic and very disciplined at your game."

The Canadiens had not fared well in recent years. Since the Canadian and American Divisions had been merged in 1938-39, they had finished sixth, seventh and sixth in the seven-team league. Talk of folding the franchise was wafting around the NHL. Coach Irvin needed an infusion of talented, young players, and in Bouchard and other prospects like Maurice Richard, Elmer Lach and Ken Reardon, felt he had the cornerstones of a winning team.

'Butch' joined the team in 1941-42, but didn't truly blossom until the next season. As Reardon left to serve in the military, Bouchard stepped up and added the physical blueline presence the Canadiens hadn't had in some time. He joined a defence corps that included Tony Graboski, 'Red' Groupille and Jack Portland, although all three would shortly be added to the military ranks.

Bouchard developed into a responsible, physical presence on the blueline whose game complemented his long-time defence partner, Doug Harvey, who was more inclined to rush with the puck. 'Butch's' ability to make the outlet pass to the forwards, initiating offensive rushes, became a hallmark of the freewheeling Canadiens who enjoyed so much success in the latter-1940's and through the 1950's. Butch was named to the NHL's Second All-Star Team in 1943-44, and was selected for the First All-Star Team in 1944-45, 1945-46 and 1946-47.

As Montreal's coach had hoped, youth propelled the Canadiens, who finished first in 1943-44. The tandem of 'Butch' Bouchard and Leo Lamoureux had been outstanding on defence, and married with the goaltending of Bill Durnan and the potent offence of the recently-formed 'Punch Line' of Toe Blake, Maurice Richard and Elmer Lach, went on to defeat the Chicago Black Hawks for the Stanley Cup.

(left) Butch Bouchard and (right) Maurice Richard join together. Richard followed Bouchard as captain of the Montreal Canadiens at the start of the 1956-57 season. (HHOF Images)
The team took the Stanley Cup championship again in 1946, beating the Boston Bruins this time. The 'Punch Line' again led the team (all three finished in the top ten through the regular season), while Bouchard was paired with Kenny Reardon, who had returned from the military and being awarded the Certificate of Merit for his service in Europe.

A leg injury suffered in January 1948 forced veteran Toe Blake to end his NHL career. After the injury, netminder Bill Durnan had been made captain, but with the beginning of the 1948-49 season, 'Butch' Bouchard was wearing the captain's 'C'. He had the perfect temperament for the role — strong yet even-keeled. And he was not afraid to speak up to management as required. 'Boom Boom' Geoffrion recalled how the captain stood up for him during the 1949-50 season. "Mr. (Frank) Selke, the general manager, brought me up for a three-game try-out. 'Butch' Bouchard went to Selke and said, 'Why don't you give the kid a shot? He can put the puck in the net.'" Geoffrion got his shot, scoring in his first game and potting another as well during the three game look, then signed a contract with the team and became a superstar during the dynasty years. Bouchard played an important role on the team, encouraging the youngsters and serving as both a mentor and an arbitrator, as required.

Life was going well for Bouchard. Newly-married, he sold his apiary in 1947 and purchased an eponymous tavern in the heart of Montreal's downtown, not far from the Montreal Forum. But during that season, 'Butch' suffered a severe knee injury that curtailed his game substantially. "I had been an All-Star before the injury, but after I got hurt, I couldn't make it," he said. "I was playing good hockey not All-Star-outstanding." 'Butch' used a stationary bike to re-hab the knee but never regained his full strength. "The doctors thought I couldn't play anymore," he admits. Yet, retirement simply was an option for Bouchard. His physical conditioning and great efforts to strengthen the knee allowed him to return to the team late in the season and contribute in the playoffs. "I played hockey and ran the restaurant for another eight years," he states.

The Canadiens reached the Stanley Cup final in 1951 against Toronto and in 1952 versus Detroit. In 1953, Bouchard accepterd the Stanley Cup on behalf of his teammates after Montreal defeated the Boston Bruins. The Canadiens reached the final again in 1954 and 1955 against Detroit.

At the conclusion of the 1954-55 season, Bouchard contemplated retirement. Dick Irvin, the only coach under which he had played in the NHL, was released, and Butch saw it as an appropriate time for him too to leave the Canadiens. For a brief period of time, 'Butch' was considered for Montreal's coaching position, which ultimately was given to former teammate Toe Blake. Blake and Bouchard sat down and the new coach convinced the captain to give the team one more season, maintaining his strong leadership abilities and assisting in the development of younger defencemen like Jean-Guy Talbot.

Then, in 1956, Montreal won the first of a record five consecutive Stanley Cup championships. But for 'Butch,' it was the beginning of the end. "Age caught up with me," he shrugged. "I was 36 with a bad leg. I was surprised I played that much. According to the doctor, I should have quit when I was 29 years old."

Emile 'Butch' Bouchard took his rightful place in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966. Bouchard is seen here presenting his induction speech. (HHOF Archives)
In his final game in the NHL, on April 10, 1956, the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Detroit Red Wings 3-1 to capture the Stanley Cup. Although he had been a spectator through the latter part of the season and through all of the playoffs to that date, Coach Blake had Bouchard dress for what was hoped to be the final game of the season, which in fact, it was. 'Butch' sat on the bench through most of the game, but as the final moments were being counted down, the coach sent his captain over the boards so he could proudly conclude his career on the ice amongst his teammates as the Stanley Cup-winning game came to a conclusion. Bouchard took his spot on defence, grinning ear to ear, and when the buzzer sounded to conclude the game, he led the team over to congratulate goaltender Jacques Plante. The hometown fans cheered wildly, and as the hubbub subsided, NHL president Clarence Campbell called for captain 'Butch' Bouchard to come to centre ice to accept the Stanley Cup, and the cheers again rained down onto 'Butch' as he cradled the Cup. As he skated off the ice, he knew that it would be for the final time.

During his career, Bouchard played in 785 regular season NHL games, scoring 49 times, assisting on 144 others and collecting 193 points. He added 11 goals and 21 assists for 32 points in 113 playoff contests.

Following his retirement as a player, 'Butch' ran his popular restaurant and in 1957, was named president of the Montreal Royals Triple-A baseball club, the top farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers (who moved to Los Angeles before the 1958 season). The Royals won the Governors' Cup as champions of the International League in 1958, but the team folded following the 1960 season when the Dodgers moved their farm team to Syracuse.

In 1961, 'Butch' was elected to Longeuil's municipal council and was a well-liked local politician for two years. Always a leader, he later involved himself in the Chamber of Commerce and was on the board of directors for Ste. Jeanne-d'Arc Hospital.

Bouchard never lost sight of his hockey roots. He was named president of the Metropolitan Junior 'A' Hockey League in 1968-69 and insituted an All-Star Game pitting the best of his MJAHL versus the finest in the Quebec Junior Hockey League, with proceeds going into an emergency fund reserved for players suffering injuries. Later, the QMJHL named its defenceman of the tear trophy in Bouchard's honour.

Perhaps his greatest thrill was watching his son Pierre take the ice for the same Montreal Canadiens in 1970-71. Both big, strong defenceman, the junior Bouchard was, like his father, also a Stanley Cup champion, winning the Cup with the Canadiens in five of his eight seasons. His coach, Scotty Bowman, admitted, "There's nothing tougher than for a son to come into a town where his father is a legend." 'Butch' couldn't have been more proud when he stated, "It was the first time a father and a son played for the Canadiens, and for me, it was a great honour. I felt that, in some way, he had taken my place. I felt like part of the team again."

In 1966, Emile 'Butch' Bouchard was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. It was almost incomprehensible — a man who had only started skating at the age of sixteen was four years later, playing with the Montreal and proceeded to be acknowledged as one of the greatest players in the game's history. A brilliant leader, a champion and an inspiration, Honoured Member Jean Beliveau concludes, saying, "Emile Bouchard served as a model for my time as captain of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1960's."

Although there have been many excellent players through the pantheon of the Montreal Canadiens' franchise, few emboldened the inspiration written on the dressing room walls of the Montreal Forum as appropriately as 'Butch' Bouchard:

'To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.'
('In Flanders Fields, John McCrae)

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