In a cloudy hockey rink, one can see two teams battling back and forth for the puck. One is clad in white with red and blue trim and the other in red accented in white and blue. The passing is tape-to-tape perfection as the players glide without missing a step, back and forth along the ice.
A player in red, wearing number nine, charges down the right wing, eyes fixed on the unmasked goaltender for the opposing team. Before he makes his final move to the goal, the opposing center swoops from behind, frees the puck and dashes the opposite way. He flies down the ice, eludes the defensemen and fires the puck past the reach of the red squad’s goaltender.
As the two teams reach center ice for the next face-off, the goal scorer chirps his check. “I thought you were The Rocket?,” he says jokingly. The opposing winger gives a stare, then with a grin responds,”Well if I am going to be outdone, I’d rather it be by The Stratford Streak.”
“Hold up boys!,” bellows a voice from the white team’s bench. “It looks like we have a new player. We may have to change things up here.”
The door to the rink opens, and a grinning 5’10 center, sporting red uniform with a number 16 on it makes his way to the gathering of players at center ice. “I know that nose anywhere,” beams The Rocket.” I even broke it once. I thought he’d never get here.”
“Hello boys, it’s nice to see you again, and to meet some of you for the first time,” says the newcomer, as he shakes hands with the players at center ice. “Mr. Morenz, I used to read about you in the newspapers. Mr. Lalonde, my dad took me to see you play in Saskatoon once! And Jean, I know you just got here, but the folks down there gave you a great send off. They’ll never forget you.”
He then looks at the red team’s bench, “Hey ‘coach,’ do you want to join us on the ice?” The man behind the red bench removes his head and nods. “Pat, Claude…will one of you two lads take over for me, while I get dressed? Mr. Irvin, will you give us a few minutes?” The voice from the white team’s bench responds, “Of course! I put you three together in the first place!”
After a brief pause, the action resumes with red team lining up 6-16-9, for the first time in ages. The puck drops and the reds take charge, winning the draw and working it back to their defenceman. They begin their offensive charge as Big Butch moves it on the latest arrival, who heads down the ice. He presses the white clad defence before dishing a perfect pass off to his left wing. His teammate fires, but the white team’s goaltender makes the save. The rebound winds up on the stick of The Rocket, who knocks it into the net.
“Just like old days, right guys?,” says the newcomer, as the trio skates to the red bench. “So who wants to tell Plante that one of his records is about to be broken?”
We only hope that is how it is playing out right now for Canadiens legend and Hockey Hall of Fame member Elmer Lach, who passed away on April 4th at age 97. Lach had suffered a stroke the week prior.
Lach leaves a legacy as a gritty forward, compared to the likes of Ted Lindsay, and matched up with the best centres in the game during his career, due to his exceptional face-off skills. A more recent comparable might be another Hall of Fame player, Doug Gilmour.
A star in the Saskatchewan Senior leagues, Lach was eyed by many NHL scouts. It appeared he was about to join the Toronto Maple Leafs, having agreed to play for the Leafs sponsored St. Michael’s College. Feeling homesick, he returned to Saskatchewan before ever playing a game for St. Mike’s. Leafs owner Conn Smythe labeled Lach a deserter. Lach would pass on joining the New York Rangers, after someone on the team told him they were too cheap.
In October of 1940 he packed an overnight bag and hopped on a train (along with future Hab Ken Reardon) to Montreal for a tryout at their training camp. He was offered a contract of $4000, but again opted to return home, only to have his manager in Moose Jaw tell him that he wouldn’t make that kind of money in the west. Lach and his girlfriend packed his clothes and shipped off to Montreal. His manager in Saskatchewan offered to take him back, if he decided to change his mind. That offer never needed to be accepted.
In a career that was seen centering Maurice Richard and Toe Blake (The Punch Line) throughout most of his career, Lach held the league scoring title twice and won the Hart Trophy in the 1944-45 season. He has his name engraved on The Stanley Cup three times, scoring the overtime winner in 1953 (his last Cup).
In his final NHL season (1953-54), Lach groomed his successor at centre, Jean Beliveau. His 623 points was then an NHL career record at the time of his retirement.
One has to wonder how many points Lach could have scored, if not for injuries. He missed 130 NHL games due to seven broken noses, broken jaws (he even came up with a prototype jaw guard for the NHL, but it was turned down.), you name it. For many it would be too much, but not for Lach. “He was virtually impervious to pain,” said former Montreal Canadiens teammate Dickie Moore in an interview with CBC.
Elmer Lach was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966 and entered the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame the following year. His number 16 was retired by the Canadiens on December 4, 2009, during the team’s Centennial celebration. Many felt that his sweater retirement was long overdue.
Worth the Read: In the last decade, Dave Stubbs of the Montreal Gazette has built a strong relationship with the Canadiens legend. Here he shares his farewell and last days with “Elegant Elmer” .