Montreal, a New Hockey City (1)
Toe Blake's Legacy
Joseph Hector “Toe” Blake is the Johnny Appleseed of Montreal Canadiens hockey.
The popular image is of Johnny Appleseed spreading apple seeds randomly everywhere he went. In fact, he planted nurseries rather than orchards, built fences around them to protect them from livestock, left the nurseries in the care of a neighbor who sold trees on shares, and returned every year or two to tend the nursery.
The former player, captain, coach and advisor became the most enduring and influential figure in the team’s 111-year history by connecting and nurturing the people whose names are now in the Bell Centre rafters
Born to an Anglophone father and a Francophone mother in the greater Sudbury area, Blake bridged the gap between the Canadiens’ early days and its most recent Stanley Cup.
As a feisty young forward in the mold of Brendan Gallagher, Blake’s idol was the silky-smooth Howie Morenz (#7). Blake would later become a teammate of Morenz’s during the latter’s tragic final season.
As the Habs’ captain and conscience, Blake was instrumental in the development of linemates Elmer Lach (#16) and Maurice “Rocket” Richard (#9). MTL had suffered a 12-year Cup drought, and it was the Punch Line - combining Blake’s tireless retrieving, Lach’s playmaking and Richard’s nose for the net - that restored the team’s mojo in the ‘40s.
With coach Dick Irvin Sr. occasionally on leave to visit family in Regina, SK., it fell upon Captain Blake to run practice, a prelude to his second act.
After suffering a career-ending leg injury, Blake did not immediately move to the Habs’ bench. In fact he cut his teeth coaching minor-leaguers in Houston, Buffalo and Valleyfield before winning a power struggle that saw him named MTL’s coach ahead of former teammate Emile “Butch” Bouchard (#3).
Bouchard took the news in stride and returned for a final season as captain and depth defenseman. MTL would soon win the first of five consecutive Cups, still an NHL record.
Blake spent 13 years as the team’s coach, winning eight championships and coaching iconic Habs such as Jean Beliveau (#4), Doug Harvey (#2), Jacques Plante (#1), Henri Richard (#16), Dickie Moore (#12), Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion (#5) and Yvan Cournoyer (#12).
As recounted in his 2020 biography, Blake didn’t always have an easy time dealing with MTL’s superstars. But he always found ways to leverage their skills while managing their egos. Beliveau, Richard and Cournoyer became lifelong Habs while Harvey, Plante, Moore and Geoffrion spent their peak years wearing the blue-blanc-rouge sweater before ending their careers elsewhere.
More of a motivator and a disciplinarian than a tactician, Blake nevertheless instituted a cohrent tactical framework that is still relevant today:
Breakouts: Head-man the puck quickly to create opportunities against flat-footed opponents
Transition: Active Ds to support the rush with an emphasis on creating controlled entries
Powerplay: Load up the first unit (sometimes with four forwards) in order to create maximum threat
Blake was Scotty Bowman’s most important mentor. The former Jr. Canadiens player, working as a paint salesman after a career-ending injury, would sneak out of the office during lunch hours to watch Blade run practices. Bowman soon started coaching full-time. He and Blake would become colleagues, then lifelong friends.
In Blake’s final season (1967-68), he coached Serge Savard (#18), a critical member of the last MTL dynasty alongside Guy Lapointe (#5), Larry Robinson (#19), Guy Lafleur (#10) and Ken Dryden (#29).
The wily and worldly Savard later GMed the Canadiens to its 23rd and 24th Stanley Cups, with Blake acting as team advisor to rookie coach Jean Perron during the 1986 run.
Blake passed away on May 17, 1995, just under two years after the Canadiens won its most recent championship under the leadership of coach Jacques Demers and thanks to the MVP-caliber play of goalie Patrick Roy (#33).
All of the players in bold have their numbers up in the Bell Centre rafter, never to be used again.
Yet Blake’s #6 remains in circulation.
A significant loose end, left untied.
To revitalize the Canadiens, the first orders of business should be to acknowledge Blake’s immense impact by retiring his number and then to examine his past accomplishments for clues on how to chart a successful future.
Why did MTL win 24 cups, but none since ‘93?
Hockey Tactics 2020 is the ebook you need to read first
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Hockey Tactics: Retrospective is the ebook you need to read second
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