No punch line
Despite playing in the Rockets’ shadow, Elmer Lach carved out a Hall of Fame career
Elmer Lach never planned to play for the Montreal Canadiens, much less land a place in hockey's Hall of Fame.
When the 90-year-old Lach reflects on his life prior to his successful NHL career, the Saskatchewan native had every intention of continuing his job as a light-meter reader at a Moose Jaw power company.
Fortunately for the Canadiens, Lach made the team in 1940 and never looked back. Lach helped Montreal to three Stanley Cup championships during a 14-year career, but more importantly, centred the famous "Punch Line" with Toe Blake and Maurice "Rocket" Richard.
While he played in the large shadow of the Rocket, Lach's skills were more appreciated by his teammates and coach, Dick Irvin Sr.
Lach actually won the scoring title in 1945 with 80 points before the Art Ross Trophy was ever awarded. In an effort to seize the moment, Lach was the first recipient of the award in 1948 after putting together a 61-point campaign.
Selected to the Hall of Fame in 1966, Lach spoke to CBCSports.ca about his time with Richard, his Stanley Cup final clinching-goal, and the emotional night the fabled Forum closed.
CBCSports.ca: You and Emile Bouchard are the two oldest surviving members of the Montreal Canadiens. Having been a part of many of the franchise's glorious moments, what is your greatest memory?
Lach: I would say making the team. When I came to training camp I had no intention of staying or being offered a contract. I came with an overnight bag. I talked with the manager back in Moose Jaw and he told me you can't make that kind of money [$4,000 annually] here. That was a lot of money back in 1940. He told me to try it because if it didn't work out I could always come back. So my girlfriend went to my house, picked up all my clothes and sent my wardrobe.
CBCSports.ca: You won two scoring titles in your career and claimed the first Art Ross Trophy in 1948. Which title do you cherish more?
Lach: I think the last one. Buddy O'Connor and I were tied going into the last game and Buddy was playing for the New York Rangers. We played Chicago the night before in Montreal and headed to Boston for our last game. I [received] a high stick that cut my eye and when I went to Boston it was completely closed. We liked Bill Head, our trainer, to sow us up because he did a better job than the doctors. Bill got the swelling down so I could see.
Then [Montreal defenceman] Doug Harvey said to me 'just get in the clear, keep your stick on the ice and I'll get you the puck.' So I was very fortunate that I scored two goals against [Bruins goalie] Frank Brimsek. He didn't move on any one of my shots so he was on my side [laughing]. I was able to win by one point.
CBCSports.ca: As a member of the Montreal Canadiens, you helped the Canadiens win three Stanley Cup titles, with your first coming in the fourth year. Do you have one that you value more than the others?
Lach: I would say scoring the winning goal [in Game 7 of the final] when we beat Boston in overtime to end the series in 1953. That was one that I can still see going in the net. It doesn't get any better than that.
CBCSports.ca: You centred the great "Punch Line" with Toe Blake and Maurice Richard. What made that line so good?
Lach: Well, to see Rocket scoring all the goals. But Blake was the backbone of that group. He was always in position, he was always serious and he was the same when coached the Canadiens. If a guy didn't practise or was just going through the motions he'd send to them to the showers and tell him to go home. The three of us did like to win. We made sure that we didn't have any goals scored against us. We hated that more than wanting to score. As for Rocket, he enjoyed scoring the goals and I enjoyed watching him.
CBCSports.ca: Richard is regarded as one of the greatest players from the blue-line in. Did you have to change your style to complement his?
Lach: No. [Coach Dick] Irvin told us how to operate. He told us to always go down the wing, to never go down the middle. So it was easy for us to adapt ourselves to that system and it was almost fullproof. When I had the puck I would go down in front on Rockets' wing and the idea was that I would take the defence out of his position. Then I would give Rocket the puck because there was nobody there to stop him from going in.
CBCSports.ca: You were retired the year before the Richard Riot of 1955, but what memories do you have of that infamous night?
Lach: I was surprised at what the outcome was. I didn't like it but that's the way the ball bounced for him.
CBCSports.ca: Can you describe the feeling of being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966?
Lach: Being elected to the Hall of Fame was the climax for me. I was surprised and I couldn't describe I how felt at the time. When I think about it now I probably should've shown more emotion, which I didn't.
CBCSports.ca: In watching several Canadiens stars through the years, which Hall of Famer do you admired most?
Lach: I would say Doug Harvey was tremendous. He was a great defensive and offensive player and he did everything with [ease]. He used to get the puck in front of the goaltender and Irvin would warn him that if he ever had the puck taken off his stick and it went in the net it will cost him $500. Dougie would irritate Irvin quite a bit [laughing] as he was standing there with the puck.
CBCSports.ca: Henri Richard wore your famous No. 16 and had it retired by the club. Are you disappointed you haven't been recognized with the same honour?
Lach: It hasn't bothered me a bit. I've seen about six owners since I started playing. They don't owe me anything, and I don't owe them nothing. If they don't want to hang up my sweater then so be it.
CBCSports.ca: The night the forum closed its door forever was one of the most emotional moments in NHL history. Can you talk about what that night meant to you?
Lach: It meant a lot. That's where I started and I loved the old building. It was a great place to play hockey. I thought it was great [the Rocket] received that long ovation. In fact, I was cheering for him too. Now with the new building…I couldn't play at the Bell [Centre]. There's no life to it.
CBCSports.ca: You were one of several players to have your name included to the Ring of Honour, which helped kick off the team's 100th anniversary season in October. You and Bouchard also dropped the ceremonial puck. How special was that for you?
Lach: Butch and I have always been great buddies and we came up at the same time. When I heard about [the Ring of Honour] a few years ago I said to [president of the Canadiens Alumni] Rejean Houle, 'I hope I'm around because it would be a great honour for me to still be alive.' That was a great night.