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Saturday September 30, 2017

Defenceman threw bone-rattling checks

A three-time winner of the Norris Trophy, he set a record for points scored, but that record was soon obliterated by Bobby Orr

Special to The Globe and Mail

For three seasons, Pierre Pilote was the best defenceman in the National Hockey League, a daredevil play maker who could throw bone-rattling body checks.

Mr. Pilote, who died on Sept. 9 at the age of 85, led all playoff scorers in helping the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 1961, ending the Montreal Canadiens' record string of five consecutive championships.

Mr. Pilote was a prototype for the modern, freewheeling rearguard who served his team as a puck-rushing quarterback. He set an NHL record for the most points in a season by a defenceman, a standard soon after eclipsed by the sensational Bobby Orr.

"For a little guy, he hit hard," the goaltender Glenn Hall said recently. "He was better offensively than he was defensively.

When Pierre rushed the puck was when he was playing his game."

With a wiry physique, a flattop haircut and a rough-carved face featuring high cheekbones, Mr. Pilote was readily recognizable on the ice in the era before helmets were mandatory. While a favourite of Chicago fans in his heyday, Mr. Pilote was a scourge in other arenas, his scofflaw style led to many minutes in the penalty box. In the 1960-61 season, he served more time than any other player, including even teammate Reggie Fleming, a notorious hockey pugilist.

Mr. Pilote earned the James Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenceman for three consecutive seasons, skated in eight allstar games and was named to the league's First All-Star Team in five straight seasons. He was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975, while Chicago retired his No. 3 sweater in 2008.

He was also featured on two commemorative stamps issued by Canada Post, in 2005 and 2014.

For all his achievement, he was overshadowed during his playing days by more flamboyant teammates, including Bobby Hull, the Golden Jet.

Mr. Pilote's success on ice was unlikely, considering that he only began playing organized hockey at the age of 17.

Joseph Albert Pierre Paul Pilote was born on Dec. 11, 1931, at Kénogami, Que., now part of Saguenay. He was the eldest child born to the former Marie Gagné and Paul-Émile Pilote, a mill worker and fighter whose fast fists earned him the nickname Kayo for knocking out rivals. Five more children were to follow.

Young Pierre played shinny with classmates and priests on his school's outdoor rink. "My first pair of skates were my mother's," he told the authors of his 2013 biography, Heart of the Blackhawks. He stuffed items into the toes of the skates so they would fit better.

When he was 13, the family moved to Fort Erie, Ont., where, to his dismay, he discovered no one outside his family spoke French, the only language he knew. He took a factory job while still a teenager. His hockey was limited to playing forward in an amateur industrial league, yet he decided to ask for a tryout with a local junior-B hockey team after only a single season of organized hockey. He earned a roster spot with Niagara Falls Cataracts in 1949-50.

The following season he was about to be cut from training camp by the coach of the junior-A St. Catharines Teepees.

Instead, general manager Rudy Pilous fired the coach and took up coaching duties to ensure that the rookie would be given a chance.

A raw talent whose future stardom perhaps only Mr. Pilous fully recognized, Mr. Pilote did not stride on skates so much as run.

He skated backward poorly, a skill he would need to master after he was assigned to be a defenceman. The eager young player was aware of his weaknesses and so studied teammates and rivals. He once bought a scalper's ticket to a game at Maple Leaf Gardens, according to his biography, where he was thrilled to see Bill Barilko deliver a hip check that sent an opponent flying. Mr. Pilote added the technique to a growing repertoire.

A gritty, fearless body checker, he learned he could thwart an attacking player without having to remove himself from the flow of play.

Still not yet smooth on skates, Mr. Pilote grabbed, hooked and tripped any rival daring to speed past him. He led the Ontario junior circuit in penalty minutes in his first campaign with the Teepees. He cut down on his minutes and recorded a point per game in his second campaign, becoming a promising prospect.

The defenceman got another four years of seasoning with the Buffalo Bisons of the American Hockey League, who played just across the Niagara River from Fort Erie. He suffered a broken nose, a broken foot and a broken hand before he got a chance to play in the NHL.

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