MONTREAL - Very sad news out of the Canadiens family this Saturday morning: former captain Émile (Butch) Bouchard, a member of the Habs from 1941-56, died early Saturday morning at Longueuil in South Shore Montreal, surrounded by his family. Big Butch was 92.
Bouchard captained the Canadiens from 1948-56, following goaler Bill Durnan with the C and succeeded by Maurice (Rocket) Richard. The 1966 Hall of Fame-inductee was a strapping stay-at-home defenceman who could get the job done with punishing force. He won the Stanley Cup four times with the Habs, incredibly arriving with the team just six years after he’d learned to skate.
News of Bouchard's passing caused a swell on Twitter, with thousands of condolences pouring in.
A big man in size and presence who, like most of the Canadiens of his day, (he) played for the pure joy of it.
During the 1950s, teams met 14 times a year. Often, there were back-to-back games, and the frequent meetings between teams allowed grudges to grow. Temperatures rose even higher during the playoffs.
The Canadiens were in Madison Square Garden one night when ugliness ruled in the form of Bernie Geoffrion clubbing New York Rangers forward Ron Murphy over the head with his stick. As Murphy lay prone on the ice, referee Red Storey skated over to captain Bouchard.
"This is terrible," he told Bouchard. "What was Geoffrion thinking of ?"
Big Butch's response was to point his stick at some of the empty seats high in the Garden.
"See those seats?" he said to Storey. "The next time we play here, those seats will be filled!"
Bouchard was the gentle giant of his time, towering over most NHLers at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds. He arrived at the team's 1941-42 training camp in peak condition, which was unusual for players back then. In those years, getting into shape didn't start until camp opened. Bouchard impressed head coach Dick Irvin enough to be signed as a free agent. What also set Bouchard apart from other players was that he knew the value of a dollar.
The story is told that while still in high school, Bouchard came across a bee ranch owned by a priest who had just died. Bouchard bought the business after borrowing $500 from his brother and turned it into an apiary of 200 hives that was so successful he earned enough to buy his parents a home.
Butch didn't deliver Doug Harvey or Larry Robinson numbers. Teams don't expect points from stay-at-home defencemen such as Bouchard. However, the fact that his eight seasons as captain were the longest served by any Canadiens player up to that point speaks loudly about what he brought to arenas everywhere. He was respected this much by his teammates: Jean Beliveau once said Bouchard was the model for his time as captain in the 1960s. How good is that?
Four Stanley Cups tell you something. (In later years, his son Pierre was to win five with the Canadiens.) Bouchard's induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966 tells you what he was made of. The fact he wanted to retire after the 1954-55 season, but head coach Toe Blake talked him into returning for another year, says even more.
Playing a game at a high level is one thing. Raising the bar as a human being is better. Few people were admired more following his retirement than this good man.
His restaurant, Chez Emile, was the place to be and to be seen for many years. He was elected to the Longueuil municipal council, was on the board of directors of Ste. Jeanne-d'Arc Hospital and was president of the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League.
His presidency of the International League baseball Royals was another example of the esteem with which he was held. It leads to this story: in 1957, after a Royals game in Toronto, Bouchard complained about the Maple Leafs' excessive conferences on the mound. He called the Leafs "showspoilers" and then said, for the entire press room to hear: "They're a lot of punks, just like in hockey!"