Of course he was part of the famous "Punch Line" of the 1940's & 50's version of the Habs
Quite an interesting guy,who never sought the spotlight & to quote a line from the article met his celebrity status with a 'shrug' ............sounds like kept things all in perspective. & stayed really down to earth, ......well see you Elmer ,now your back with your old buddies.
Canadiens icon Elmer Lach, the nearly indestructible centreman for Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Toe Blake on his team’s magnificent 1940s Punch Line, died Saturday morning at the West Island Palliative Care Residence in Kirkland following a stroke suffered last Saturday, March 28 at his Beaconsfield care home.Lach was two months past his 97th birthday, at the time of his death the oldest living member of the Canadiens and senior-most member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Lach’s passing was the second enormous loss to the Canadiens and the team’s extended family in less than four months, legendary former captain Jean Béliveau having died on Dec. 2 following a lengthy illness.
Born Jan. 22, 1918 in tiny Nokomis, Sask., just 57 days after the creation of the National Hockey League, Lach was the least well-known and the last surviving member of the legendary Punch Line.
The trio was put together on a hunch in the early 1940s by Canadiens head coach Dick Irvin and quickly terrorized the opposition as the most fearsome line of the decade until a broken ankle forced Blake’s retirement in 1948.
During his National Hockey League playing days from 1940-54 – the Canadiens were his only team – and for 50 years after his retirement from the game, Lach spoke virtually nothing of himself.
Instead, he deflected all credit for the Punch Line’s stunning success to his incandescent right-winger, the Rocket, and to the industrious Blake, who patrolled the left side.
But Elegant Elmer, as he was sometimes called by Irvin, was a brilliant talent in his own right, and often it was by his playing a little off-centre, dragging checkers out of the slot and bulldogging them in the corners, that so much ice was opened for Richard to weave his goal-scoring magic.
Lach won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player in 1944-45, leading the league that season in assists, with 54, and points, with 80. He also captured the inaugural 1947-48 Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s top point-scorer with 61 points, on his career high of 30 goals with 31 assists.
Lach also topped the NHL in points in 1944-45 with 80; that was seven points clear of No. 2 Rocket Richard, three seasons before the Ross trophy was introduced.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966, having scored 215 goals with 408 assists and 478 penalty minutes in his 664 regular-season games. In 76 playoff contests, he scored 19 times and added 45 assists.
On Dec. 4, 2009, during festivities for the Canadiens centennial game, the Habs retired his No. 16 jersey and pulled a banner bearing his name to the rafters of the Bell Centre.
Lach’s durability and pain threshold were beyond compare, returning to action from a shopping list of gruesome injuries that had earned him another nickname: Lach the Unlucky.
They included a nose shattered seven times; a jaw (later permanently wired) officially broken twice but, in reality, three times – he didn’t tell Irvin of one fracture lest he be scratched from a game; a fractured skull that at first was treated as a “slight concussion”; and two severed veins in a foot from the slash of a skate blade, an injury with which he played until a teammate saw the blood.
In a 1950 Saturday Evening Post profile, sportswriter Trent Frayne described Lach as “less polished than persistent, less artistic than artisan, less incomparable than inexorable.”
Ted Reeve, curator of the Hall of Fame in the 1950s, suggested that if a pictorial record was to be made of the 1940s NHL, Lach’s X-rays would be a necessary part of it.
Lach remained largely injury-free in retirement until about a decade ago. He suffered a double ankle fracture while shovelling his back deck in 2005 and then a broken hip in a tumble in 2011, which he said at the time was more painful than any of his “flesh wounds” in hockey.
Lach’s final public appearance was last Dec. 10, at the Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral funeral of Jean Béliveau, his friend and, in some ways, his protégé. Lach had taken the highly touted rookie Béliveau under his wing in 1953-54, then retired at season’s end.
And it was Lach’s name that was the first Canadiens autograph the teenaged Béliveau ever collected, a signature penned in Trois-Rivières during a barnstorming Habs tour of rural Quebec.
Béliveau was hugely influenced by Lach early in his glorious career. In his 1994 autobiography My Life in Hockey, he wrote of how Lach mentored him in the art of faceoffs. And Béliveau wrote glowingly of Lach’s passing skills, something from which the Rocket had benefitted:
“Elmer was … one of the finest passers in the league,” Béliveau wrote. “He could give you a quick, soft pass that would nestle on your stick; it just seemed to settle on the blade without a bounce. In addition, he was a very smooth and shifty skater. Although his shot wasn’t particularly heavy, his quick release made him dangerous. He would use a defenceman to screen the goalie, especially when he got to within 15 or 20 feet of the net. If Maurice and Toe were covered, Elmer could take the netminder by surprise. If a goalie tried to look around his defenceman for Elmer’s shot, that wonderful passing ability would come into play and one of the wingers would find himself with an easy score after the puck appeared as if by magic on his blade. I knew I would have a long career in the NHL if I could learn to pass half as well as Elmer.”
Lach leaves to mourn his stepdaughters Michèle and Denise Morel, as well Denise’s son, Marc.
He had lost Lise, his wife of 29 years, to leukemia just last October. His first wife, Kay, was claimed by cancer.
As per his wishes, there will be no funeral nor memorial service, though generous tributes to this humble superstar will be forthcoming from the hockey community.
I grew close to Elmer Lach in the past decade, writing many stories about this hardrock centreman with an iron-grip handshake and a butter-soft heart.
Each feature followed a visit to his home. I relished every story I coaxed out of him, having researched events big and small in his life, Elmer more than filling in the blanks.
And there was nothing finer than hearing his tales about the characters in the vintage hockey photos I brought to him, images of a simpler time in the game that he adored to the very end.
Teammates, to him, were wonderful guys without exception; more than one opponent, he would laugh, was a “son of a (gun) who used his stick like a sabre. But I never minded a swordfight.”
Where Jean Béliveau was my idol, my time in the company of Le Gros Bill forever spent pinching myself, Elmer was my friend – an unassuming, entirely lovable bear of a man who met his superstar status with a shrug.
Elmer’s humility was such that he told me on an early visit to his home that he didn’t believe he had any photos of the Punch Line on Forum ice as a group.
“That’s impossible,” I told him, as he invited me to go look for myself.
I eventually found just one – in a dusty frame, a small spider having expired behind its cracked glass, this sepia masterpiece shrouded by the unfinished basement’s hot-water heater, near a shelf of steel wool and construction nails.
I smuggled it out of his house that day, restored the photo digitally and archived it, reframed it, then returned it to him on the condition that he hang it in a better place. He did.
Over lunch at his care home in December 2013, a month before his 96th birthday, Elmer told me that he fondly recalled his 1938-39 season with the Weyburn Beavers, two seasons before he came east from Saskatchewan to the Canadiens.
The prairie town was famous almost a century ago for its psychiatric hospital that pioneered lobotomies and electroshock therapy.
“Do you think,” he said that day as he considered his remarkable life, a mischievous grin lighting up his broad, puck- and stick-scarred face, “that I should have checked in?”
Fans are invited to email their condolences and wishes to Lach’s family care of me, with Elmer Lach in the subject line, at email@example.com
What follows is my first feature profile of Elmer. It was published almost precisely a decade ago.
Published March 26, 2005, Montreal Gazette
It seems right, somehow, that Elmer Lach is in a wheelchair when he greets you with a broad smile and a strong grip.Lach the Unlucky, as he was known for much of his glorious 14-year Canadiens career, is nursing an ankle he broke 11 weeks ago while scraping ice on his back porch. But it will take more than this to keep him off the fairways of Summerlea come golf season; at 87, he expects to shoot his age, or better.
To his coach, Dick Irvin, Lach was Elegant Elmer. To others, the three-time Stanley Cup winner was the Nokomis Flash, named for the swift skates he brought from his Saskatchewan hometown.
Later, his longtime friend Red Storey would call him Scratch, Lach said, “because I’d whip the ass off him on the golf course.”
To Canadiens wingers Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Toe Blake, he was one-third of the magnificent wartime Punch Line, the 5-foot-9 bulldozer who cleared the lanes, traded elbows in the corners and passed the puck as though it had eyes for the Rocket’s stick.
Lach (pronounced lock) was the humble workhorse on the dominant line of its era, a player who seldom got the attention or credit he deserved.
In 1944-45, the season Richard scored his historic 50 goals in 50 games, Lach won the NHL’s point-scoring championship – three years before the Art Ross Trophy was introduced – and the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.
He won the Art Ross in 1948, and would retire six years later as the NHL’s all-time assists leader.
Lach remains modest to a fault, few reminders of his Hall of Fame career displayed in his Pointe-Claire home. It’s in the laundry room that you’ll find his museum-worthy photographs.
Soon, he will warm to conversation about the Punch Line. But for now, he’s talking about the sound of his breaking bones.
Lach sees the double ankle fracture, his first serious nick since he retired from hockey in 1954, as just another inconvenience, merely one more injury for an inventory that’s as frightening as it is impressive, in a macabre way.
Almost 60 years after the fact, he still chuckles about a doctor’s hands wrapped around his neck in an emergency room.
It was Feb. 6, 1947, and Lach had been wheeled into Montreal’s Western General Hospital. A half-hour earlier, he had been savagely checked by Toronto’s Don Metz, his unhelmeted head almost cracking the Forum ice.
“A specialist came in, put his hands around my neck, gave me a few hard shakes and said: ‘Do you feel anything?’ ” he recalls, laughing. “When I told him I didn’t, he said: ‘Well then, there’s nothing wrong with you.’
“The next day, X-rays showed them I had a fractured skull.”
From which Lach recovered to win the NHL scoring title the following year.
The skull story has set the table for another thigh-slapper, a story about his first game of the 1941-42 season, his second with the Canadiens.
Lach was racing to the Detroit net when he was tripped by the Red Wings’ Alex Motter, which sent him at full flight into the boards.
Extending his left arm quite literally broke his fall – he shattered his wrist, tore up his elbow and dislocated his shoulder.
“Honestly? I thought my career was over,” Lach says.
He missed the entire season as he healed, doctors figuring the elbow would mend on its own. For six months, it had all the flexibility of a hockey stick.
“I’d go out to dinner, cut some meat, bring the fork up in my left hand,” he says, demonstrating, “then stick it in my ear.”
He relates how doctors told him that in July they’d have to rebreak and reset the elbow, then distracted him and kicked the joint to shatter it again.
Lach rolls up his sleeve to reveal the ragged scar, a reminder of where the bone fragments were finally trowelled out. Then he rattles off a career list, in no particular order:
• Nose broken seven times, “mostly because I skated crouched over the puck.
“The first time was in my rookie year,” Lach says. “I went around big Chicago defenceman Earl Siebert a couple times and told him: ‘You old bastard, you’re too old to catch me.’
“Well, he caught me. Caught my nose with his elbow. They tinkered with it in the hospital the next day.”
(It was rearranged for the final time, and most famously, in 1953, when he scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in overtime and the Rocket leaped into Lach’s arms, smashing his forehead into his nose.)
• Jaw broken, reportedly twice but, in fact, three times. He didn’t tell Irvin once for fear he wouldn’t be allowed to play. The jawbone is now permanently wired.
• Cheekbone shattered, twice.
• Foot sliced open with a skate, severing two veins.
• Leg fractured.
• Stitches uncounted, but in the hundreds.
In 1950, Toronto Telegram sportswriter Trent Frayne introduced Lach to Americans in a Saturday Evening Post profile, accurately headlined: “You Can’t Kill A Hockey Player.”
Today, Lach sees nothing remarkable about his durability, nor how he constantly rebounded from career-, even life-threatening injuries.
“We recovered quickly,” he says of himself and those of his day. “We were in good physical condition, and there was always a guy waiting for your job.”
Not that many had Lach’s skill, work ethic or pain threshold. His contribution to the club was recognized two years before he retired, the Canadiens and their fans holding a special Elmer Lach Night at the Forum. He was showered with $10,000 in gifts, the largest tribute paid to a Montreal athlete to that time.
Lach had arrived at the Canadiens training camp in October 1940 on a train from Moose Jaw, Sask., where he was starring for the senior-league Millers. With him were Ken Reardon, Jack Adams and Joe Benoit, who would be among nine rookies to make Montreal’s roster that fall.
This wasn’t Lach’s first exposure to the NHL. A few years earlier, he’d been invited to the Winnipeg camp of the New York Rangers, who were so tight with a dollar that they told him to arrive with his skates sharpened.
Moose Jaw’s coach, Art Somers, had played four seasons with New York and knew of the club’s shallow pockets. Lach heeded Somers’s advice to stay home.
In those days, amateur players never knew who owned their negotiation rights. Lach was later invited to skate for Boston, but declined that offer, as well.
But in 1937, he and future Hall of Famer Doug Bentley were scouted by Toronto. They arrived by train, both weighing barely 150 pounds, and plunked themselves down in the dressing room on either side of hulking winger Charlie Conacher.
Lach recalls Conn Smythe, the intimidating Leafs boss, striding loudly into the room with: “They were sending me big guys from the West, but instead they’ve sent me peanuts.”
The players passed on an offer of $1,500 for a season of senior hockey, jumping a train home even after the Leafs’ King Clancy suggested they take the gruff Smythe with a grain of salt.
“King would become one of my best friends,” Lach says. “Later, when he was refereeing, if I was caught up ice on a play and he was near me, he’d say, ‘C’mon, Elmer, I’ll race you to the other end.’ ”
Lach hadn’t played organized hockey until he was almost 17, suiting up one season with the junior Regina Abbots.
“The fellow who picked me up at the train in Regina asked me: ‘Where’s all your luggage?’ ” he recalls. “I told him: ‘It’s in my back pocket: a handkerchief and a toothbrush.’ ”
The youngest of William and Mary-Ann Lach’s two sons and four daughters, he had learned to skate on a pond outside his home in Nokomis (population 600), borrowing a neighbour’s blades on the days they weren’t being used.
He graduated from Regina to the senior Weyburn Beavers, a catcher for the town’s baseball team in summer and centreman for their hockey club in winter – room, board and laundry paid.
Lach moved on to Moose Jaw, winning a scoring title and advancing to a provincial final in two seasons, and it was here that he caught the eye of Paul Haynes, an injured Canadien sent west on a scouting mission.
Millers owner Cliff Henderson urged Lach to go. He figured his star would return in better shape, Moose Jaw lacking artificial ice and unable to train until the local creek had frozen over.
But Lach, 22, would not be back, agreeing to a 1940 contract of $4,000, plus a $1,000 signing bonus, for his first season with the rebuilding Canadiens. This would be his salary for his first seven years; his career high was $22,000, including bonuses.
He had seven goals and 14 assists in 43 games, a rookie centring Tony Demers and Adams, but was more impressive for his rugged play. Lach says he took one suture for each of his points.
He was sidelined the following season with his shattered elbow, then was inserted in 1942-43 between the veteran Toe Blake and a promising rookie named Maurice Richard, who broke his ankle after only 16 games.
Right-winger Benoit was plugged into Richard’s spot and the trio clicked, hailed in Montreal newspaper cartoons as the Punch Line for its potency, the players’ caricatures shown with drawings of a clenched fist.
Such a cartoon is pasted into one of Lach’s three brittle scrapbooks, which he hasn’t opened in 50 years.
The Rocket was back in 1943-44, and he, Lach and Blake assumed the Punch Line label. They led the Canadiens to their first Stanley Cup in 13 seasons that year, and another championship in 1945-46.
These three men had unique skills that perfectly complemented each other: Richard was the short-fused stick of dynamite with a gift for finding the back of the net; Lach, the tireless, indestructible playmaker and ice general; the veteran Blake, a superb positional player who anchored his teammates.
“We were just a line,” Lach says in stunning understatement. “I didn’t sense anything special when Irvin put us together in practice. As a group, we were good. Individually, we were just average hockey players.”
So average that in 1944-45, Lach, Richard and Blake finished 1-2-3 in NHL scoring.
“There wasn’t too much conversation off the ice. But on the ice, we covered each other, helped each other. When I’d go in to forecheck, I’d wave my hand at the Rocket so he’d cover his wing.
“It’s how we were taught. We were always a little ahead of Toe because he was the slowest skater. But he got there. I often concentrated more on the Rocket, but I knew where Toe was. Always.
“I was a team player. In practices, with no goalkeeper, the Rocket and I would go down the ice and even if I had a shot at an empty goal, I’d pass it to him and he’d whack it in the net.”
Overnight train rides around the six-team NHL were memorable, if costly. Lach recalls Richard rounding up the shoes of sleeping teammates, filling them with water and putting them between the rail cars, turning brogues into blocks of ice.
“Rocket, Murph Chamberlain, Jack Portland, Ray Getliffe – they were all comedians,” he says. “If you ever fell asleep with your shoes on, you’d wake up with a hotfoot.”
It was wartime, and Lach, like others, held war-related jobs during the day while playing for the Canadiens at night. He worked at Pratt & Whitney and Noorduyn Aviation, on the assembly line by 7 a.m., allowed to go home after a six-hour shift for a pre-game steak and a nap.
But Lach left the game at the rink, if not the hospital. In 1941 he had married his Moose Jaw sweetheart, Kay Fletcher, who four years later delivered their only child, Ron, while Lach was playing in Detroit. His telegram read like she’d scored a winning goal: “Nice going, honey,” he wired.
“No matter whether I played good or lousy, it wasn’t discussed,” Lach says. “Think about all the times I was hurt – Kay and I would go to the rink together and she’d come home alone. It wasn’t easy.”
Young left-winger Dickie Moore eventually joined Lach and Richard when a broken leg forced Blake’s retirement in 1948. Lach played through ‘54, quitting when a leg fracture robbed him of his speed.
The Rocket was part of the Canadiens dynasty that won five consecutive Cups from 1956-60 before taking his leave.
“They started winning two years after I quit because they’d cleared out the deadwood,” Lach says, laughing. “Skating was my game, and my legs were gone.”
By now he was established in business, working in sales and public relations for Maislin Transport, entertaining clients 18 holes at a time.
“Hockey opened doors for me,” says Lach, who was with Maislin for 32 years. “I had a good job, a car, an expense account and I was playing a lot of golf.”
To a 4-handicap.
He dabbled in coaching, guiding the junior Canadiens and senior Montreal Royals for a few seasons, and had Henri Richard under his wing with the juniors, telling him he was too small to make the NHL.
Of course, Richard did make the Canadiens, winning 11 Stanley Cups in uniform No. 16 – the same sweater worn by Lach.
“He was a little guy, but he always had the puck,” Lach says of the Pocket Rocket. “And when he didn’t, he went and got it.”
They stood together in the Forum in 1975, two small men with large talent and larger hearts, when Richard’s No. 16 was retired.
(Editor’s note: Lach’s No. 16 would be hung from Bell Centre rafters on Dec. 4, 2009 during the team’s centennial-game celebrations.)
Lach lost his wife to skin cancer in 1985, and a year later married Lise Desjardins, whom he’d long known from Summerlea. Until two years ago, they would spend their winters golfing in Florida; today, they’re counting the days until tee-off.
“I’m as competitive on the golf course as I was on the rink,” Lach says. “Golf is just a different amusement.”
A half-century since his last game, he still draws stares everywhere he goes, from card shows to the local mall. If he doesn’t hear the whispers, Lise is quick to let her shy husband know.
He is the last of the Punch Line, Blake having died at age 82 of Alzheimer’s disease in 1995, Richard, at 78, having lost his battle with cancer in 2000.
For one morning in five years ago, Elmer Lach was no longer a centreman, but the Rocket’s right wing, a pallbearer at Richard’s funeral.
“I still feel a part of the Canadiens,” the team’s senior-most Hall of Famer says. “What amazes me is that people still remember me. All these years later, it’s a great honour to be spoken of with the Rocket and Toe.
“And maybe we were a little better than average.”