To many casual hockey fans Dave Balon is an answer to a trivia question. And while he was a part of one of the biggest trades in Montreal Canadiens history he was also much more than that, on the ice and especially off the ice.
Born in Wakaw, Saskatchewan, on August 2nd, 1938, Dave began his junior career with the Prince Albert Mintos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League in 1955-56. Dave made the team after hitch-hiking from Wakow to Prince Albert to attend the training camp without an invitation. After a couple of years in Prince Albert Dave graduated to the Western Hockey League. Without question the highlight of his junior career was his play in the 1958 Memorial Cup as a member of the Regina Pats.
Unlike today the Memorial Cup in 1958 was decided in a best of seven series between the Regina Pats and the Ottawa-Hull Canadiens, coached by future Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman. Facing future teammates Ralph Backstrom, Bobby Rousseau, and Gilles Tremblay the Pats were defeated in six hard fought games.
It was two years later that Dave got his first taste of the NHL as he broke in for three games with the New York Rangers. Splitting time between the Eastern Professional Hockey League and the NHL, he finally became a Ranger to stay in the 1962-63 season. Dave was able to play in all 70 games that year contributing 11 goals and 24 points.
Balon’s professional life was changed forever on June 4th, 1963 when he was involved in one of the biggest trades in NHL history. The Rangers traded Dave, goaltender Gump Worsley. forward Leon Rochefort and Len Ronson to the Canadiens, in exchange for forward Phil Goyette, defensemen Donnie Marshall, and goaltender Jacques Plante.
The main focus of the trade was, obviously Plante. At the time there was arguably no goaltender as accomplished as him, six Stanley Cup rings, six Vezina trophies, one Hart trophy, and the first goaltender to regularly wear a mask.
The Habs acquired Dave mainly for his defensive skills. In his first year with the team he didn’t disappoint in the defensive end but he surprised the team with career high’s of 24 goals and 42 points.
Canadiens head coach Toe Blake raved, “I always knew he was a good checker, but he’s shown he can be a real good scorer, too.”
Balon proved that his first season with the Habs wasn’t a fluke when he added 41 points in 1964/65. Later in the year Dave achieved the pinnacle when the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in seven games over the Chicago Black Hawks.
The next year proved to be even more fulfilling for Balon. Not only did the Canadiens repeat as Stanley Cup champions, but Dave scored the biggest point of his career. With the Canadiens leading the series 3 games to 2, the crucial sixth game went to overtime.
In the early stages of the overtime the line of Balon, Leon Rochefort, and Henri Richard stormed the Red Wings zone. Dave threw a pass to the charging Richard who lost his balance reaching for the puck. Both the puck and Richard ended up in the net. Not only had the Canadiens won the Cup but Dave Balon had assisted on the goal that clinched it.
Balon’s fourth season with the Canadiens was also successful but was his last with the club. His and the team’s hopes of a third straight Stanley Cup were dashed by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This final represented the end of an era not only for the National Hockey League but for Dave as well. The league expanded from six teams to twelve and Dave was left unprotected by the Canadiens in the expansion draft.
Dave was picked first by the newly formed Minnesota North Stars in the ensuing draft. In that first year in Minnesota, Dave was able to set a career high with 47 points and was selected to play in the 1968 All Star game. He was able to continue his strong play in the playoffs as he led all players with nine assists.
On June 12th, 1968 Dave was traded by the North Stars to the New York Rangers in exchange for Wayne Hillman, Dan Sequin, and Joey Johnston. This was a welcome trade for Dave. Not only was he able to go back to where his career started, but he was able to play with fellow Saskatchewan players Orland Kurtenbach and Jim Neilson.
Dave’s career blossomed with the Rangers. In 1969-70 he finished tenth in league scoring and was able to follow it up the following year with a career best 36 goals. A large part of Dave’s success can be attributed to his fellow line mates on the Rangers original “Bulldog line” with Walt Tkachuk and Bill Fairburn.
The pinnacle of Dave’s career in New York was achieved in 1970-71 when he was awarded the Frank Boucher Trophy as the Rangers most popular player off and on the ice.
“Davey was one of the most versatile players I have ever coached,” recalls former Rangers coach and general manger, Emile Francis. “He was one of the best defensive forwards in the league, great in the corners, and excellent on the power play.”
Unfortunately, Dave’s success was tainted by a nagging sense of weakness that he couldn’t seem to shake and that the Rangers doctors were at a loss to explain.
At the beginning of the 1971, Dave was traded yet again, this time to the Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks brought in Balon expecting him to bring some goal scoring punch to their newly established expansion team. During his first year in Vancouver, Dave was able to score 19 goals. The next year he struggled to score just 3 goals.
To say that the Canucks and their fans were disappointed would be an understatement. As Dave struggled on the ice the fans in Vancouver began to voice their displeasure by booing him. Canucks management figured that he was washed up at 33 years old.
Little did anyone know that Dave was feeling weaker in the arms and the legs and still, no one had an answer.
Jettisoned by the Canucks, Dave spent one last year playing for the Quebec Nordiques of the World Hockey Association before retiring for good in 1974.
Dave went on to coach a few years in the Western Hockey League, but his health continued to falter. Dave had begun having issues with his balance and was now prone to bouts of falling.
Finally in 1980 Dave finally found the cause of all his problems – multiple sclerosis. The prognosis was not good, not only was their no cure but all of Dave’s problems were only going to get worse over time.
Dave Balon fought multiple sclerosis with all of his outer and inner strength. And even as the disease took away his ability to walk and then his ability to take care of himself, Dave never stopped fighting right until the end.
Dave finally lost his battle on May 29th in his 68th year. He is survived by his beloved wife of 47 years, Gwen, his daughter, Jodi, and son, Jeff.
HabsWorld offers our deepest sympathy to the Balon family at this difficult time.