This is part of a continuing series of articles spotlighting the men that have played for the Montreal Canadiens and been afforded the ultimate honor; membership in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“I was a determined, enthusiastic, young fellow in those days. That’s what you need to make a success in life. You work hard, you’re enthusiastic, and very disciplined at your game.” – Emile “Butch” Bouchard
The dressing room was strangely and unusually silent. Outside the sold out, standing room only crowd was buzzing, overcome with a mixture of joy and sadness. Standing on the ice bathing in the crowds adoration were twenty-four men; men who represented the elite of the greatest franchise in hockey’s long history. These were the players who received the ultimate honor; entry into the Hockey Hall of Fame while wearing the hallowed jersey of the Montreal Canadiens.
For any fan of the Montreal Canadiens, March 11th, 1996 stands out as one of the most important dates in the extraordinary history of this extraordinary team. The closing of the Montreal Forum was one of those rare nights that has lingered on in the memory of all those who witnessed it, those who were fortunate enough to be there and the millions who watched it at home on their television’s.
In a building crawling with history the Canadiens dressing room was amongst the most celebrated parts. Most dressing rooms are merely known as a sanctuary for the players, but the dressing room in the Forum was always more than that, a shrine, a place where the most celebrated of all team’s gathered under the enormous history of the Montreal Canadiens.
Yet on this night, with everyone in the crowd looking on the big, video screens and countless other’s viewing from home, the dressing room stood eerily quiet. Slowly, the camera moved towards the top of the wall, where the faces of those enshrined in the Hall of Fame looked down. At that moment, many of them stood down the hallway on the ice, while those who had passed away also looked down, making it feel as if their presence was filling the hallowed walls of the Forum. All of them, pictured in their prime, united under the words that best describe the unique tradition of the Montreal Canadiens.
“To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.”
As the camera panned down the faces on the wall, the lighted torch came into view. Burning brightly the camera lurched to the left to show a man standing, solemnly, seemingly aware of the tremendous responsibility that he had carried. Looking up he saw a picture of himself, in his younger days, when the game was simpler, and when he towered over his contemporaries as the NHL’s gentle giant. Now forty years after he had last stepped off the Forum ice as a player, he was given the ultimate honor; the task of carrying the torch onto the Forum ice one last time.
Gripping the torch, he held it firmly in his hands. Age had weakened his legendary strength, but on this night, this special night he held the torch with a firmness that defied his age. Walking down the corridor he held the torch aloft, as those around him, with their eyes moistening, filled the air with the strength of their clapping as their combined noise began to thunder throughout the arena. As the music built to a crescendo he stood on the lip of the ice for a second, holding the treasured torch high, with a sense of pride and purpose, as the sense of the event began to overtake all those watching.
Growing up, one could never have imagined that Emile Bouchard would have been standing there that unforgettable evening, as the first link in a chain of captain’s unrivaled by any team in professional sports.
A native Montrealer, born on September 4th, 1919, Butch Bouchard had traveled a circuitous road to stardom with the Canadiens, establishing himself as one of the most respected players in the teams history.
The story of Butch Bouchard’s road to the Montreal Forum begins when Butch began skating at the advanced age of 16. Butch grew up in a poverty most of us today couldn’t comprehend. His father worked only in the winters, leaving Butch to scramble for those things in life that many of us take for granted. In order to play hockey, Butch who couldn’t afford his own pair of skates, scrounged up five cents at a time and rented a pair of skates, allowing him to play on the outdoor rinks of Montreal.
Taking his love of the game to the next level, Butch borrowed $35 from his older brother, buying his first set of hockey equipment. Unbelievably, a mere four years later he found himself playing for the Montreal Canadiens.
A man of unusual size for the time, standing 6’2 and weighing a sculpted 205 pounds, Butch Bouchard literally stood apart from his hockey playing contemporaries. In his early teens Butch became serious about weightlifting, a rarity at that time. Not able to put together the money for proper equipment, Butch improvised by pressing railway ties with added steel plates and bale wire for weight. This allowed Butch in addition, to his size to enhance his already high strength level, to give him a combination that was unmatchable back in the day.
In addition to being an early proponent of physical fitness, Butch also made his way as a skilled entrepreneur. Born without many advantages in life, Butch instead relied on his keen mind and physical powers to better himself and those closest to him. Using his own intuition, and not much else Butch became a bee farmer as a teenager. Eventually, this tiny enterprise blossomed with Butch producing and selling up to 100, 000 pounds of honey a year, even as he attended school during the day and played hockey at night.
Exempt from World War II because of his status as an irreplaceable farmer, Butch was able to scrounge up the money from his honey sales and buy his parents a house. Coincidentally, as his honey business was beginning to grow, so did his hockey career.
Making a quick impact throughout Montreal for his unique skills Butch was recruited to play junior hockey for the Verdun Junior Maple Leafs, before joining the Montreal Junior Canadiens in 1940-41, suiting up for 31 games. On February 21st, 1941 Butch was signed as a free agent by the Montreal Canadiens, who promptly shipped him to the AHL’s Providence Reds where he starred in the season’s final thirteen games.
For Butch it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. The Canadiens new coach, Dick Irvin was looking to put his own stamp on the club, by adding younger, newer players who hadn’t grown accustomed to the losing ways the Habs had endured the past few seasons. In addition the onset of the Second World War saw many players joining the services, thus giving many youngsters, like Butch, the opportunity to showcase their skills before an NHL increasingly desperate for talent.
What Butch had going for him was his size and calm demeanor. If there was one weakness in his game it was his skating, but Butch was that rare player who was able to accept his weaknesses and build his entire style of play around his strengths. He became a master of positional hockey, particularly in his own end of the rink. He was also able to use his size to rub out many an opposition player out on the boards. On the ice he quickly gained a reputation as a man not to trifle with, and players on other teams quickly went out of their way to not provoke his wrath. What is less remembered today is the crucial role Butch played in the Habs offense, particularly in his almost unmatched skill in making that first, initial breakout pass. The Canadiens, soon to be legendary “Firewagon Hockey” style was all predicated on the defenseman head manning the puck to the onrushing forwards. And even though Butch didn’t get much credit for the exploits of some of his more famous teammates, it was an area of the game in which he quietly excelled.
All of this however, wasn’t known when Butch pulled into his first Canadiens training camp in the fall of 1941. Training in St. Hyacinth, about fifty miles from Montreal, Butch made an initial impression that became impossible to forget. Forsaking the cost of transportation, Butch bicycled the entire 50 miles to the camp. And as if that wasn’t noticeable enough, Butch showed up for the camp in top, pristine physical condition. This style of training was unheard of in a day when players used the rigors of training camp to get themselves into playing shape. It was when the players hit the ice though, that Butch made his most immediate impact, upsetting many of the teams older, established veterans with his hard hitting, physical play in the daily scrimmages.
For Canadiens head coach Dick Irvin however, Butch was a revelation. This had been the type of player he had been looking for. Irvin recognized that years of losing had left the Canadiens stagnant and that an injection of youthful enthusiasm was just the tonic that his team needed. Amongst his many contributions over the years to the Montreal Canadiens, this may have been Bouchard’s most important. His passion for the game, his seriousness on the ice, and his ability to play full out, all the time soon became hallmarks of the Canadiens as a whole, and helped lay the foundation for the success that was to come.
That first year with the Canadiens saw Butch play the entire season, with him potting his first NHL goal in the playoffs against the Detroit Red Wings.
It didn’t take long for Butch to establish himself throughout the league as one of the league’s top defensive defensemen. For Butch his primary purpose with the Canadiens was simple; do everything you can to keep the puck out of the Montreal net. Butch played the game with a rare form of self control. To make him angry or take him off his game, he had to be seriously provoked and few players, if any throughout the league were willing to see the end result of their antagonizing.
While Butch was making a name for himself on the backend, being named to the second all star team in 1944, it was another native Montrealer who was revolutionizing the game at the front end. The emergence of Maurice “Rocket” Richard changed everything for the Canadiens and for Butch personally and professionally. Quickly the Canadiens had gone from perennial mediocrity into a state of greatness that would continue long after both men had retired.
Richard, with line mates Toe Blake and Elmer Lach formed the “Punch Line” and dominated the league offensively in a way never seen before and seldom seen since. Playing a fifty game schedule the Canadiens lost only seven times in 1943-44, led the league in goals, gave up the fewest (an incredible 79 less than their nearest competition) and were anchored at the backend by Butch and the man he regarded as the greatest goaltender he ever played with, the legendary Bill Durnan. It was a dominating performance all around for the Canadiens, a team regarded at the time as maybe the finest in NHL history, a team that only lost one game on their way to winning the Stanley Cup, Butch’s first.
Firmly established as one of the games best, Butch proceeded to begin a three year run as a first team all star from 1945 to 1947. Unquestionably the biggest highlight for Butch came in 1946 when the Canadiens once again won the Stanley Cup. Playing on a bad knee Butch was still able to contribute two goals and one assist in the five games of the finals.
For many of his teammates though the indelible images of this time surround Butch and the man simply known as “The Rocket”. In his book “The Habs” Dick Irvin Jr., former Canadiens great, Elmer Lach shared the following anecdote about a long ago Habs practice.
“Dick Irvin Sr. used to go to the Rocket and tell him that Butch Bouchard, our best defenseman was betting he wouldn’t get a goal in practice, then Irvin would go to Butch and tell him that Rocket said he was going to get a hatful against Butch’s pairing. Jeez, how they used to work against each other.”
Things were coming into place for Butch Bouchard. In 1947 he married, and after selling his bee farm he opened the Butch Bouchard restaurant in the heart of Montreal. In the fall of 1948 with retirement of Toe Blake, Bouchard was voted by his teammates as the Canadiens new captain. For Butch it was in many ways his greatest honor and a responsibility that he took very seriously. Butch became a true father figure to many of the Canadiens younger players, a role for which his enthusiasm knew no bounds. He smoothed over problems in the dressing room, he often acted as the team’s arbitrator on disputes and his word was respected by all. On road trips he wasn’t above giving players in need some extra cash to tie them over.
It was the best of times for Butch, but it quickly came crashing down 27 games into the season when he fell victim to a serious knee injury. “The doctors thought I couldn’t play anymore”, recalled Butch but retirement was never a serious option. With his new family, and new restaurant still in the early stages he couldn’t afford to not play. So unlike many players of his day Butch bought an exercise bike and started rehabbing his way back into Montreal’s line-up, which he rejoined near the end of the season. “I played hockey and ran the restaurant for another eight years,” exclaimed a proud Butch.
The aftereffects of the knee injury would be felt by Butch however for the remainder of his career.
“I wanted to play,” Butch confessed, “I had been an all-star before the injury. After I got hurt, I couldn’t make it. I was playing good hockey but not all-star outstanding.”
Once again, Butch fell back on what might have been his greatest strength as a player. Recognizing his newfound limitations, Bouchard to play and excel within them. And while Butch soldiered on, his value to the Canadiens as the team’s elder became increasingly important. Young defensemen named Doug Harvey and Tom Johnson were paired with him upon their NHL arrival, and under his tutelage quickly blossomed into elite defensemen. Young players like Bernie Geoffrion, Dickie Moore, and Jean Beliveau all looked up to Butch as the model for what a professional should be.
Even as his career was winding down, Butch still commanded the respect of not only his teammates but of the opposition as well, quite often stopping fights just by placing his massive hands on the combatants.
“One night a fracas started in Detroit,” Beliveau recalled later, “and Butch went right to the Red Wings bench, opened the door, and chased a player through it – unheard – of behavior then, as now. Nobody on the Detroit team dared do anything, and they certainly had their share of tough customers.”
In 1953 Butch was able to live the dream of every captain by hosting the Stanley Cup as captain of the Canadiens. This cup victory, Butch’s third was thought to be his last. Two years later at the conclusion of the 1955 season he went to the Canadiens with thoughts of retirement planted firmly in his mind.
The summer of 1955 brought about a series of changes to the Canadiens structure. Dick Irvin, the only professional coach Butch had ever played for was let go. Considered briefly to be Irvin’s replacement, the Canadiens brass instead turned to Butch’s old teammate, Toe Blake as the next Canadiens head coach.
Sitting down with Butch, Blake persuaded him to play one more year. The Canadiens were bringing some rookies into the fold and Blake felt that Butch could be a steadying hand in their development as well as provide some insurance in case of injury. First amongst rookies like Henri Richard and Claude Provost, was a young defensive prospect named Jean-Guy Talbot, a player that Butch would help mold into one of the league’s best. For the rookie coach, Butch acted as a liaison between him and the players, and was like a second coach on the team, a role he relished.
After playing 36 games that season, Butch was gradually eased out of the lineup to make way for the ever improving Talbot. Once again, Butch told Blake of his retirement plans only to be rebuffed time and time again.
“Age caught up with me,” Butch explained later. “I was 36. With a bad leg I was surprised I played that much. According to the doctor I should have quit when I was 29 years old.”
In that last season, Butch found himself sharing the driving duties with the Canadiens young superstar, Jean Beliveau. Beliveau was on his way to winning his first Hart trophy as the league’s MVP, and Butch’s career was winding down. But for Beliveau, the lessons learned from his captain were ones that he would proudly emulate a few years later when he himself ascended to the captaincy of the team.
“As a captain, Butch took great pains to listen to everyone’s opinion on every issue,” Beliveau recalled later, “and served as a model for my stint as team captain in the 1960’s.”
As the Canadiens made their triumphant march through the 1956 Stanley Cup playoffs Butch became a spectator and had to watch his teammates from the stands. On April 10th, the Canadiens, leading their hated rivals, the Detroit Red Wings 3 games to 1, looked to wrap up the Stanley Cup at the Forum.
For the first time in the playoffs, Coach Blake decided to dress Butch. Sitting the entire game directly in front of Blake, Butch watched his teammates, many of whom had relied on him in the past for guidance, build a 3-1 lead. With the clock ticking off the final seconds, Blake removed the towel from Butch’s neck and patted him on the back, sending his captain over the boards so he could finish his career as a player, on the ice as his team won the Stanley Cup.
Amongst the hysteria of his teammates and the chaos of the crowd, Butch skated off the ice for the final time, clutching the Stanley Cup close to his heart.
In retirement Butch Bouchard remained as busy as ever, tending to his successful restaurant, served as the President of the Montreal Royals (the Brooklyn Dodgers triple A minor league affiliate), all the while coaching and managing junior teams in the province of Quebec. He even served a couple of terms as an alderman in Longeuil.
But the moment that brought him the most joy was when his son Pierre joined the Canadiens during the 1970-71 season.
“I felt like part of the team again,” exclaimed Butch. “It was the first time a father and a son had played for the Canadiens and for me it was a great honor. I felt that in some way he had taken my place.”
Emile “Butch” Bouchard was not the greatest defenseman to ever don the sweater of the Montreal Canadiens, but he had an impact that was matched by few. Statistics only tell part of the Butch Bouchard story and to focus on them downplays the impact he had on the history of the franchise. As one of the pillars of what became the greatest dynasty in hockey; Butch Bouchard can look back at a career and a life imagined and equalled by few.
Emile “Butch” Bouchard was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966.