Thursday, April 16, 2020

Review: Toe Blake (2020)

By Paul Logothetis

One of the joys of reading history is the way it came make somewhat dusty names from the past spring to life. Take Toe Blake, the person and the title of the new biography by Paul Logothetis, as a good example of that.

If you look up Blake's record in hockey, the first fact that will jump out is that he won eight Stanley Cups as a coach. That's second to Scotty Bowman on the all-time list. A little more digging indicates that he was a great player for the Montreal Canadiens before he became their coach.

But he did almost all of this before the NHL entered something of a modern era in 1967 by expanding from six to 12 teams. (Blake's last season in Montreal came in 1967-68.) There isn't much video of him, and there hasn't been a full biography written of him.

Logothetis fills in the gaps of the story nicely with a full look at his life. The story essentially starts with the title - what sort of person is named "Toe"? It turns out that Blake's real name is Hector, which sort of got mangled along the way into Hec-toe. From there, it was an easy jump to Toe.

The story takes back to Blake's childhood, which was mostly spent near Sudbury, Ontario, known for its mines. That area had a history of immigrants and their families relocating there in search of a better life. No one works inside the mines if they can help it, and Blake probably knew he might work there if he didn't find a better alternative. Hockey provided it. No wonder it was said that Blake had such a fierce determination to win and to excel at the sport.

Blake arrived in Montreal for good in 1936 after some time in the minors, and played at a high level. He won an Most Valuable Player award and a scoring championship, and is remembered as part of the famous "Punch Line" with Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Elmer Lach. Blake's career ended a little ahead of schedule when he broke his leg in 1948, and it was time to turn to coaching.

Blake was named the coach of the Buffalo Bisons of the American Hockey League in 1948 and lasted a half-season. It seems he and owner/general manager Art Chapman weren't on the same page, and an angry Blake left in disgust. It's interesting that two of the greatest coaches in hockey history, Blake and Bowman, are linked by their inability to make things work in Buffalo.

Blake coached in junior hockey before landing with the Canadiens. He stayed for 13 seasons, made the playoffs 13 times, and won eight Stanley Cups. It's tough to top that record. About my only complaint with the book is that some of the championship seasons are a bit overlooked in terms of details. You win five Cups in a row, though, and maybe they start to look the same.

Blake was one of the few great players who made a successful transition to coaching, perhaps because he wanted it so much. There are plenty of stories about slights from referees and instances where he was ready to get physical with third parties (officials, fans, etc.) who got in his way. He retired after the last Cup. The word "burnout" hadn't been invented yet, but the hard-driving style that he put himself through took its toll. (His wife also was fighting cancer at the time.) Blake was done around the age of 56.

Logothetis does a thorough job of exploring available information on Blake's hockey career. Bowman, who got to know Blake personally over the years, has some insight into the older man's philosophies. The author also had the chance to talk to some family members. They are honest and frank about what life with a man named Toe, with that sort of drive, was like. It sounds like it was hard on everyone at times - some more than others. It also sounds like Blake started to learn how to smell the roses a little bit.

Most Hall of Famers deserve a biography or autobiography, and it's tough to write the history of the National Hockey League without a mention of Toe Blake. After reading this book, Toe won't be just a silly name from the past.

Four stars

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