Monday, March 14, 2011

Elmer Lach...What If?

Friday's story detailed the accomplishments of Montreal Canadiens speedy center Elmer Lach. The Montreal faithful, saluted him with an "Official Night" on March 8, 1952. They showered Lach with gifts to show their appreciation. Today, the story continues...

In the current NHL, a playoff defeat marks the conclusion of play for both players and their loyal supporters. Following a loss, team members clear out their lockers and participate in exit interviews with the coach and general manager.

In the 1937 playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs faced the New York Rangers in Quarter-Final action. The best-of-three series opened in Maple Leaf Gardens and New York left Toronto with a 3-0 victory. Two day's later, on March 25, 1937, the Rangers ended Toronto's Stanley Cup hopes by recording a 2-1 win.

Unlike Today's NHL, there was no mass dispersal for those on the Maple Leafs roster. Instead, the club conducted a number of "post-season drills" at their home rink. Under the watchful eye of Conn Smythe, these drills did hold some significance. For example, it was determined that right winger Charlie Conacher, who played in only 15 games during the '36-37 season (due to a wrist injury), would be an integral part in the plans of club management. Smythe was quoted as saying, "Charlie is still the best right winger in the league, and he'll stay up there (on the first line). I think with Metz (Nick) and Davidson (Bob) to work with him, much of our problem is solved."

On April 5, 1937, three new faces took part in the drills. One name, in particular, stands out. When you read his name in newspaper accounts of the drills, a question immediately comes to mind - What if? What if Elmer Lach remained as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs?

In the 1937-38 campaign, Toronto had three natural centers on their squad - Syl Apps, Murph Chamberlain and Bill Thoms. Apps and Chamberlain were 22 years of age, while Thoms was 27. Apps was coming off his rookie season ('36-37), in which he recorded 45 points in 48 games, including 16 goals. Chamberlain was entering his rookie year ('37-38), signing with the Leafs after capturing the Allan Cup (Sudbury Frood Mines) during the spring 0f 1937. The veteran in the group was Bill Thoms, who joined the Leafs in 1932-33.

It certainly would appear as though there was an opportunity for Lach to gain a roster spot with Toronto. He spent the previous season ('36-37) playing for the Weyburn Beavers of the S-SSHL. In 23 games he registered 16 goals and 6 assists for 22 points. Although younger than Chamberlain and lacking pro experience, it is possible Lach could have battled the Shawville, Quebec native for one of the center positions. They were both unproven NHL rookies who would be joining a team with little depth up the middle.

The newspaper account of Lach's participation in the April 1937 Leaf drill, provides a glimpse of his potential. It points out he is under 20 and "he was moving along at a great clip in center ice."

So why didn't Elmer Lach become a fixture in Toronto instead of Montreal? In his memoirs, written with Scott Young, Conn Smythe shed some light on this situation.

"I brought Elmer Lach to Toronto to go to St. Michael's College and he agreed to sign with me, but he deserted - went back out west without a word to me - and played senior a while before going to star in Montreal for many years", wrote Smythe concerning his experience with Lach.

A 1941 report indicates it was Leaf coach Dick Irvin who was behind bringing Lach to Toronto in 1937. In addition to Lach, Irvin was instrumental in having forward Doug Bentley and defenceman Harvey Barnes join Lach as the newcomers in 1937. All four individuals called the Province of Saskatchewan home, thus it was likely Irvin had sources who informed him of talent back home. Bentley, would go on to star with the Chicago Black Hawks.

As for Elmer Lach, he returned to the Weyburn Beavers in 1937-38 and continued his career in senior hockey. His final year of amateur competition came in 1939-40 with the Moose Jaw Millers (S-SSHL). On October 24, 1940, Lach was signed by the Montreal Canadiens as a free agent. The credit for "discovering" Elmer Lach is often bestowed upon Habs scout Paul Haynes. However, taking into account his time in Toronto, Dick Irvin must have had some influence in the matter..

Previously, it was raised - what if circumstances had changed the course of history for Lach and all those who cheered for him in a Canadiens jersey? The answer would bring despair in Montreal and joy in Toronto. Imagine the Punch Line without Lach. Imagine Elmer Lach not scoring the huge overtime goal (noted in the previous story) on April 16, 1953, versus the Boston Bruins. The goal so wonderfully described in Dick Irvin's book "Now Back to you Dick".

The Cup-winning play was started by Mazur when he lugged the puck into the Boston zone. He was checked behind the net. Schmidt picked up the puck and when he saw Richard swooping toward him to forecheck, passed it to his left, towards the boards. Lach intercepted in the faceoff circle, turned and let a shot go. Elmer's shot didn't strike fear into the heart of a goaltender, but it was accurate and cleanly beat the Bruins' goalie Jim Henry.

Imagine Lach and Bentley in Leaf uniforms, joining the likes of Apps, Kennedy, Davidson, Meeker and company.

No comments:

Post a Comment