Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Emile "Butch" Bouchard: 1919-2012

In a season when their club failed to make the Stanley Cup playoffs, there was more bad news for fans of the Montreal Canadiens. On April 14, 2012, the hockey world was informed of the passing of former captain Butch Bouchard.

A native of Montreal, Quebec, Bouchard, a six-foot-two, 205 pound defenceman, signed his first contract with the Habs on February 21, 1941. After starting the campaign with the Montreal Sr. Canadiens (QSHL), Bouchard was assigned to Providence by the NHL club. He participated in 12 contests with the Reds, who played in the American Hockey League. It wouldn't take Bouchard  long to reach the National Hockey League.

On November 13, 1941, the Montreal Canadiens played their third game of the 1941-42 NHL campaign in Toronto. Prior to the contest,  Bouchard received high praise from coach Dick Irvin.  "He'll remind you of Joe Louis tonight, six-foot-two, weighs 200," stated Irvin to a Toronto reporter. The reference to "Joe Louis," boxing champion, indicating Bouchard's style of play.

"He keeps bees and stings like one too," added Irvin for good measure.

When Irvin referred to Bouchard keeping bees, he wasn't kidding. The young defenceman not only had a keen eye for playing hockey, but business ventures were also of interest to him. In addition to running an apiary, Bouchard built a wood-carving shop at his home and created pieces of furniture.

"They'll see plenty of Bouchard, our new defenceman. He's the smartest blocking defenceman to come up to the National Hockey League in ten years, in my opinion," bellowed Irvin about his rookie on game day.

For the tilt at Maple Leaf Gardens,  Bouchard joined Cliff 'Red" Goupille on Montreal's blueline. The Canadiens were missing rearguard Ken Reardon, who remained in Montreal with an infection. The other defensive pairing included Jack Portland along side Tony Graboski.

Bouchard and his teammates fell short, falling to Toronto 4 to 2. Although on the losing end, it was a good night for Bouchard. When Leaf forward Sweeny Schriner couldn't breeze by the big defender, Leaf coach Hap Day instructed him to try his luck on the opposite side against Goupille. As a result of the shift, Schriner hit the twine twice.

During the 1942 Stanley Cup playoffs, Bouchard recorded his first National Hockey League goal. It came against Detroit in game two of a best-of-three series. Bouchard scored the third goal in Montreal's 5 to 0 victory. The victim of his first tally was netminder Johnny Mowers.

Over the next couple of seasons, Bouchard worked on improving his skating, but his finest asset was his physical strength. As the late Leaf legend, Ted Kennedy, told author Mike Ulmer in "Canadiens Captains," Bouchard was "so strong."

Kennedy, provided Ulmer with an example of how Bouchard applied his brute strength, " If he happened to get you along the fence, well, you were going to come out second best, but he wouldn't be one of these guys who would run you into the fence to hurt you. He'd rub you out that's all, " noted the former Leaf captain.

This perception of Bouchard as a sort of gentle giant was shared by many in the game. Referee Red Storey, in his autobiography "Red's Story," pointed out Bouchard was the "first of the modern policemen" in hockey. Due to the Canadiens having a number of small, but speedy forwards, this role was important, and Bouchard made a huge contribution towards protecting his mates.

As Storey relayed in his book, policemen like Bouchard and other's in the Original Six era who filled the role, "would drop their sticks in a fight and go at it with their fists. They earned respect."

After winning his first Stanley Cup in 1943-44, Bouchard and the Canadiens were ready to fight off all challengers and defend their championship in the spring of 1945.

In the semi-final versus Toronto, the Habs dropped the first two games at home in Montreal. The series then moved to Maple Leaf Gardens. Following game three, everyone involved agreed Bouchard stole the show. The visitors outscored Toronto 4 to 1, and the main reason for the Leafs offence being debilitated was Butch Bouchard.

"He's the greatest defenceman in the league. In fact the best since Eddie Shore departed from Boston. Tonight he played the greatest game I've seen in this rink since one night long ago. Shore gave me and the Leafs of that period a large headache," said the former Leaf coach, now pacing behind the Canadiens bench.

The Leaf coach in '45, Hap Day, couldn't help but heap praise upon his opponent. "That beekeeper! Not only did he take a lot of starch out of our attackers, but he stopped as many shots as Durnan (the Montreal goalie)," observed Day.

A repeat wasn't in the cards for Montreal in 1945, as Toronto went on to win the semi-final four games to two. In total, Bouchard captured four Stanley Cups - 1943-44, 1945-46, 1952-53 and 1955-56.

Heading into 1948-49, Bouchard's leadership skills and overall importance was about to be recognized by management and fellow players. With Bill Durnan giving up the captains "C", the prestigious honour was  up for grabs. In mid-October, after the tradition of holding the vote in the dressing room, came word a new captain had been selected. The distribution of votes wasn't close. One news report from the time indicated "Bouchard's election was practically unanimous."

It was a responsibility Bouchard took seriously, as noted by Jean Beliveau in his autobiography ("Jean Beliveau - My Life in Hockey" with Chrys Goyens and Allan Turowetz). "As captain Butch senior took great pains to listen to everyone's opinion on any issue and served as a role model for my stint as team captain in the 1960s," wrote the Hockey Hall of Fame member and still beloved icon.

It didn't take Bouchard long to show one and all his teammates made the proper choice. In the November 10, 1948 edition of The Hockey News, Bouchard was named Player-Of -The-Week. He earned the award for a contest involving the Detroit Red Wings on November 6, 1948. Montreal shutout their rival 2 to 0, with both goals coming courtesy of Bouchard. On defence, the newly crowned captain, put his shot blocking talent on display. He blocked four scoring chances, which appeared to have some potential.

Like dance couples, who perform complicated routines, it is vital defence partners complement each other on the ice. Labelled a stay-at-home defenceman, Bouchard became an essential component for Montreal coaches who structured the game line-up.

When he first entered the NHL, Bouchard was teamed with Montreal's number one blueliner, Ken Reardon. Coach Dick Irvin, realizing the benefits of grouping Reardon, a rushing defenceman, with a defensive-minded partner, created the tandem of Reardon and Bouchard.

When Reardon retired prior to the 1950-51 campaign, another player, with offensive prowess, took his post beside Bouchard. This individual was Doug Harvey. In the history of hockey, this combination is perhaps the quintessential pairing of all-time. Harvey, a master at controlling the tempo of a game, enjoyed the luxury of motoring up ice, knowing Bouchard was in position to protect his back.

In his final NHL year, 1955-56, Bouchard's ice-time dwindled considerably. During the regular season, he only got into 36 matches. Bouchard, thought about hanging up his skates, but management wasn't ready to dispose of his veteran presence. Come playoff time, Bouchard didn't see any action until the final seconds of the Cup winning game. On April 10, 1956, Montreal defeated Detroit in the fifth contest to claim Lord Stanley's silver mug.

After taking his final shift, Bouchard skated to centre ice to accept the big prize from Cup trustee Cooper Smeaton. And how did Bouchard celebrate his farewell Cup victory and retirement? He hung-out a "Gone Fishing" sign. Literally. With his good pal, Rocket Richard, along for the ride, the two headed out for a fishing vacation in the Laurentien Mountains.

Emile Joseph "Butch" Bouchard was born on September 4, 1919. He was tagged with the nickname "Butch" in junior hockey. Most likely due to pronunciation, his French last name became associated with the English word butcher. His NHL career spanned 15 seasons ('41 to '56 / 785 regular season & 113 playoff games). Selection to the NHL First All-Star Team came in 1945, 1946 and 1947. Selection to the NHL Second All-Star Team came in 1944. Election to the Hockey Hall of Fame came in 1966. Butch Bouchard left this world on April 14, 2012.

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