(Photo: Punch Line from Hockey Hall of Fame, via Wikimedia Commons)
The Montreal Canadiens tied their rivals, the Boston Bruins, 2-2 at the Forum on October 30, 1943. But that was only the beginning of the story. How could they have known that playing center Elmer Lach with wings Toe Blake and Maurice Richard would make history leading to two Stanley Cup championships and a few records. With that tie, the “Punch Line” was born.
The three stars came to the Canadiens over the course of six years and played together for five. In February 1936, the Canadiens took Hector “Toe” Blake from their fellow Montreal team, the Maroons, for whom he’d played ten games and helped win a Stanley Cup. Four years later, Dick Irvin took over as coach and made Blake the team captain. Rookie Elmer Lach joined the Canadiens that year and remained with them his entire career. Almost exactly a year before appearing on the “Punch Line,” on October 31, 1942, Maurice Richard played his very first NHL game with the team. He considered Blake his hero, and he did not waste any time trying to prove himself when he scored an assist 36 seconds into the first period.
All three offered skills that meshed really effectively. Blake, as the senior skater (and called “The Old Man” by his linemates), served as the backbone of the line. He handled translations between French-speaking Richard and English-speaking Lach. According to Lach, Blake would say, “The way you practice is the way you played,” so he “never fooled around in practice.” “Elegant Elmer” Lach himself was “the 5-foot-10 bulldozer who cleared the lanes, traded elbows in the corners and passed the puck as though it had eyes for Richard’s stick.” The two would feed “Rocket” Richard the puck because he was the “short-fused stick of dynamite with a gift for finding the back of the net.” They understood their places and where to find each other. Even so, Lach humbly said, “We were just a line. I didn’t sense anything special when Irvin put us together in practice. As a group, we were good. Individually, we were just average hockey players.” However good he may have thought they were, the line earned the Canadiens four straight Prince of Wales trophies and two Stanley Cups.
Injuries plagued the line. Lach had a shattered elbow that kept him out during the 1941-42 season. During the 1942-43 season, Richard broke his ankle 16 games into the season. Richard’s replacement worked well with Blake and Lach, but Richard returned to the line in 1943 until another injury curtailed his play. That season, Blake ran practices during the Christmas holidays and put himself back on a line with Lach and Richard, and Coach Irvin kept them together after a spectacular game on December 30, 1943. The line remained together until Blake received a career ending compound fracture of his leg after a collision with Bill Juzda during a January 1948 game against the New York Rangers. Blake stayed with the Canadiens as off-ice captain.
Although Blake retired with 235 goals (527 points), a scoring record, Richard more than doubled that by retiring with 544 goals (965 points) in 1960. Richard’s retirement came right after the Canadiens’ string of five consecutive Stanley Cup championships, while Lach had retired two seasons beforehand but after having gotten another win in 1953.