Elmer James Lach
Born: January 22, 1918 (Nokomis, Saskatchewan)
Died: April 4, 2015 (Kirkland, Québec)
Member: Hockey Hall of Fame (1966)
When Elmer Lach retired as a player after the 1953-54 season, he was the NHL’s all-time leading scorer with 623 points.
He centred one of the greatest lines in hockey history with the hard-working Toe Blake on left wing and the fiery Maurice (Rocket) Richard on right wing. The Punch Line dominated the NHL at the end of the Second World War with Lach, Richard and Blake finishing 1-2-3 in scoring, all three named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team.
Lach was the kind of player who made everyone on the ice with him better. The 5-foot-10, 165-pound skater displayed brilliant playmaking, with passes said to nestle on the blade of a teammate’s stick. A quick, smooth skater, he was a tenacious checker. Others had harder shots, but Lach’s quick release and sneaky ability to use opposing defenceman as a screen gained him 215 goals in 664 NHL games, all with the Montreal Canadiens.
Lach twice won the NHL scoring title — with 80 points in 1944-45 and with 61 points in 1947-48, when he became the inaugural recipient of the Art Ross Trophy.
His name was engraved on the Stanley Cup in 1944, ’46 and ’53, when his overtime goal against Boston ended the series after five games.
Lach the Unlucky, as he was nicknamed, suffered numerous injuries in his 14 seasons, including two cracked jaws, a shattered cheekbone, and a fractured skull. A rival’s skate blade once tore through his hockey boot, severing two veins, an injury he did not notice until a teammate saw blood seeping from the skate. Lach’s nose did a dipsy-doodle down his long face, the result of seven breaks. Trent Frayne once profiled him for Saturday Evening Post magazine under the headline, “You Can’t Kill a Hockey Player.” Lach, he wrote, was “less polished than persistent, less artistic than artisan, less incomparable than inexorable.”
While his linemate Richard became a cultural icon with his bold, headlong, dynamic style seen as an expression of a nascent post-war Québec identity, Lach’s reserved, quiet demeanour, a reflection perhaps of his prairie upbringing, meant he never received the accolades he deserved. Though Lach was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966, the Canadiens did not get around to retiring his No. 16 until 2009, 55 years after he’d retired. (Besides, they’d already retired No. 16 to honour Henri Richard, Rocket’s little brother.) In recent years, it fell to Dave Stubbs of the Montreal Gazette to chronicle Lach’s life and career, which he did with delight.
Lach died on April 4, a week after suffering a stroke, at age 97. His death came 66 years to the day after newspapers carried stories about his retirement as a player.
He was born 57 days after the founding of the NHL.
Elmer James was one of six children (two born in Russia, four in Canada) born to Mary and William Lache, immigrant farmers who settled in Nokomis, a town in Saskatchewan opened to homesteading in 1904. (The final letter in the family name, pronounced “lock,” would be dropped.) Young Elmer learned to skate on frozen ponds on skates borrowed from a neighbour. He played his first game of organized hockey ay age 17 with the junior Regina Abbots. At 18, he joined the senior Weyburn Beavers and, after two seasons, skated two more seasons for the Moose Jaw Millers, emerging as a top scorer.
The Canadiens struggled through the Depression years, nearly folding. Lach was invited to camp before the 1940-41 season. He was one of nine rookies to join the team’s roster, signing a $4,000 contract with a $1,000 signing bonus, according to Stubbs. He played a single game in his sophomore season, during which he was checked into the boards. He shattered his left wrist, tore up ligaments in his elbow and dislocated his shoulder, an injury so grievous he needed an entire season to heal.
During the war years, Lach worked in an aircraft factory by day, skated for the Canadiens by night.
Lach won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player in 1945. As well as his three First Team All-Star honours, he was twice named to the league’s Second Team (1943-44, 1945-46). He skated in three all-star games.
The Punch Line (from left): Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Elmer Lach, Toe Blake
(From the Montreal Gazette.)
(The Ottawa Citizen, April 4, 1949)