Cover Image: Toe Blake

Toe Blake

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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.
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Joseph Hector "Toe" Blake is best known as one of the most successful coaches in NHL history, winning eight Stanley Cup championships while pacing behind the bench for the Montreal Canadiens from 1955 to 1968.  However, there is much more to the story of his life and it is told in this excellent hockey biography by Paul Logothetis. 

While Blake is best remember for his coaching days with Montreal, including five consecutive Stanley Cups in his first five full seasons guiding the Canadiens, he also had a very successful playing career and that is told in great detail as well as his coaching. Blake won three Cups in his playing days, and adding on his eight while as a coach, he is one of two people to have his name engraved on the Cup 11 times.  Fittingly, one of his players from his winning Canadiens teams, Henri Richard, is the other person to have won a total of 11 times.

Blake's playing days, from the time he played junior hockey in Sudbury (also winning the Memorial Cup in 1932) to his days with the Canadiens are captured in great detail by Logothetis. It did include the one Cup he did not with the Canadiens as Blake played his first eight NHL games in 1935 with the Montreal Maroons, who won the Cup that year and had Blake's name engraved.

Speaking of his name, Logothetis provides some information on where Blake got the nickname "Toe." It was widely believed that it was because his sister could not pronounce "Hector" correctly, and instead said "Hec-toe."  There is doubt on that story in the book as it notes that Blake himself that was because one of his brothers couldn't pronounce the name.  No matter which story is the truth, this passage is a good example of the depth and detail Logothetis writes about Blake, whether about his playing days, his coaching days or his personal life. 

It should be noted that Logothetis provides a lot of material on not only Blake, but on many of the great Montreal players and teams during Blake's coaching career.  This helps to portray Blake as a man of great passion to win, including displaying his legendary temper when needed.  Even going down to the detail of how hard Blake would be chewing his gum during a critical playoff game, Logothetis provides a great portrait of Blake on the ice and behind the bench.

Off the ice, however, Blake is portrayed in an entirely different manner as he not only would be kind and generous to others, his devotion to family is evident in how he cared for his wife Betty when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  It should also be noted that included in the portrayal of Blake's life after hockey is how much time he dedicated to running a tavern he opened before he started coaching, Toe Blake's Tavern, and was a fixture there until it closed in 1983.  Of course, the final years of Blake's life are mentioned when he was battling Alzheimer's disease before passing in 1995. 

One of the most complete hockey biographies I have read, this book is a wonderful look at Blake's career and life and any hockey fan would enjoy reading this. Canadiens fans who may not be familiar with Blake would especially benefit from picking this up and learning about one of the legendary figures in the team's storied history.  

I wish to thank ECW Press for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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