The celebration might have seemed premature, even a tad in bad taste, when upon finishing the 1966-67 season in first place, the Blackhawks wildly sprayed each other with champagne while Coach Billy Reay screamed: "We buried Muldoon!"
It was the era of the immortals, Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull. The team had won it all in 1961, then come up short in 1962 and 1965. However, the Blackhawks had dominated this year's regular season like never before, finishing with hockey's best record for the first time. The Stanley Cup series was yet to come, but the club had already overcome an adversary of historic—or was it fabled?—proportions.
The Curse of Muldoon.
The Tribune explained it thus in 1967: Pete Muldoon was "the fellow who coached the first Blackhawk team in 1927 and got fired for his pains. And he's the fellow who, outraged by this 'cavalier' treatment, snarled, 'This team will never finish in first place!'"
Now, there are those who claim it never happened, that Muldoon just packed up his hockey stick and quietly left town. Jim Coleman, a Canadian sportswriter, claimed he made up the story on a slow news day in 1943. Another school of thought credits Blackhawks publicist Joe Farrell who supposedly concocted the Curse of Muldoon in 1947 to create some buzz by modeling an explanation of his team's misfortunes on the story of the Cubs' Billy Goat hex.
"Writers were getting tired of calling them 'bums,' so Joe made them 'special bums,'" a Tribune reporter wrote the season before the spell was broken. "He blamed all the club failures on Pete Muldoon."
Both Muldoon and Blackhawks owner Frederic McLaughlin, who hired and fired him, were tough-minded men. Before coming to Chicago, Muldoon was not just a hockey player and coach, but the light-heavyweight boxing champion of the Pacific Coast and a sparring partner for some big-name pugilists.
McLaughlin — or Major McLaughlin as he insisted on being called — had the kind of bank-account balance that can make wishes come true. An aficionado when hockey was scarcely known in Chicago, McLaughlin and some well-heeled friends were willing to spend whatever it took to transplant the sport here, paying for an ice rink to be built in the Coliseum, the amphitheater on South Wabash that was the Blackhawks first home. "The syndicate also purchased a franchise in the National Hockey League and the entire player squad of the Portland Rosebuds of The Western Canadian League," the Trib reported on the eve of the 1926-27 season.
Muldoon, the Portland coach, arrived with his players, and they made quick work of educating Chicagoans to the sport's fine points. A few weeks into the 1926-27 season, the Trib noted: "Many of the fans have absorbed the fundamental rules of the game and can now follow the players through the their matches and pick out the good plays from their mistakes and the clean side of the sport from the tactics that violate the rules."
At first, the Blackhawks (named for McLaughlin's World War I army unit) made a run for the title. "Blackhawks Beat Boston, 5-1, and Take League Lead," the Trib reported on Nov. 21. Subsequently, they fell back but remained in contention, as the Trib noted on the eve of a Dec. 18 game against the New York Americans: "Blackhawks Bid For Top Perch in Hockey League."
But it was not fated to be, the Blackhawks finished in third place with a 19-22-3 record. That wasn't good enough for McLaughlin. He gave Muldoon his walking papers.
The Blackhawks, who moved to the Chicago Stadium in 1929, went on to no little success in the post-Muldoon Era. They won the Stanley Cup in 1934, 1938 and 1961, but they did so without finishing the regular season in first place. Wasn't that what Muldoon said — or was said to have said — would be their fate?
Then came the spectacular 1966-67 season when they finished 17 points ahead of their nearest challenger. They went into the playoffs having half drowned themselves in champagne, toasting their first-place finish, and it looked like they had beaten whatever it was, a curse or statistical oddity. Lord Stanley's Cup appeared to be theirs for the taking.
But the Hawks were unceremoniously eliminated in the semifinals by the Toronto Maple Leafs, who went on to win the Stanley Cup. The Tribune characterized the disaster with a theme of ancient mythology: Even gods go down to defeat. "For the Hawks, it was the end, the Gotterdammerung of their greatest season in Chicago hockey history."
The Hawks' early Stanley Cup victories
(2010 was just yesterday; no Flashback needed)
1934: Hawks 3, Detroit Red Wings 1
The Blackhawks' first Stanley Cup came against the Red Wings in the 1933-34 season, back when they were supposed to play just 48 games. The best-of-five series started and ended with tight double-overtime games, both won by Chicago. Led by captain and All-Star goalie Charlie Gardiner, the Hawks stormed to a two-game lead in Detroit and managed enough offense from stars Paul Thompson, who led the team in scoring during the season, John Gottselig, Elwyn "Doc" Romnes and little Harold "Mush" March, who scored the only goal of the decisive fourth game in the second overtime period, then retrieved the precious puck from the net before he was mobbed by his teammates.
1938: Hawks 3, Toronto Maple Leafs 1
With a 14-25-9 record, the Hawks had no business playing for the Stanley Cup against the dominant Maple Leafs. To make matters worse, starting goalie Mike Karakas was sidelined with a broken toe, and the team's backup goalie couldn't get to Toronto by game time. Desperate, the Hawks found New York Americans goalie Alfie Moore in a Toronto bar, well into a bender, sobered him up as best they could and put him in the net. Moore gave up a quick goal but settled down to stymie the Maple Leafs' powerful attack. His new teammates, led by Thompson, Gottselig and Romnes, did the rest and the upstart Chicago team stunned the Leafs to take the series opener. The second game was even crazier. The league ruled Moore ineligible, which meant the Hawks had to go with rookie Paul Goodman at goal. The game was violent. Romnes' nose was broken and six other Hawks needed stitches or other medical care. It was a 5-1 Maple Leafs rout. Was Game 1 a fluke? Game 3 back in Chicago was a continuation of the Game 2 battle, but the Hawks gave as good as they got. Romnes played with a special helmet to protect his nose. Ten seconds into it, he avenged his injury by cracking his stick over Leaf captain Red Horner's head. He skated to the penalty box, and the record crowd of 18,496 fans cheered like he had scored a hat trick. Romnes completed his revenge by scoring the winning goal in the third period. Though the first period of Game 4 was another slugfest, the two teams settled down for hockey the rest of the game, and the underdog Hawks simply outskated the favorites, capping an unbelievable Cinderella run with a 4-1 victory and the Stanley Cup.
1961: Hawks 4, Red Wings 2
The series was a back-and-forth affair, with the home team victorious in the first five games. Chicago opened at home and won behind two goals by a young Bobby Hull. In Detroit, the Gordie Howe-led Wings evened the series with a physical 3-1 victory. Back at Chicago Stadium for Game 3, the Hawks won behind goals by Stan Mikita, who like Hull was playing in his first Stanley Cup Final, and Murray Balfour. Detroit took Game 4 to tie the series at two each. The decisive point in the series came in Game 5 in Chicago when Balfour was tripped and broke his arm. The penalty enraged the Hawk faithful and Balfour's teammates, who broke open a tight game to win 6-3. The Hawks' intensity continued through a 5-1 Game 6 victory in Detroit to win the Stanley Cup.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun