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Hockey Former Blackhawks, Leafs defenceman Pierre Pilote was a daredevil play maker who threw bone-rattling checks

Pierre Pilote smiles beside his stamp during the unveiling of the NHL stamp series featuring Original Six defencemen at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, on Oct. 2, 2014.

Hannah Yoon/THE CANADIAN PRESS

For three seasons, Pierre Pilote was the best defenceman in the National Hockey League, a daredevil play maker who could throw bone-rattling body checks.

Mr. Pilote, who died on Sept. 9 at the age of 85, led all playoff scorers in helping the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 1961, ending the Montreal Canadiens' record string of five consecutive championships.

Mr. Pilote was a prototype for the modern, freewheeling rearguard who served his team as a puck-rushing quarterback. He set an NHL record for the most points in a season by a defenceman, a standard soon after eclipsed by the sensational Bobby Orr.

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"For a little guy, he hit hard," the goaltender Glenn Hall said recently. "He was better offensively than he was defensively. When Pierre rushed the puck was when he was playing his game."

With a wiry physique, a flattop haircut and a rough-carved face featuring high cheekbones, Mr. Pilote was readily recognizable on the ice in the era before helmets were mandatory. While a favourite of Chicago fans in his heyday, Mr. Pilote was a scourge in other arenas, his scofflaw style led to many minutes in the penalty box. In the 1960-61 season, he served more time than any other player, including even teammate Reggie Fleming, a notorious hockey pugilist.

Mr. Pilote earned the James Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenceman for three consecutive seasons, skated in eight all-star games and was named to the league's First All-Star Team in five straight seasons. He was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975, while Chicago retired his No. 3 sweater in 2008. He was also featured on two commemorative stamps issued by Canada Post, in 2005 and 2014.

For all his achievement, he was overshadowed during his playing days by more flamboyant teammates, including Bobby Hull, the Golden Jet.

Mr. Pilote's success on ice was unlikely, considering that he only began playing organized hockey at the age of 17.

Joseph Albert Pierre Paul Pilote was born on Dec. 11, 1931, at Kénogami, Que., now part of Saguenay. He was the eldest child born to the former Marie Gagné and Paul-Émile Pilote, a mill worker and fighter whose fast fists earned him the nickname Kayo for knocking out rivals. Five more children were to follow.

Young Pierre played shinny with classmates and priests on his school's outdoor rink. "My first pair of skates were my mother's," he told the authors of his 2013 biography, Heart of the Blackhawks. He stuffed items into the toes of the skates so they would fit better.

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When he was 13, the family moved to Fort Erie, Ont., where, to his dismay, he discovered no one outside his family spoke French, the only language he knew. He took a factory job while still a teenager. His hockey was limited to playing forward in an amateur industrial league, yet he decided to ask for a tryout with a local junior-B hockey team after only a single season of organized hockey. He earned a roster spot with Niagara Falls Cataracts in 1949-50.

The following season he was about to be cut from training camp by the coach of the junior-A St. Catharines Teepees. Instead, general manager Rudy Pilous fired the coach and took up coaching duties to ensure that the rookie would be given a chance.

A raw talent whose future stardom perhaps only Mr. Pilous fully recognized, Mr. Pilote did not stride on skates so much as run. He skated backward poorly, a skill he would need to master after he was assigned to be a defenceman. The eager young player was aware of his weaknesses and so studied teammates and rivals. He once bought a scalper's ticket to a game at Maple Leaf Gardens, according to his biography, where he was thrilled to see Bill Barilko deliver a hip check that sent an opponent flying. Mr. Pilote added the technique to a growing repertoire.

A gritty, fearless body checker, he learned he could thwart an attacking player without having to remove himself from the flow of play.

Still not yet smooth on skates, Mr. Pilote grabbed, hooked and tripped any rival daring to speed past him. He led the Ontario junior circuit in penalty minutes in his first campaign with the Teepees. He cut down on his minutes and recorded a point per game in his second campaign, becoming a promising prospect.

The defenceman got another four years of seasoning with the Buffalo Bisons of the American Hockey League, who played just across the Niagara River from Fort Erie. He suffered a broken nose, a broken foot and a broken hand before he got a chance to play in the NHL.

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In February, 1956, the defenceman was called up by the parent Chicago club to replace Allan Stanley, who had suffered a charley horse before developing a blood clot. He scored his first NHL goal against the Leafs at the Gardens in a 4-2 Chicago win on a Saturday. He scored again the following night in Chicago as his team claimed the weekend home-and-away series with a 3-2 victory. Both goals were scored against Gil Mayer in the Toronto net.

Chicago finished in last place in the six-team league, but Mr. Pilote's performance gained him a full-time spot on the team's blueline for the 1956-57 season. Despite the early broken bones, he turned out to be not as fragile as some feared, not missing a game in his first five full seasons.

He was paired on defence with Elmer (Moose) Vasko, who, at 6 foot 2, 200 pounds, towered over his companion, who stood four inches shorter and weighed about 22 pounds less. It was Mr. Vasko's duty to guard the fort whenever Mr. Pilote went on an attacking foray. When the other team had the puck, Mr. Pilote was known for delivering devastating checks in front of his net as rivals sought to deflect shots from the point.

With the addition of Mr. Hall in goal, some astute signings of castoffs from other teams such as defenceman Al Arbour, and the ripening of farm hands such as Mr. Hull and Stan Mikita, Chicago began to climb from the cellar.

The team finished in third place in the 1960-61 season, earning the right to face in the playoffs the powerhouse Canadiens, a team which had competed in 10 consecutive Stanley Cup finals and had been victorious in the most recent five. The series was tied 2-2 in games when the Hawks managed back-to-back 3-0 victories to eliminate the defending champions.

Chicago then defeated the Detroit Red Wings in six games to claim their first Stanley Cup since 1938. In 12 playoff games, Mr. Pilote scored three goals and 12 assists to lead all players, which undoubtedly satisfied Chicago's coach, Mr. Pilous.

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The team named Mr. Pilote captain before the start of the following season. Soon afterward, he suffered a shoulder separation and missed several weeks of action. At the end of the season, the Hawks returned to the Stanley Cup finals, only to lose to Toronto in six games.

In 1964-65, Mr. Pilote scored 59 points (14 goals, 45 assists) to set a season scoring record for defenceman, besting the 47 recorded by Toronto's Babe Pratt in 1943-44.

By the end of a disappointing campaign in 1967-68, Chicago fans turned on the captain, booing a man they once only cheered. The frustrated player gestured at the home fans with his stick as though he was a conductor who had tired of his audience. The front office traded him to Toronto for forward Jim Pappin.

"It's hard to be a captain – you dedicate yourself so long to a case," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1991. "All of a sudden they get rid of you. For me, it took a lot of soul-searching."

Mr. Pilote closed out his career after a single season with the Leafs, gaining some satisfaction when Toronto qualified for the playoffs and Chicago did not.

Mr. Pilote scored 80 goals with 418 assists in 890 NHL games. He had another six goals and 53 assists in 86 playoff games. He spent the equivalent of more than 22 games – more than a quarter of a season – in the penalty box during his NHL career.

Even as a player, Mr. Pilote operated several small businesses, including a car dealership, a public-relations firm and a luggage manufacturer. He briefly operated a doughnut franchise bearing the name of rival defenceman Tim Horton. After buying a large acreage in Ontario's Simcoe County, he dabbled in cattle breeding.

Mr. Pilote, a long-time resident of Wyevale, Ont., died of cancer on Sept. 9. He leaves his companion, June Gerdes-Beard, as well as two sons and two daughters. He was predeceased by Anne (née Greshchyshyn), a carpenter's daughter whom he married in 1954. She died in 2012. Five years ago, a bronze likeness of the defenceman was unveiled in the lobby of the arena in his birthplace. Unlike the man it depicts, the life-sized statue never strays from its position.

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