50 years later, Hawks' Game 7 loss to Canadiens still stings

For Chicago hockey fans of a certain age, May 18, 1971, still holds poignant meaning of loss and what might have been.

That Tuesday 50 years ago dawned bright and unseasonably warm. The high temperature in Chicago would reach 84 degrees - hardly hockey weather, but it may have played a determining factor in the outcome of a game that would change the course of Blackhawks history and perhaps that of the entire NHL.

We'll get to all that.

Blackhawks fans had every reason to be confident as they readied for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Montreal Canadiens at Chicago Stadium. The Hawks had home-ice advantage and won the first two games of the series before dropping two at the Forum and winning Game 5.

With the Stanley Cup in the Forum in case of a Hawks victory in Game 6 on Sunday afternoon, May 16, the Canadiens clawed back to force the decisive Game 7. They did so even as their coach - former Blackhawks defenseman Al MacNeil - needed police protection in Montreal in part because of a spat with Canadiens icon Henri Richard.

If you wanted to watch Game 7 in the Chicago area, you needed a ticket to the game or a ticket to one of several area theaters that televised the game on closed-circuit TV. Arthur M. Wirtz, the iron-fisted owner of the Hawks, steadfastly refused to televise home games, a belief he handed down to his son, William Wirtz.

So this then-14-year-old fan took his transistor radio outside, pulled up a lawn chair and listened to the great Lloyd Pettit on WMAQ radio. The nation would hear Dan Kelly on CBS TV, and fans in the theaters would hear new Hawks TV voice Jim West describe the action.

Pettit belted out his trademark, "A shot and a goal!" as Dennis Hull scored from a steep angle against Canadiens rookie goalie Ken Dryden late in the first period. Danny O'Shea made it 2-0 Hawks at 7:33 of the second period.

Fans could taste the champagne.

Then, disaster struck.

Bobby Hull beat Dryden but hit the crossbar shortly after O'Shea's goal.

Then a seemingly harmless play changed everything when Jacques Lemaire skated across the red line and let go a long shot that beat Hawks goalie Tony Esposito, who had made so many spectacular saves in the playoffs. Theories ranged from the puck dipping six inches on Esposito to fog rising up from the ice in the hot building obscuring Tony O's vision.

Whatever, those in the overflow crowd of about 21,000 gasped, and the air went out of the old barn at the 14:18 mark. Richard tied the game at 18:20. At 2:34 of the third period, Richard skated around Hawks defenseman Keith Magnuson and scored on Esposito: 3-2 Canadiens.

Despite a furious Hawks rally in the final seconds - Jim Pappin actually raised his stick in celebration as he thought he had beaten Dryden in the final seconds only to be thwarted - the Hawks fell short.

The Canadiens skated off with the Cup to polite applause from the Stadium crowd, who saluted "their vanquished heroes," as West commented on the theater telecast.

My newspaper experience back then consisted of delivering the afternoon Chicago Today, whose back-page headline read, "Hawks' Cup runneth over."

The feeling among Hawks fans was stunned disbelief. How could the Hawks have not captured the Cup after being up two games to none in the series and 2-0 in Game 7?

The pain remained for Hawks fans until the team finally won the Stanley Cup in 2010, the first of three recent titles. (Some friends I speak to still have never fully gotten over 1971.)

So let's imagine the Hawks winning in '71. Maybe they win another Cup in '72, and Bobby Hull does not leave for the World Hockey Association and the Winnipeg Jets that summer. If that happens, maybe the WHA never even gets off the ground, saving the sport from a costly war between the two leagues that didn't end until four WHA teams were absorbed into the NHL in 1979.

The Hawks went to the Final again in 1973, but this time they were underdogs to the Canadiens, who won in six games, again on Stadium ice.

If Hull stays, maybe the Hawks win that one, too.

We'll never know. But as the weather warms this week, those memories of what might have been 50 years ago will come rushing back.

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