November 3, 2010
Ex-Leaf Litzenberger, 78, passes away
By FRANK ORR, Special to QMI Agency
TORONTO - The hockey career and life of Ed Litzenberger contained a multitude of twists and turns but was heavy in victories.
Litzenberger, who died Monday at 78, was the lanky forward with four National Hockey League teams (Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs) in a career of 15 seasons. He is the only professional player who was on championship teams in six consecutive seasons — captain of the Stanley Cup champ Blackhawks in 1961, a useful utility forward with the Maple Leaf team that won three Cups in a row from 1961 to ’64, then with the Rochester Americans when that team won the Calder Cup as American League kings in ’65 and ’66.
He is one of three players — Al Arbour and Claude Lemieux are the others — to win back-to-back Stanley Cups with two different teams and one of very few to collect a major NHL individual award (the Calder Trophy as top rookie in ’54-55) in a season split between two teams, the Canadiens and Blackhawks.
“Success followed Eddie around like a hungry pup,” said Pierre Pilote, the superb defenceman who succeeded Litzenberger as Hawks’ team captain in ’61. “He contributed so much himself as a player but, in his own quiet way, he was a top-notch leader, on the ice and off. He knew the total game, always thinking of defence as much as scoring goals. Off the ice, few players ever were better dressers or conducted themselves as gentlemanly. He was just one great guy.
“Even when he was a fairly young man in Chicago, he had off-ice interests in business and when he retired as a player (in 1966) he had already started what was an excellent career (as a stockbroker plus other businesses). A little amazing when you think his life could have ended in that car crash.”
On an icy Chicago road in 1959, Litzenberger’s wife, who was driving, was killed when the car struck a viaduct. He suffered cracked ribs, a contusion of the liver and a severe concussion. He missed 20 games while in rehabilitation but returned to the line-up to help a Hawks’ team that had ended three decades as the NHL sad-sacks with an influx of young stars (Pilote, Elmer Vasko, goalie Glen Hall, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita).
Litzenberger, who had scored 97 goals in the three seasons before the crash, never regained his scoring touch but remained a useful player who could work all forward positions and kill penalties. The Hawks traded him to the Red Wings after the ’61 Cup triumph, the Hawks’ first since 1938, a victory they would not repeat until 2010. But in December of the ’61-62 season, Leaf general manager and coach Punch Imlach, a master at landing veterans to fill the holes in what became a dominant club, claimed Litzenberger on waivers.
“Litz might have lost a bit off his legs but his hockey head was just as good as ever,” Imlach said years later in assessing construction of the four-time Cup champion club. “He scored a bit for us. filled in wherever we needed him when we had injuries and was a very positive guy on a team, no matter how big or small his role was. Then he helped round out a championship AHL club at Rochester that had some young players, who benefitted from Litz’s class and attitude.”
Born in Neudorf, Sask., Litzenberger was a junior star with the Regina Pats, a team controlled in that era by the Canadiens, scoring 86 goals in 81 games over two seasons plus lofty playoff totals. The Pats were in the 1952 Memorial Cup final, losing to the powerhouse Guelph Biltmores, led by Andy Bathgate and Harry Howell.
“Funny how things turn out, but I never thought of an NHL career,” Litzenberger once explained. “I planned to be an engineer and had registered at the University of Colorado. But the Canadiens invited me to training camp and I decided to take a look. They offered me a pro contract and I put college aside. It was a big change for a kid from a small town where you were a big fish to a big camp where you are a little fish. I suppose after a few days in camp, I realized that I was good as many of the players there. I grew up fast.”
Litzenberger spent two seasons with the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Major League, scoring a goal in two call-ups to the NHL club and being named the QMHL’s top rookie in ’52-53. He was with the loaded Canadiens for 29 games in the 1954-55 season when he suddenly was sold to the Blackhawks as part of the NHL’s Help The Hawks Plan to rescue a weak franchise.
Although he admitted to crying real tears when told of the trade the day after he had scored the game-winner for the Canadiens, Litzenberger produced 40 points in 44 games as a Hawk to win the Calder Trophy that season. He continued to score well in Chicago and was the centre on a line with the young Hull early in the Golden Jet’s career. He earned a second all-star team selection in 1956-57 behind Jean Beliveau when he had 32 goals, 64 points.
He finished his NHL career with 178 goals and 238 assists in 618 games.
“I really enjoyed everything about my hockey career, even the time in Rochester when we had an excellent team that wasn’t far below some NHL clubs,” Litzenberger said when he retired in 1966 to his home in Toronto and he career as a stockbroker. “I didn’t want to get an injury because I knew all too well how that could be and I wanted to be around to watch my family grow up.”
Litzenberger is survived by Gayle, his wife of 49 years, a daughter Kelly, sons Dean and John.
Frank Orr entered the
Hockey Hall of Fame as a writer in 1989