Chicago Black Hawks, 1977-1990, 1992-1997, 1999-2001, 2003-2004
Smythe Division Titles, 1977-1980
Norris Division Titles, 1982-1983, 1985-1986, 1989-1990, 1992-1993
Playoff Appearances: 1978-1990, 1993-1997
Bob Pulford’s inclusion on my list of the top fifty NHL general managers may surprise Blackhawks fans; considering the fact that 21 of the 49 years of Chicago being denied the Stanley Cup came during Pulford’s reign.
He was the face of those cold, grey, wind-chilled years where the Hawks were a team that was always one or two (or sometimes more) players short of what was needed to win the Stanley Cup; a team more content to make a profit than to win it all; a team that was behind the curve with the innovations that bedazzled NHL hockey during the 1980s and 1990s.
Based on my rating system Pulford is ranked 28th in terms of career value but when it comes to his average seasonal rating, he ranks lower still (40th between Craig Patrick and Jim Devellano). His impact during the 1980s and 1990s was not superlative. In both decades he was the tenth best GM. (In the 1980s he ranks between Keith Allen and Scotty Bowman and in the 1990s he ranks between Serge Savard and Bryan Murray in terms of value points earned the decade). During the second expansion era of the NHL (1979-1991) Pulford is tied for 9th (with Keith Allen) in career value. In the third expansion era (1991-2001) he is ranked 10th between Pat Quinn and Bryan Murray.
Before he earned the everlasting obloquy of Blackhawks fans, Pulford was one of the mainstays of Punch Imlach’s Maple Leafs dynasty that dominated the NHL from 1962 to 1967. Pulford was a solid two-way forward who earned induction into the HHOF as a player in 1991.
Interestingly and ironically enough, he also was instrumental in forming the present NHL Players Association. (I say “ironically” because when Pulford became general manager of the Blackhawks he was notoriously anti-union in his policies).
When his playing career ended in 1973 Pulford took up coaching with the L.A. Kings and turned into winners. However Pulford clashed with Kings Owner Jack Kent Cooke and sought a situation where he could have dual control of the team as head coach and general manager.
Hawks owner Alvin Wirtz made Pulford the perfect offer and for the next 28 years the two men would form an unholy duality; both enabling the worst instincts of the other; both playing their respective roles in perpetuating the Blackhawks 49 year Stanley Cup drought.
At first it seemed to go so well. Pulford drafted talents like Tim Higgins and Darryl Sutter in 1978; Doug Crossman and Keith Brown in 1979; and then came the mother-lode in 1980: Denis Savard, Troy Murray, and Steve Larmer. Later came, Dominik Hasek in 1983 and Jeremy Roenick in 1988.
(Roenick in his memoirs has this to say about Bob Pulford, “He was always mumbling and complaining under his breath. Pully was a stubborn cuss, but he was mostly good to me. I viewed him as a lovable curmudgeon. But it could be painful to talk to him.”
Pulford must be given credit for signing an undrafted free agent goaltender named Ed Belfour in 1987. Belfour manned the pipes so brilliantly that the Hawks thought Dominik Hasek was expendable.
But there were also missed opportunities as well.
In 1979, Pulford drafted defenceman Keith Brown when he could have had Raymond Bourque. In 1981 he drafted Tony Tanti when he could have gotten Al MacInnis in the first round. In 1987, he drafted goalie Jimmy Waite when he could have gotten Joe Sakic in the first round.
Significantly too was Pulford’s slowness to draft European players when the movement began in earnest during the 1980s. (Pulford was a notorious xenophobe when it came to evaluating hockey talent).
Despite all this the ‘Hawks won five divisional titles and made nine straight playoff appearances in Pulford’s first nine years as GM.
They reached the Conference finals twice in 1982 and 1985 only to be eliminated by Vancouver and Edmonton respectively.
Pulford’s failure to reach the Stanley Cup finals as a GM has also earned him another bitter honor: membership in my Heartbreak GM’s club.
As mentioned before, in my previous articles discussing Dougs Risebrough and Armstrong (and their mutual failure to reach the Stanley Cup finals) Bob Pulford was doomed to fail too when it came to playoff hockey.
Based on my research: Bob Pulford is the second worst heartbreak GM in NHL history; managing the ‘Hawks to 18 playoff appearances without ever reaching the Stanley Cup finals. (Bob Pulford is also the second worst heartbreak coach in NHL history).
In 1990 Pulford moved upstairs to serve as eminence grise to Alvin Wirtz while Mike Keenan took over as GM but when Keenan wore out his welcome Pulford returned as GM.
By 1997 the ‘Hawks had lost their wings; entering a dark period when they lost often and failed to reach the playoffs at all. The stars drafted by Pulford during the 1980s were being unloaded in the late 1990s. The collective penury of Pulford and Wirtz coupled with the failure to draft properly and management’s insistence on refusing to televise ‘Hawks home games (a decision that earned the team howls of derision for years).
It was heartbreaking to see Chicago once an NHL power so degraded while other cities dashed forward with dazzling grace.
Pulford became a dinosaur and when he finally stepped down as GM for good in 2005 there were few tears shed.
It took Chicago only five years to wipe away the scar tissue that choked and strangled the ‘Hawks; allowing them to fly and win the Stanley Cup in 2010.
Today in 2013, the ‘Hawks fly again, the way they are supposed to.
(My next column will feature former Buffalo Sabres GM Scotty Bowman.)