Chicago Blackhawks, 1954-1977
Eastern Division Title, 1969-1970
Western Division Titles, 1970-1973
Smythe Division Title, 1975-1976
Prince of Wales Trophy, 1966-1967
Playoff Appearances: 1959-1968, 1970-1977
Stanley Cup Finals Appearances: 1961-1962, 1965, 1971, 1973
Stanley Cup Victory: 1961
The career of the late Tommy Ivan symbolizes the NHL’s ancient past; an era when there were only six teams; no NHLPA; no amateur draft; no free-agency; no rival leagues; no European players; no expansion; no player agents; when the NHL was a small club that had an elite membership. That was the NHL that Tommy Ivan beheld when he began his managerial career in 1954. Who would have thought that 23 years later he would be obliged to face the above-mentioned events and deal with them as an NHL GM and, occasionally, would be burned and befuddled and bemused by these changes?
Despite his exalted status Tommy Ivan was never the stellar GM as he was a stellar hockey coach. When placed in context with his peers: Frank Selke, Sr., Punch Imlach, and Sam Pollock, his record never exceeded theirs.
Using my rating method, we find that Ivan was the second worst GM of the 1950s with a career value of -36. During the 1960s he was the fourth best GM (between Frank Selke Sr. and Sid Abel); and, during the 1970s, he ranked fourth between Keith Allen and Milt Schmidt.
In a broader context he was the eighth best GM of the Original Six Era (1942-1967) and he was the fourth best GM of the first Expansion Era of the NHL (1967-1979).
Ivan became the general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks because he had been one of the greatest head coaches in the history of the game; leading the Detroit Red Wings to seven winning seasons and playoff appearances; six league championships; five Stanley Cup finals appearances and three Stanley Cup titles. He had coached and developed the game’s greatest players: Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Sid Abel, Terry Sawchuk, and Red Kelly; all this while dealing the bull-in-a-china shop qualities of his insufferable boss Jack Adams.
By 1954 Tommy Ivan had had enough. He wanted out. He wanted to be his own man and run his own show. Accepting the GM position with the Chicago Blackhawks gave him that opportunity. The Blackhawks in 1954 were a travesty; the Siberia of the NHL where other teams sent players who ran afoul of management. Ivan had a lot of work to do.
Hawks owners Jim Norris and Alvin Wirtz began to pump money into the franchise; giving Ivan a chance to develop a farm system; acquire talent; and nurture it for the parent club.
Ivan also had to find a head coach who could turn the team around. He thought he found one when the Canadiens let Dick Irvin Sr. leave the club to coach in Chicago but Irvin died of cancer after coaching only season for the Hawks. Tommy Ivan had to do double duty as head coach for a time.
(During those early years Ivan hoped to return to Detroit and replace Jack Adams as general manager. Had Marguerite Norris not been supplanted by her half-brother Bruce then Ivan might have gotten his wish and the destinies of both Detroit and Chicago would have been altered drastically. Talk about a great hockey what-if?)
Then, in 1957, Chicago benefitted from the aftershocks of the NHL players’ abortive first attempt at forming a union. When the effort was smashed all the teams save for Chicago performed a blood purge on their rosters; condemning those who were deeply involved in the union to exile in Chicago. Tommy Ivan got Ted Lindsay, Glenn Hall, Ed Litzenberger, Dollard St. Laurent, and Tod Sloan. He also added Eric Nesterenko and Murray Balfour.
(In 1961, he almost pulled off what would have been the most expensive trade in NHL history: the acquisition of Frank Mahovlich from Toronto for $1,000,000).
The presence of these players from winning teams gave the Blackhawks a shot in the arm; a winning attitude.
Also the Hawks farm system was churning out young talents like Pierre Pilote in 1955; Bobby Hull in 1957; and Stan Mikita in 1958.
Later on they would add other luminaries like Phil Esposito in 1963; Doug Jarrett in 1964; and Ed Van Impe in 1966.
The Blackhawks were no longer prey but predators; making their first playoff appearance in 1959 (the first of ten straight appearances); and then winning the Stanley Cup in 1961.
On the surface the Hawks had enough talent to create a dynasty—but, alas! It was not to be.
What followed was 49 years of being denied the Stanley Cup. During those early years of the Stanley Cup drought, the Hawks became a dynasty that never was: featuring fantastic individual performances on-ice; playing crowd-pleasing hockey at its best; raising the hopes of its fans every season only to dash them with either sub-standard playoff performances or eerie quirks of hockey misfortune. The Blackhawks reached the finals in 1962 and 1965 only to be beaten. In 1966 and 1967 they endured humiliating first-round defeats.
That is when Tommy Ivan made the infamous trade that mars his good name today: sending Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, and Fred Stanfield to Boston for Pit Martin, Jack Norris, and Gilles Marotte.
Glenn Hall had left too, leaving a vacancy in the nets. There was a one season hiccup when they failed to reach the playoffs in 1969 but Tommy Ivan recouped his reputation by stealing Tony Esposito from Montreal in the Intra-League player draft. Tony E was a bulwark between the pipes and led the Hawks to eight straight playoff appearances; twice reaching the Stanley Cup finals in 1971 and 1973 (only to lose to Montreal both times).
The creation of the World Hockey Association stung the Blackhawks badly. Tommy Ivan saw the immortal Bobby Hull and Pat Stapleton leave Chicago to make more money for the rebel league.
Still the Hawks persevered and Tommy Ivan was inducted into the HHOF in 1974 before retiring as general manager in 1977. Ivan still had one last contribution to make to hockey. After his retirement Tommy served as chairman of the organizing committee for the 1979-1980 Olympic Hockey festival that brought together a pool of 90 American hockey players out of which was formed the U.S. Olympic Hockey team that won the gold medal in the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid—The Miracle on Ice.
He died in 1999.
(My next column will feature former Flames, Leafs, and Coyotes GM Cliff Fletcher.)