Rudy Pilous’ recipe for enjoying a headache
For most of his 44 years, this ex-beer waiter, pipe cutter and hobo has thrived in tight corners. And even hockey’s most perilous job—coaching Chicago’s bewildering Black Hawks—hasn’t crushed his resilient spirit
Some people are sword-swallowers, others get themselves shot out of cannons, and still others agree to coach the Chicago Black Hawks, which is possibly easier than wrestling a boa constrictor but tends to offer the same future.
In their thirty-two seasons of abuse as members of the National Hockey League, the Hawks have hired twenty-one coaches, exactly three times the number employed in that period by the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers, thirteen more than Montreal and Toronto, and sixteen more than Detroit’s mere five.
Few of the men whose brains have throbbed on behalf of the Hawks have known peace and employment simultaneously. In the last twelve years the team has missed the playoffs eleven times, and has finished in the cellar in the six-team NHL nine times, usually on merit. Twenty years ago this season the Hawks
were seventh, which looks improbable even for Chicago until it is remembered that the defunct New York Americans were in the league then.
But this season, for the first time in six years and only the second time in a decade, the hangdog Hawks passed the halfway point in the schedule in second place. In February the bubble still hadn’t burst, and in a league sodden with the ennui of seemingly endless Montreal domination, the Hawks’ flight toward respectability constituted the most exhilarating aspect of an otherwise routine and formful season. Even more unusual, credit for the climb was being accorded that curious species of sporting life, the coach of the Chicago Black Hawks. One newspaper columnist, in fact, was touting him for coach-of-the-year honors as early as Jan. 21, which is usually about the time of year they start sounding taps.
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“He is a deceptively gifted man, quite inconsistent with his bumbling, even naive, facade”
The coach in question is Rudy Pilous, a forty-four-year-old, bulky shambling man of six-feet-two, with a shock of black hair, dark eyes in a moon face, and no previous NHL experience whatever, even as a young player seeking a tryout. Pilous, never quite as graceful on skates as Barbara Ann Scott, played only pseudo-professional hockey — with the New York Rovers, the St. Catharines Saints and the Richmond Hawks in England. It is probably only coincidental that all three of these teams have long since quietly collapsed. Before these peregrinations Pilous endured part of a season with the Selkirk Fishermen, in Manitoba, whom he abandoned after six weeks when he hadn't been paid a penny of a promised twenty-five dollars a week.
But he has more than compensated for any lack of professional experience on the ice by the scope and variety of his activity off it. If the bewildering Black Hawks need a coach of bewildering background to get them out of purgatory Pilous (pronounced Pill-us) is their man.
Pilous, who left school at fourteen in Winnipeg to help his father support the nine children in the family, has been a chauffeur, a telephone lineman, an icecream salesman, a carpenter, a pipe cutter, a truck driver, a beer waiter, an inventor (General Motors paid him fifty dollars for a safety device), a receivingdepartment supervisor, and a publicist for ice shows, roller-skating derbies and race tracks. And, to top it off. he has coached hockey teams in such improbable places as California, Kentucky and Texas.
From this vocational melange there has emerged a deceptively gifted, acutely observant man quite inconsistent with the bumbling, amiable, even naïve façade he often affects. Pilous' public reputation stems partly from his tendency to link singular verbs with plural subjects and to throw in a mangled polysyllable now and then. When he succumbs he'll laugh too quickly and refer to himself as “a big dumb squarehead.” Actually, he has an insight into many kinds of persons besides himself, and as a practicing psychologist it has appeared this year that he’s often been able to get blood out of a stone.
Fifteen of the players who helped the Hawks breathe oxygen for the first time in six seasons this year, are somebody else’s castoffs, and Pilous has been able to wheedle skills out of them that their ex-employers concluded they didn't possess. Only four youngsters who played for Pilous as juniors, Elmer (the Moose) Vasko, Bobby Hull, Johnny MacKenzie and Pierre Pilote, ever before had seen the coach other than socially, if then.
For his part, Pilous had seen a precious little of them. When he agreed to face the firing squad without a blindfold and reported as Hawks’ coach on Jan. 4, 1958, he was heavily involved with the St. Catharines Tee Pees, a junior team he had guided with glittering success since 1950 (he is still part-owner and general manager of this Ontario Hockey Association Junior A team which serves as a Hawk incubator) and his work with them prevented his seeing NHL games even on television. The Hawks were sixth and getting sixthcr when Pilous joined them, but under his guidance they finished out of the cellar for the first time since the spring of 1953.
Then, last spring, after less than three months in the league, Pilous sat down with Tommy Ivan, the former Detroit coach who moved to the Black Hawks as general manager five years ago. and drew up a list of ten Hawk players
to serve as a nucleus for this year’s club. These were goalkeeper Glenn Hall, defensemen Pilote and Vasko, and forwards Ted Lindsay, Eddie Litzenberger, Ron Murphy, Bobby Hull. Eric Nesterenko, Glen Skov and Lome Ferguson (seven of
these, incidentally, had been deemed expendable by other NHL clubs). Then they set out to beg. buy or draft ten more players to fill out the roster.
Over the summer they did a pretty thorough housecleaning. They acquired
Tod Sloan from Toronto in what Pilous calls “the best deal we ever made.” The Leafs, miffed by Sloan's activity in the players’ guild, unloaded him for mere money in a league in which no dollar sign has ever put a puck in the net. Then they added defensemen Tex Evans, AÍ Arbour and Dollard St. Laurent and forwards Earl Balfour, Danny Lewicki and Norm Johnson, all of whom were acquired from apparently dissatisfied employers. Then Pilous brought Kenny Wharram and Phi! Maloney back tc the NHL from the minors, and added Johnny MacKenzie from the junior Tee Pees.
Flattering, cajoling, upbraiding, fondling and snarling, Pilous turned this mixed bag into a contender. In one stretch after Christmas they reeled off eight straight unbeaten games and so stirred up lethargic Chicago, where crowds of fewer than five thousand had sometimes lost themselves in the vastness of the big arena, that 16,482 paid to watch the Hawks play the Canadiens on Jan. 18, the largest NHL crowd in any rink in nine years. Three weeks later, on Feb. I, they even improved on that, attracting 16.896 for a 3-3 tie with the haughty Habitants. Chicago's total attendance, though, remains lowest in the league.
They wasn't so proud
Mostly, the Pilous philosophy is to appeal to the players’ pride. He reminds them that of the tens of thousands of men and boys who play hockey in Canada every year, only one hundred and twenty make the NHL in any given winter. Once last season, shortly after he'd joined the Hawks, Pilous suffered through an 11-3 pasting in the Montreal Forum, and the Canadiens were scheduled to meet the Hawks back in Chicago the following night. He called an afternoon meeting in the Stadium dressing room.
“Well, I guess your wives was real glad to see you boys this mornin', eh?” he began. "1 guess you was pretty proud of yourselves, too, cornin’ off the train with a nice 1 1-3 shellackin’.
“Me, 1 wasn't all that proud. I think about hockey twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, and I figure there isn't much sense playin' it if you don't give it what you've got. 1 don’t figure there’s much sense doin’ anything if you don’t do it the best you know how.
“Now maybe a lot of you fellows don't feel that strong about this game. But I’d like you to go home right now and spend a little time thinkin’ about what you can do tonight to justify bein’ an NHL hockey player. See if you can find a little pride in being a Black Hawk.”
That night, the Hawks beat the Canadiens 7-1. the worst pasting the Stanley Cup champions took all season.
Pilous occasionally works a little psychology on his rival coaches, too. In midJanuary the Hawks, holding second place by one point, came up to a game with the Rangers. If the Rangers won they’d jump past the Hawks. Pilous happened to encounter Phil Watson, the irascible coach of the Rangers, pacing up and down one of the corridors in the Chicago Stadium's catacombs. Watson is noted for the impassioned orations he delivers to his players to stir them up, and he’d just come in from Toronto where he'd reveled in a widely reported excoriation of the Leaf coach. Punch Imlach, berating him for taking what Watson regarded as illdeserved hows for a recent Leaf spurt.
“I could see ol' Phil was workin’ himself into a froth so he could steam up his players to kill us,” Pilous recalls, “so I figured I had to do somethin' quick.”
He called to the rival coach but Wat-
son, deep in his thoughts and banging one fist into the other, ignored him.
“You sure gave it to Imlach,” Pilous called.
Watson stopped pacing, and glared at Pilous.
“Huh?” he grunted.
“I said you really fixed that Imlach's clock. That was wonderful.”
Watson's face broke into a pleased grin, and he walked toward Pilous. Then as he talked about their Toronto counterpart he got worked up all over again.
“He forgot all about bein' sore at us,” Rudy says. “Then it was time to go on the ice.”
The Hawks managed to retain second place, all right. They scored three firstperiod goals and went on to rout the Rangers 7-1.
While Pilous has contributed his share in this fashion to Chicago’s comparative success, it's hardly a one-man accomplishment. The general manager. Tommy Ivan, had inordinate success as a coach at Detroit under the surveillance of the bellicose veteran. Jack Adams, and Pilous himself is particularly high on the work of the two chief scouts, Bob Wilson of Toronto, and Cecil (Tiny) Thompson of Calgary, the former great Boston goalkeeper. They have built a farm system that compares favorably with that of the vaunted Canadiens (it produced Hull. Vasko, Pilote and MacKenzie, for example) and is bringing the day close when the Hawks can grow their own NHL players rather than pour out thousands of dollars to draft or buy somebody else’s.
Which brings up the seemingly bottomless bankroll of owner James D. (Jim) Norris, the former head of the International Boxing Club who bought the wallowing Hawk franchise in the summer of 1951 and has taken a red-ink bath reported to exceed a million dollars trying to rejuvenate it. Two years ago he spent a hundred thousand dollars to buy the Buffalo club in the American Hockey League for the sole purpose, apparently, of acquiring rights to the juniors at St. Catharines, with whom Buffalo had a working agreement. The fledglings safely under his semi-benign wing, Norris sold the Buffalo club after one season, taking a heavy financial loss hut retaining the St. Catharines’ tie-up for Chicago.
It was during this manoeuvre that Norris had his attention drawn to the relatively unknown Pilous, whose Tee Pees had not missed the Ontario junior playoffs in eight years and had won the Memorial Cup as Canadian junior champions in 1954. Seeking a coach to lessen the load on Tommy Ivan. Norris was advised by Toronto’s Conn Smythe and Montreal’s Frank Selke that he had a pretty good man in his own organization at St. Catharines. Man named Pilous.
It was a big leap for Rudy who for the first time in his life had settled down with security and apparent permanence in St. Catharines where he and his wife Margaret lived with their two daughters. Mary Lou. who is eleven, and Rose Marie, eight, in their spacious four-bedroom home. In the winters he ran the hockey club, of which he’d become halfowner with a wealthy industrialist named George Stauffer, and in the summer he helped lure people from the Niagara Peninsula to the Fort Erie race track, across the Peace Bridge from Buffalo, as a public-relations man.
But he’d rarely taken a step where the odds were in his favor. Like a lot of Canadians his age Pilous grew up during the depression often literally wondering where his next meal was coming from. He scrambled for every dollar, took his
belts on a chin made of pure rubber and, out of it, acquired a determination that was not going to be dimmed by so picayune an obstacle as the worst team in big-league hockey.
As far back as he can remember, there’ve been those obstacles, the earliest ones financial. His father was a carpenter in the CPR shops in Weston, a Winnipeg suburb where Pilous was born on Aug. Il, 1914. There were three boys and six girls in the family. As youngsters, Rudy and his brothers used to walk the roadbed of the railway to gather coal that had
fallen from the locomotives’ coal cars. This kept the Pilous house warm in the severe Manitoba winters. Rudy never got to high school. He ended his formal education to run a threading machine at the Dominion Bronze and Ornamental Iron Works, cutting lengths of pipe for handrailings and imprinting an inch-anda-half thread at each tip. That was precisely the amount of his index finger he lost when it caught in the machine. He prevented loss of his hand by literally wrenching off his finger at the joint. He was fourteen, earning eighteen cents an
hour and working twelve hours a day. On a six-day week, that added up to a pay cheque of $12.96.
Three years later he left the iron works to play junior hockey at Portage la Prairie, about sixty miles west of Winnipeg, where he got eight dollars a week, and room and board. He hung around a garage, occasionally picking up a few dollars for doing odd jobs. One morning a call came from a Dr. Hassard who kept his car at the garage. The doctor wanted someone to drive him on his rounds. Rudy was asked if he could drive,
and he said certainly, although he’d never driven a car in his life. He learned that very morning, creeping along side streets in the doctor’s car, and was hired as a full-time chauffeur at fifteen dollars a week.
That job ended with the hockey season and Pilous returned to Winnipeg. It was 1931 and he couldn’t find a job. He bet a fellow fifty cents he could go to Calgary and back within five days on freight trains. He got there in two and a half, sent back a penny postcard to prove he'd reached Calgary, slept briefly in a hobo jungle on the Bow River, and started back. He’d jump off a boxcar outside a little town, “go stemming” in a restaurant, meaning wash dishes in exchange for a few crusts and a bowl of stew, and then catch the freight on the other side of town as it shunted to a start. Mounties at Regina searched the boxcars for nonpaying tourists, but Pilous evaded them by hiding in a steam-shovel on a flatcar. He got to Winnipeg an hour ahead of his deadline.
He got offers to play senior hockey in Flin Flon, Man., and in Nelson, B.C., but joined the Selkirk Fishermen. After six weeks with no pay he was in a quandary, or, as he puts it, “Unbeknown as to what the hell to do, I flipped a coin and went to Nelson.” There, he helped build a civic centre, laying pipe and doing carpentry, and then he became a lineman for the telephone company. One day he was perched on a pole in the Okanagan Valley when an offer arrived by cable from England to play for the Richmond Hawks in London. Once again he flipped a coin. When it came up England, he spent the next eight months there and then returned to Winnipeg.
Order—at $5 a day
He planned going back to England the following winter but encountered his friend Walter (Babe) Pratt at the old Amphitheatre rink in Winnipeg in the fall, and Pratt persuaded him to try out for the New York Rovers, a Ranger farm team which played Sunday matinees beform sellout crowds in Madison Square Garden before the league eventually folded. He spent a winter there, then went to Winnipeg Beach with some hockey players the following summer where a hotel manager mentioned that he was always short of beer waiters when the weekend trains came up from Winnipeg on Friday night. Rudy had barely tidied this deficiency when he sold the manager on the idea of appointing him “supervisor of breakage.”
“I noticed when those gay young squirts came in on the train from Winnipeg their favorite sport was to bust glasses in the pub,” he relates. “When the manager listened to my idea I just started strollin’ around the tables tellin' the customers that any idiot knew how to telescope glasses to break ’em. I guess it shamed ’em a little. I talked a little hockey, too. and pretty soon we was talkin’ hockey nice and orderly. The guy raised my pay from five bucks a day to eight on the glasses he was savin’, and the job was a helluva lot easier than waitin' on table.”
Then he went to St. Catharines to play senior hockey and after taking a job at Silverwood Dairy as an ice-cream salesman and truck driver, he went to work in the receiving department at General Motors. He invented a safety device to assist in the unloading of trucks for which he got his fifty-dollar award and was made department foreman.
In the spring of 1943 he became a junior-hockey enthusiast during a seven-
game series between Oshawa Generals and the Winnipeg Rangers for the Memorial Cup, and he felt the game would »o well in St. Catharines. He got six businessmen to put up two hundred dollars each, applied for a franchise in the Junior OHA, and went to Winnipeg where his brother Max had lined up seven players. Rudy promised them jobs, took them to St. Catharines, and put on his bumbling naïve façade for an OHA meeting where it was pointed out to him that only two imports were permitted. He knew' this, of course, but gambled that the league operators w'ould be duped by his seeming ignorance and let his team in.
“Knowing there was a dumb cluck like yours truly at the head." he recalls, “they accepted us."
The team w’as a sensation, and narrowly missed winning the league final against Oshawa. which went on to win the Memorial Cup.
Still working at General Motors, Rudy was the team’s unpaid coach. His work impressed Art Chapman, then general manager at Buffalo, who hired him to coach a team at Washington, but the job fell through before the season opened. Chapman didn't know' what to do with Pilous, so put him in charge of publicity for attractions coming into the Buffalo Auditorium. He spread the word on roller derbies, ice show's and lined up interviews with circus elephants, or whatever.
Whenever teams with which Buffalo was affiliated had a problem. Chapman dispatched Pilous. In this fashion he spent half a season each with Houston in Texas and San Diego in California, and a whole season in Louisville, Kentucky, unlikely hockey states, indeed. In the first two cases he got a wallowing team into the playoffs after arriving in mid-season.
In the summer of 1950 Pilous became one of the few coaches in hockey history who ever told an employer he was overpaying his coach, an incident that developed when George Stauffer, president of an industrial firm that had acquired the junior Tee Pees, asked him to come back to St. Catharines and take over. For three years the team had drawn well at the gate but heavy and unnecessary expenses had kept the balance sheet red.
“You’d like the job?” asked Stauffer, after preliminary discussions with Pilous.
“Yes, 1 think I would.”
“How about money?"
“You’re the man with that,” parried Pilous.
Stauffer wrote a figure on a piece of paper and passed it over.
"It’s wonderful.” said Rudy.
“You’ll take it. then?”
“It’s wonderful but you won’t take it. How come?”
“It’s fifteen hundred dollars too much.”
Stauffer was incredulous.
“Look,” said Pilous, “you’ve been losing money for three years, right? One of the things you want me to do is fix that. No coach in Junior A is worth the figure you put down. We’ll start off by savin' fifteen hundred.”
The Pilous inventiveness helped win the Memorial Cup four years later. The Tee Pees were engaged in a league playoff with Toronto's St. Michael’s College and were trailing 5-4 with twenty-eight seconds to play. In spite of the fact a
face-off had been called in the St. Catharines' end of the ice, Pilous removed his goalkeeper and sent out six forwards. The fans in the packed St. Catharines Arena were astonished. So were the St. Mike’s players, who were so intent on popping another goal into the nearbyempty net that they weren't set defensively for the Tee Pees’ final offensive. Six Tee Pees fled up the ice from the face-off and scored the tying goal with twelve seconds to play. The point the Tee Pees gained from the tie was the deciding one in an eight-game series, and
St. Catharines went on to win the national championship.
So here’s the twenty-first in Chicago’s long line of coaches. He started slowly with this season’s polyglot lot, striving to find a fit, and then got the Hawks airborne when he inserted Tod Sloan at centre between Ted Lindsay and Eddie Litzenberger. By February this was the hottest line in the league, which didn’t surprise the coach.
“You try every kind of cough medicine,” he philosophized, “and you get the cold cured up.” ★