Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Habs legend they called Cannonball

220px-DidierPitre191011 When Jack Laviolette was given the task of putting together a newly formed NHA team in the fall of 1909, the first man he recruited to join him was his good friend Didier Pitre.

Pitre, born on this day in 1883, had played with Laviolette in Valleyfield, QC and with the Michigan-Soo Indians in the IHL.

The 5’11” 190lb, muscular winger/blueliner was exceptionally fast for a man of his stature. The story goes that he could even skate just as fast backwards as he could going forwards.

His combination of speed and size, along with blistering shot that terrorized goalies, had earned him the nickname “Cannonball”.

Laviolette sent for Pitre, who had been working the off-season in Sault-Ste. Marie, ON, via telegram.

The key phrases of that telegram read, “New League formed. New Canadien team formed. Big Money available. Come to Montreal.”

150px-Pitre1Pitre immediately quit his job and hopped a the first train available to unite with his longtime friend.

Unbeknownst to Pitre, the Montreal Nationals of the CHA were also in the midst of recruiting him for their team.

Pitre met up with a Nationals representative on the train ride to Ottawa. Thinking this was the team Laviolette spoke of, he signed on with them en route.

Realizing his error on meeting Laviolette, Pitre signed with the Canadiens.

The Nationals filed legal action to prevent Pitre from playing with the Canadiens, but on January 5, 1910 , the night of their inaugural game, a judge ruled in favor of the Canadiens.

Laviolette-Pitre-Lalonde “The Flying Frenchmen” Jack Laviolette, Didier Pitre and Newsy Lalonde

Pitre scored 10 goals in the Canadiens first twelve-game season. he would score 19, 28, and 24 goals in the following three seasons.

He went to the Vancouver Millionaires for the 1913-14 season, but returned to Montreal the following year bagging 30 goals in a 20 game season.

He won his only Stanley Cup during the 1915-16 season after leading the NHA is scoring with 39 points.

While his offensive totals continued to be impressive, Pitre’s speed over the years was slowing tailing off.

In his final two seasons, Pitre found himself concentrating on playing as a defenseman.

His final game was the second game of a two-game total goals series, versus the Ottawa Senators, for the NHL title in 1923.

The Canadiens lost the series by one goal. Despite the losing effort, being overweight and used as a substitute during most of his final season, the 39 year-old saved his best defensive effort for his last game.

“Didier was sensational on defence,” wrote La Presse.

“One expected him to be exhausted after a few minutes, but he was like a wall against the Ottawa attack.”

The last of the original Canadiens announced his retirement after the series, finishing with 220 goals and 59 assists in 254 games with Montreal.

0didiermug In light of his size and the brutal physical game of the era, Pitre played with a sportsmanlike attitude.

It is even said that he was once criticized by his coach for apologetically helping an opponent up after he had knocked him to the ice.

Elmer Ferguson, who wrote about Pitre through his career, had this to say.

“Many played brutally, but Pitre was not one of them. It is doubtful if the big, good-natured Frenchman ever did a mean, or unsportsmanlike thing in his whole career.”

“Pitre was a very loyal player with a generous heart,” wrote an unnamed journalist.

“The fans liked his lively character, his engaging repartee, his extraordinary drive and the unbelievable speed of his rushes.”

Pitre died in 1934 and was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1962.

Other notes about Didier Pitre

  • Before his first Stanley Cup win, he competed in the Cup final in 1909 with Edmonton, and again with Montreal in 1917 and 1919.
  • Hall of Famer Cy Dennehy called Pitre one of the fastest skaters of all time.
  • In a January 16, 1919 game against the Ottawa, Pitre and Jack Darragh, of Ottawa, each had natural hat tricks in a 10-6 win for the Canadiens. That feat was not repeated until Jonathan Cheechoo, of the San Jose Sharks, and Ryan Smyth, of Edmonton Oilers, each did in a 6-4 Edmonton victory on October 19th, 2006
  • Became a coach and referee in the Michigan-Soo area after his retirement as was also named to the NHL’s officiating staff.
  • Played alongside 22 Hall-of-Fame players during his career.

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