Emile ‘Butch’ Bouchard, star NHL defenseman, dies at 92


Emile “Butch” Bouchard, posing with the Stanley Cup in 1956 after his final game as captain of the Montreal Canadiens, died April 14 at 92. (Associated Press)
April 17, 2012

Emile “Butch” Bouchard, who anchored hockey’s freewheeling Flying Frenchmen as a defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens and was a stalwart member of four Stanley Cup championship teams, died April 14 at a care home in the Montreal suburb of Brossard.

His death, at 92 from respiratory problems, was confirmed by his son, Pierre Bouchard, a former defenseman with the Canadiens and the Washington Capitals.

The elder Mr. Bouchard spent his entire 15-season National Hockey League career with the Canadiens, helping the storied franchise rebuild after a fallow decade.

In 1948, his teammates unanimously elected him captain, a position he held for eight years until his retirement. As captain, Mr. Bouchard led his team to the Stanley Cup finals six consecutive times, winning twice. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966.

Known for delivering body checks of uncommon ferocity, the defenseman was not averse to violating hockey’s rule book, although he did not often fight. An imposing build served as a deterrent. At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, he towered over most opponents. It was said he stayed in shape by lifting railway ties.

Mr. Bouchard’s great success on the rink is all the more admirable for his not owning a pair of skates until age 16.

Emile Joseph Bouchard, whose father was an industrial painter, was born in Montreal on Sept. 4, 1919. He learned hockey in the streets and by renting skates at 5 cents per night.

After winning a neighborhood title, he played junior and senior hockey for the Verdun Maple Leafs. Teammate Bob Fillion dubbed him Butch, a play on a mangled English pronunciation of the family name, rendering as “butcher” what should be pronounced “boo-shar.”

Invited to a Canadiens training camp, Mr. Bouchard cycled 50 miles each way twice daily to save money. Management was impressed by his conditioning; his new teammates less so, as his eager body checking exacted a toll.

The club had gone a decade without a championship when the defenseman signed with the hometown team for the 1941-42 season. The roster included players with such unthreatening monikers as Jim “Peggy” O’Neil, John Quilty and Aurelia “Bunny” Dame.

Yet Les Habitants, as they were known, also had a veteran in Hector “Toe” Blake and a promising youngster in Elmer Lach. After Maurice “The Rocket” Richard joined the team in 1942, the trio were dubbed the Punch Line for their scoring prowess.

Mr. Bouchard would add his name to the pantheon of Canadiens greats, including teammates Dickie Moore, Jacques Plante, Jean Beliveau, Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion and Doug Harvey.

The Stanley Cup drought ended in 1944, and the team repeated as champions two seasons later. A third championship came in 1953 after Lach scored an overtime goal in the fifth game of a series against the Boston Bruins.

The defenseman was coaxed into a final campaign in 1955-56, a knee injury having severely curtailed his mobility. He played only half the games and missed almost the entire playoffs, only to be sent out by coach Toe Blake for a final shift in the dying seconds of the final game. His last act as captain was to yet again accept the Stanley Cup.

Mr. Bouchard rarely scored goals — his career high of 11 was recorded in 1944-45, when NHL rosters were decimated by wartime service. In 785 career games, he scored just 49 goals. (By comparison, Richard notched 50 goals in a 50-game season.)

Away from the rink, Mr. Bouchard began a beekeeping business at 19, earning a reputation as a discerning apiarist. Later, he sold a car he had bought for his honeymoon to finance the purchase of a restaurant in downtown Montreal. Chez Butch Bouchard featured live music in a sophisticated setting, making it in the words of a local newspaper “tres en vogue” (very fashionable).

He served as president of the Montreal Royals baseball club in the old International League and won a seat on council in the Montreal suburb of Longueuil. Today, the arena in Longueuil bears his name.

In December 2009, the Canadiens retired Mr. Bouchard’s uniform. He was wheeled onto the ice by his son Pierre, whose own name has been engraved on the Stanley Cup five times.

Once, when asked the most cherished moment of his career, Mr. Bouchard replied it was his son’s ascension to the Canadiens, making the duo the first father-son combination in the team’s history.

“I felt that, in some way, he had taken my place,” Mr. Bouchard said, according to the Montreal Gazette. “I felt like part of the team again.”

In 1947, he married Marie Claire MacBeth. Besides his wife, of Longueuil, survivors include five children and seven grandchildren.

In 1951, Britain’s Princess Elizabeth attended a sold-out game at the Montreal Forum. The future queen stepped onto a box on the ice wearing a three-quarter-length fur coat over a brown taffeta dress, as well as a cloche hat with veil. Mr. Bouchard, the captain, wore a woolen hockey sweater in the famous red-white-and-blue livery of the Canadiens.

Mr. Bouchard bowed slightly at the waist, before gently shaking her hand. It was a rare time when a bared hand on the ice at a hockey rink offered fealty, not fisticuffs.

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