Sports

Blue-chip blue-liner didn't play organized hockey until he was 17 growing up in Fort Erie

By Bernd Franke, Postmedia News

Pierre Pilote smiles beside his stamp during the unveiling of the NHL stamp series featuring the Original Six Defencemen at the Hockey Hall of Fame in this October 2014 file photo. The one-time St. Catharines Teepee died Saturday at age 85.

. Former Blackhawks defenceman Pilote, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 1961, has died. He was 85. The Blackhawks said in a statement Sunday that Pilote had died Saturday night. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hannah Yoon ORG XMIT: CPT105

Pierre Pilote smiles beside his stamp during the unveiling of the NHL stamp series featuring the Original Six Defencemen at the Hockey Hall of Fame in this October 2014 file photo. The one-time St. Catharines Teepee died Saturday at age 85. . Former Blackhawks defenceman Pilote, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 1961, has died. He was 85. The Blackhawks said in a statement Sunday that Pilote had died Saturday night. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hannah Yoon ORG XMIT: CPT105

With three Norris Trophies as the NHL’s best defenceman and one Stanley Cup to his credit, Pierre Pilote knew his way around a hockey rink.

 And with 1,251 penalty minutes during a 14-year Hall of Fame career, the one-time St. Catharines Teepee certainly knew his way to the sin bin.

But Pilote, who died Saturday at age 85, was just as comfortable in the kitchen as he was being Bobby Orr before there was a Bobby Orr.

Growing up Jim Pagetto, 53, of Chippawa, Pilote’s nephew, spent one month every summer at his uncle’s farm in Halton Hills.

“As a kid I remembered going up there, that was my ‘summer camp,’” said Pagetto, whose mother Paulette Lavertu is Pilote’s younger sister.

He remembers his uncle supplying suitcases to Sears after retiring from the Toronto Maple Leafs, raising German short-haired pointers and going all out at dinner time expertly concocting Pilote’s “famous garlic butter clam spaghetti.”

That was the first dish Pilote taught his nephew, who became a butcher by trade.

“And I still make it,” Pagetto said. “You got to make it on a Friday, because you’re not going near people until Monday.”

Pagetto last saw his uncle in the summer of 2016 at a Pilote family picnic in Burlington. About 60 family and extended family members attended.

Cancer was starting to take its toll on the native of Kenogami, Que., who moved with his family to Fort Erie when he was 14.

“But he was pretty good. He was in good spirits.”

Pilote was a forerunner to Bobby Orr, scoring 76 goals in the Original Six era of stay-at-home defencemen who rarely crossed into the offensive zone, but the blue-chip blue-liner wasn’t a natural playing Canada’s national winter game.

While Pilote knew how to skate, sharpening his skills outside on the ponds of northern Quebec, he did not play organized hockey until he was 17.

He started out as a centre but a glut of forwards on a junior B team in Niagara Falls prompted him to return to training camp the following year as a defenceman.

After two seasons with the Teepees in the then Ontario Hockey Association Pilote spent four years with the Buffalo Braves in the American Hockey League, the top of the ladder in the farm system of the Chicago Blackhawks.

He never played another minor game in the minors after scoring three goals and five assists in 20 games with the ’Hawks in 1955-56.

The heyday of Pilote career in Chicago came in 1960-61 when Rudy Pilous, who coached the Teepees to a Memorial Cup championship in 1954, guided the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup.

In 12 playoff games Pilote scored three goals and added 12 assists as Chicago upset the five-time defending champion Montreal Canadiens 4-2 in the semifinals before defeating the Detroit Red Wings for the Cup, also in six games.

Pilote was team captain starting the following season and won the Norris Trophy three times – 1963, 1964, 1965 – and placed second in voting for defenceman of the year in 1962, 1966 and 1967.

“Pierre was Bobby Orr before Bobby Orr,” Blackhawks Hall of Fame goaltender Glenn Hall said in a tribute posted on the NHL team’s website.

Despite the all-star accolades, including induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975 and having his No. 3 retired by the team, Paulette Lavertu’s older brother never let the fame go to his head.

“He was never like that, he was a nice man, always thoughtful,” she said.

“He was always a humble, humble guy,” said Rejean Lavertu, who married Pilote’s sister in 1994.

“We always got along like brothers. He’s always been nice.”

Pilote always had his sister’s back growing up in Fort Erie.

“They were mean to me, because I liked sports, too, but he always helped me.”

However, Pilote, whose first sport was baseball, didn’t take anything off his fastball when he was practising with his little sister.

“No, you know what brothers are like,” Lavertu, 80, of Milton said with a laugh.

In his later years Pilote traveled extensively on the card show circuit signing autographs and he frequently attended the annual Blackhawks Convention as a member of the team’s alumni.

At shows he would go out of his way to help fans, especially younger ones looking for just the right gift for dad.

“The kids are looking, looking and he would say ‘What are you here for,’” Lavertu said. “He would question the kid, to see what the kid was all about and he helped him get the right thing.”

Pilote, who had been living in Wyevale, south of Midland, since 1996 and whose wife Annie died five years ago, spent the 1950-51 and 1951-52 seasons in St. Catharines.

He scored 34 goals and collected 45 assists for 79 points in 106 regular-season games. He was assessed 369 minutes in penalties.

bfranke@postmedia.com

 

 



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