Toe Blake’s playing days in the NHL came to an end in 1948 after the Montreal Canadiens’ captain collided with Bill Juzda of the New York Rangers in a game at Madison Square Garden and suffered a double fracture of his ankle. After several years coaching in minor leagues, Blake returned to the Canadiens as coach in 1955, launching an illustrious era in the team’s history: in the 13 years before he retired in 1968, Blake, who died at 82 on a Wednesday of today’s date in 1995, steered Montreal to eight Stanley Cup championships.
In between the end of his captaincy and the start of his career as Canadiens’ coach, Blake bought a bar in Montreal a few blocks east of the Forum. Friday, May 20, 1949 was the day he took ownership, paying $90,000 for the license. “I couldn’t have kept up payments if I wasn’t coaching in Valleyfield in the winter,” he later recalled, “and umpiring baseball in the summer.”
In 1952, Toe Blake’s Tavern moved across St. Catherine Street into the premises it occupied for the next 31 years. It closed in December of 1983, and well past its due, I’ll say, considering that (as a news report in the Montreal Gazette noted at the time) women had never been welcome within.
Gazette columnist Tim Burke didn’t mention that in his requiem for the old boozy bastion. It went, partly, like this:
It was one of the oases in the West End, the sturdy rendezvous along Montreal’s equivalent of the Bowery (St. Catherine street between Atwater and Guy). Solid décor, walls festooned with caricatures of hockey’s all-time greats, good grub, and good company.
Down in the dumps, you could always stroll into Toe’s, and if none of your buddies were around, the best waiters in town — Vic, Gaetan, Frank, Lucien, Roland, Cliff, and the rest — would make you feel like the mayor of Westmount, with fast service and quicker wit.
The best sports debates I’ve ever heard were in Toe’s because anybody in the joint knew what they were talking about, they’d followed everything for one, two, and even three generations. And if they were stuck for some info, all they had to do was drop in on “The Bear” himself in his office, and they’d be straightened out immediately.
In short, Toe ran his tavern like he ran his hockey team, and nobody ran either better.
In the late ’60s, when everybody was grovelling to a rich, spoiled youth gone out of control, Toe had his waiters throw out anybody who came in with a beard. When one guy streaked the place in the mid-’70s, it took all the waiters to restrain him from doing a job on the guy.