LOOKING BACK: Elmer "Moose" Vasko
Elmer “Moose” Vasko was born December 11th 1935, in Duparquet, a small town in the province of Quebec. In the 2006 census, Duparquet had a population of 650 people. In a sense, Vasko is emblematic of the Canadian who comes from the hinterland to gain glory in the sporting world. Vasko was also one of the few players of Slovak descent back when Slovakia was not even acknowledged as a country.
As a member of the last Blackhawks team to win the Stanley Cup, Moose Vasko embodied the qualities of his nickname. He partnered the slick, smooth-skating Pierre Pilote on a defense pair that gave the Hawks both a robust and rapid presence on the blueline.
If that sounds uncannily like the pairing of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, it is because for those of us who watched them play together back in the day, Vasko was to Pilote what Seabrook is to Keith.
Like Seabrook, Vasko wasn’t flashy. Also like Seabrook, in contrast to his partner, the Moose quietly ensured that Pilote had the freedom to whirl, dash and drive the attack.
Moose never went looking for a scrap, but if you made him angry, he’d flatten you.
In an age where everything is DVR’d and YouTube’d to death, and every hockey fan can add his or her two cents to the collective bafflegab, it’s hard to imagine the effort that used to be required to actually follow NHL hockey.
But Elmer was what one would call an ‘honest player’, in a game that included just over a hundred men who toiled for just six teams.
If you were lucky enough to see the Black Hawks, as they were known, play on Hockey Night in Canada, the most watched television program in the country, then as now, you followed the flickering images on a tiny screen, on a set with rabbit ears and a broadcast interrupted more often than not by ‘snow’, and other forms of vertical and horizontal interference with the picture.
The frantic fiddling with the Bakelite dials in order to keep following the game was as much a part of the ritual as the family gathering around the set, the kids in their pajamas sprawled as close to the screen as possible, hoping to connect with our heroes.
The following day, we, the sprigs of Canadian youth, would be out on the frozen patches, re-enacting the matches we had seen the night before, skating from morning until night, when the old war veteran kept the cast iron stove in the wood shack stoked so we could warm our toes and go back out to pretend we were the players we watched.
Yes, for those of us brave enough to be non-conformists, and cheer the Black Hawks as the majority allied themselves with the Canadiens or the Maple Leafs, Moose Vasko was our hero.
At least, he was one of mine. I treasured the Shirriff’s Luscious Jelly Dessert Coin with his photo, along with my Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Ed Litzenberger, Reggie Fleming, Red Hay and Tod Sloan coins. I admired the way Moose held his chin up. His bull neck tested the seams of his jersey, the black collar with laces tied in a smart knot, and his blonde hair cut close to the skull.
I was six years old when Rudy Pilous and the Hawks captured the Cup. They were distant, mythical, hosted by a city in a country that seemed beyond reach. But to me, Moose Vasko was a friend.
Bobby Hull was Apollo. Stan Mikita was Mercury. Moose was the big brother, all six foot two and two hundred pounds, and not a mean chromosome in his makeup. Unless, like I said, you got him mad.
Like a moose.
The moose wanders through the forests, massive, baleful in his countenance; a gentle creature. Unless you make him mad.
The Moose was one of the reasons the Red Wings, humiliated in the triumph of 1961, and their followers have never recovered from their crushing defeat in the Olympia.
The psychotic bleating of the Red Guard, even fifty years on, cannot erase the scars.
They would like to be the Montreal Canadiens, but they will never match their pedigree, much less their elegant arrogance.
In the callow days of my childhood, Les Canadiens were the province of the hockey imperialists, and I hated them as much as I respected them.
These were the days of innocence, when hockey lived in the ether; what you imagined the game to be was as important as what it was. As we knew nothing about its brutal reality, it was as simple as it was symphonic.
I was sad when expansion came in 1967. It was the death of hockey as I knew it.
I resented the fact that Glenn Hall went to St. Louis, and Moose went to a team in green and gold called the Minnesota North Stars. I was, even at thirteen years of age, a vocal opponent of the dilution of our sacred sport. But, as Joe Mantegna said in that film based on a great play by David Mamet, “Things change.”
Elmer ‘Moose’ Vasko played ten years in Chicago, a decade which still lives as the Golden Age of the Chicago Black Hawks.
It is really not necessary to elaborate upon the achievements of Mr. Vasko. He was more than a hockey player. He was a humble man, a working man, the kind of man Studs Terkel would write about in glowing and flowing prose.
He died of cancer in 1998, and is buried in Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery, in Hillside, Cook County. His plot is in Section 27, Lot 6, Block 16.
If you consider yourself a true member of the Black Hawk tribe, pay a visit to Vasko.
The warrior is waiting, and he will thank you.