One of the top playmaking centers ever to compete in the NHL, Elmer Lach spent his entire 14-year career with the Montreal Canadiens. He helped "les glorieux" win the Stanley Cup three times and gained much acclaim as the center on the club's dreaded Punch Line with Toe Blake and Maurice Richard. Lach also received accolades for his determination on the ice and his resilience in battling a host of serious injuries.
Lach excelled for the Saskatchewan Senior Hockey League's Weyburn Beavers for two years beginning in 1936. This was followed by an even more successful two-year placement with the Moose Jaw Millers of the SSHL. In 1938-39, he led the league in assists and was firmly established as the loop's top star. Most observers were particularly impressed with his blinding speed and devotion to defensive play.
Lach debuted with a respectable 21 points in 43 games as an NHL rookie in 1940-41. He was brash and confident but quickly earned the respect of the coaching staff and his peers through his dogged work ethic, which was evident on every shift.
A tireless and fearless style of play also became characteristic of the Nokomis Flash. This endeared him to the Montreal fans but also contributed to a career-long battle with injuries. Only five times was he able to play a complete season. Few competitors in NHL history have matched Lach's resolve to return to action after suffering a major injury. Additionally, he earned acclaim by never complaining about his health. In one game against Toronto in February 1947, a Maple Leafs blueliner checked Lach so hard that he fell head-first to the ice and suffered a skull fracture. It was widely felt that his career was over, but Lach persevered and enjoyed a stellar year in 1947-48.
In the last game of the 1948-49 season against Detroit, an opponent's elbow broke
Lach's jaw. Lach first tried to downplay the injury because he desperately wanted to be ready for the upcoming semifinal series with the Red Wings in the playoffs. The fact that he could barely open his mouth to speak was an obvious sign of the severity of his injury, but that didn't stop him from trying to get a plastic helmet/mask device approved by NHL president Clarence Campbell. His bid failed, but his reputation as one of the game's toughest competitors was intact.
An experiment in practice by head coach Dick Irvin in 1943-44 yielded a bountiful return when Lach combined beautifully with Maurice Richard and Toe Blake to form a forward line. The trio became known as the Punch Line and served as one of the most potent units in league history. Led by this combination, the Habs became a force in the mid-1940s. Lach's wizardry and spirit were crucial to the team's good fortunes. Many in the league felt his touch with the puck and ability to flip it to teammates were unrivaled.
His first experience of Stanley Cup glory came in 1943-44 when the Habs beat Toronto in a five-game semifinal and swept Chicago in four straight in the finals. Lach was placed on the NHL Second All-Star Team. The following year he reached the pinnacle of individual accomplishments. He won the NHL scoring title with 80 points and led all playmakers with 54 assists. He was one of the key reasons behind linemate Richard's becoming the NHL's first 50-goal shooter. Lach was also presented with the Hart Trophy and voted to the NHL First All-Star Team. In addition, the Punch Line accumulated a startling 220 points as a trio, an NHL record that lasted until the late 1960s.
The 1945-46 season brought Lach his second Stanley Cup ring. Once again he led all NHL skaters with 34 assists and earned a place on the NHL Second All-Star squad. In 1948 he was the inaugural winner of the Art Ross Trophy after leading the NHL in scoring for the second time in his career.
Lach topped the league in assists for the third time with 50 to his credit in 1951-52. This helped garner him a slot on the NHL First All-Star Team. Lach saved the biggest goal of his career for his penultimate season as a pro. He scored the Cup-clinching goal against the Boston Bruins at 1:22 of the first overtime period in the 1953 playoffs, his last taste of hockey's ultimate triumph. Later Lach quipped, "I took the hardest check of my life when the Rocket jumped on top of me when the puck went in." On February 23, 1952, he recorded his 549th point to pass Bill Cowley as the NHL's all-time leader in scoring.
Lach retired after the 1953-54 season to coach the Montreal Junior Canadiens. He also guided the Montreal Royals for two seasons before focusing full-time on personal business interests. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in1966.