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By Zane Miller

Following an impressive 1952-53 campaign which saw the Chicago Black Hawks (now Chicago Blackhawks) earn their first playoff appearance in seven years, it seemed as though the team would turn their fortunes around going into the second half of the 1950’s. However, this theory would be immediately shot down in 1953-54.

The 1953-54 campaign saw the Black Hawks bottom out to what would eventually be their worst record of the entire decade, finishing at a gruesome 12-51-7 for their first 50-loss season in franchise history. Even the second-to-last place New York Rangers were nowhere in the same galaxy, as they more than doubled the Black Hawks’ win total. As was the case in 1951-52, Chicago again finished last in both goals scored and goals allowed, though starting goaltender Al Rollins would unexpectedly win the Hart trophy (essentially the NHL’s MVP award) despite having a record of 12-47-7 and a 3.21 goals against average, as the voters likely felt that the Black Hawks’ season could have been far worse than it already was without his play between the pipes. This would come of little consolation as Chicago failed to have a single 20-goal scorer on the team, with forward Pete Conacher leading the way with 19, while fellow forward Larry Wilson led in both assists and points with 33 and 42 respectively.

Not much would change in 1954-55, with the team taking the last-place spot for the second year in a row, though the second-to-last place Rangers were much closer this time around as they finished with a 17-35-18 record to the Black Hawks’ 13-40-17. In fact, the Black Hawks would actually bypass the Rangers for second-to-last in goals scored, however, Chicago remained firmly in last in goals against. Once again, the Black Hawks would be led by Rollins in goal, as he held a GAA of 3.41 at season’s end, though he only played in 44 of 70 games to finish with a 9-27-8 record. Their improved offense was led by new acquisition Red Sullivan, who paced the team in goals (19), assists (42) and points (61) after spending the entire 1953-54 season with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League.

In 1955-56, the Black Hawks continued to build on their offense, jumping to just below average when compared to the rest of the NHL. However, the defense failed to do the same, leading to another sub-20-win season and a third straight dead-last finish in the standings at 19-39-12. While Chicago was relatively close to catching the second-to-last place Boston Bruins, who came in at 23-34-13, a seven-game losing streak near the end of the season would undo any chance at escaping their fate. Rollins had arguably his best season as a member of the Black Hawks during the 1955-56 campaign, capturing a 2.95 GAA while claiming 17-30-11 record in 58 games played. Forward Johnny Wilson, playing in his debut season with the Black Hawks after winning four Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, had a career-best goal total of 24 to take the team lead, while fellow forward Ed Litzenberger led the team in assists with 29 and Sullivan led in total points with 40, though this would be Sullivan’s final season with Chicago, instead joining the Rangers in 1956-57.

The good news for the Black Hawks was that, for the first time since 1952-53, their defense was not the worst in the league in 1956-57, as that title would be taken by the Rangers who allowed just two more goals than did Chicago. However, thanks to the loss of Sullivan, the offense once again plummeted to the bottom of the league, leading to a devastating fourth consecutive last-place year with a record of 16-39-15. Despite the Toronto Maple Leafs being within reach in the standings, Chicago was unable to overcome an 0-6-1 record to start the season. In what would be his final year with the Black Hawks, Rollins started all 70 games with the team, putting together a 3.20 GAA in the process. Despite the team’s overall lackluster performance on offense, Litzenberger still managed to have one of the finest seasons of his 12-year-long career, leading the team in all major offensive categories with 32 goals, 32 assists and 64 points.

Coming into the 1957-58 campaign, the Black Hawks were in a precarious position, as just one more season of finishing dead last in the standings would give the franchise the dubious distinction of being the first team to have five dead-last seasons in a row since the Quebec Bulldogs/Hamilton Tigers did so from 1919-20 to 1923-24. Thankfully for Chicago, this outcome would not come to fruition as the team managed a 24-39-7 record to just squeak ahead of the Maple Leafs for second-to-last in standings, as Toronto stumbled to a 21-38-11 record for their first last-place showing since the 1918-19 season. As for the Black Hawks, the offense continued to be terrible with the defense holding down a mediocre spot. Following Rollins’ departure, the team called upon future Hall of Famer Glenn Hall to take the net. Hall did not disappoint, providing a 2.86 GAA, the best mark for any Black Hawks goaltender throughout the 1950’s, while starting in all 70 games to come in fifth in Hart voting and be named a first-team All-Star. Litzenberger continued to be one of the only bright spots for the team on offense, taking a team-high 32 goals and 62 points. The season was also notable for bringing the debut of forward Bobby Hull, who would play a much more significant role for Chicago in the following decade, though even in his rookie year he would still lead the team in assists with 34.

As the tumultuous 1950’s finally came to an end for the Black Hawks in 1958-59, it would make sense if the final season ended with a whimper. Instead, seemingly as a premonition for the turnaround that would occur in the not-so distant future, the Black Hawks claimed their best record of the decade. While the season still resulted in a losing record at 28-29-13, it was still good enough to snap their six-year-long playoff drought. Hall again led the charge with a GAA of 2.97 through all 70 games, while the offense leapt from last to fourth in the league as Litzenberger posted a career-high 33 goals and 44 assists for 77 points. However, the postseason itself would not have such a jovial ending as Chicago again faced the Montreal Canadiens as they had in the 1953 postseason. In fact, the 1959 version of the matchup played out very similarly to the one six years prior, with the Canadiens also jumping out to a 2-0 series lead. Again the Black Hawks mounted a serious comeback once the series returned stateside, but unlike the previous meeting, the team would only be able to tie the series up before Montreal reclaimed the lead in game five. Although Chicago again had home ice advantage in game six, it wouldn’t be enough as the Canadiens won 5-4 to earn the series victory and eventually go on to claim their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup title.

With the 1950’s mercifully in the Black Hawks’ rearview mirror, the path of self-destruction behind them saw the team go through seven different head coaches during this span, while finishing in last place a shocking seven times. In six of the ten seasons, the Black Hawks wound up allowing the most goals of any team while scoring the fewest number of goals four times, two of which occurring during the same season. However, hope was on the horizon, as the team rebounded big time with a Stanley Cup win in 1961. As of this writing, Chicago has not finished last in the standings since the 1956-57 season, though they have certainly come close in recent seasons. However, it is very doubtful that the team could come close to reaching the levels of ineptitude that were endured throughout the 1950’s decade.