I never saw Mr. Pilote play; he retired long before I was born, so I can’t attest to what kind of player he was without paraphrasing what others have already said, especially during the past few days. However, I have met Pilote many times during the past decade, and can speak to as what kind of person he was towards Blackhawks fans.
Pilote was at the annual Chicago Blackhawks Convention practically every year since it started in 2008. I also met him at the National Sports Collectors Convention when it was in Chicago in 2011 and 2015, and at numerous Sun-Times Sports Card Shows, where he usually signed autographs for charity as a part of The Fergie Jenkins Foundation.
As you would probably expect of someone who was the Black Hawks team captain for seven years, Pilote was nothing short of awesome when interacting with the fans. He was always very friendly and talkative. He would take his time signing an autograph, sometimes even asking where you wanted his signature. Like virtually all Original Six Era players, his autograph was something you could actually read.
Furthermore, Pilote signed autographs through the mail for fans for free. So when he was selling signed copies of his book, Heart of the Blackhawks, at the Blackhawks Convention one year, I jumped at the chance to buy one. Every now and then, I was also glad to donate $20 when Pilote was signing for charity. If you take, you should give, too. I think fans forget that sometimes.
Once when I was at a Sun-Times Sports Card Show, Pilote spotted me wearing a San Jose Sharks jersey, gave me a funny look and asked why it wasn’t a Blackhawks jersey. I mentioned that I was a fan of Doug Wilson, who played for the Blackhawks, but was later the Sharks’ first-ever team captain. Pilote told me about the time he presented the Norris Trophy to Wilson at the NHL Awards Ceremony in 1982.
True, Pilote may have been just talking me up so I’d buy an autograph, but it didn’t matter; like I said, pay it forward. The next day, I brought something that I wanted to get signed, and we had a short conversation afterward.
“The problem with the game today,” Pilote told me, “is that you used to be able to stand a guy up at the blue line and knock him on his ass. Now, that gets you an interference penalty.”
Insight from a man who won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman three times, was named a First Team All-Star five times and is an honored member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Also, it’s funny to hear someone old enough to be your granddad say “ass.”
A few months later that year, I was at the Blackhawks Convention, wearing my favorite Chris Chelios jersey. I saw Pilote and said to him “See, I’m not wearing my Sharks jersey this time.”
After a moment, Pilote’s eyes narrowed a bit and said, “Oh yeah…I remember you. Good to see you again.” He could have been pretending, but the look on his face went from what the hell are you talking about? to ohhh, right in about two seconds.
By 2015, I was finishing my degree in journalism and wasn’t really collecting autographs anymore. But that summer, The National was back in Chicago, and Pilote was signing autographs for free during the first day of the convention. Since I was there, and the autograph was free, I decided to buy a hockey puck and get it signed by Pilote. I normally don’t collect signed pucks, because they are expensive and take up more room than cards or photos. But I also figured that it would be cool to have a puck signed by a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
I was right. Not only was Pilote’s autograph legible as always, but he inscribed #3 (his jersey number) and H.O.F. 1975, even though I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t have to; he added those two inscriptions to practically everything he signed. This puck is a memento not of a player I grew up watching, but of someone who I became a fan of four decades after he skates his last shift.
The hockey world lost an all-time great defensemen — and Blackhawks fans lost an all-time great friend. Goodbye and thank you, Pierre Pilote. Many of us cannot say we saw you play, but we saw how you treated the fans, and it was always appreciated.
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk. ■