Elmer Vasko was a coveted prospect – a big defenseman with good mobility and hands. During Chicago’s peak years in the 1960s, he played on the top pairing with Pierre Pilote and was the defensive consicence of the unit. Despite never putting up huge offensive numbers, he was twice a second-team NHL All-Star (1963 and 1964).
He came up through the Hawks’ junior team in St. Catharines in the early 1950s and joined the big club as a 20-year-old in 1956. He stood out because of his size and the Chicago fans took to him, dubbing him “Moose” and cheering it loudly when he’d rush the puck (almost every card he has in the early years mentions the Chicago crowds and their “Mooooooooooose” calls).
A lot is made of the sheer difference in size between players of the past and players of today. While there were always a number of skaters in the 6’1″, 200-lb category, they were offset by a bunch of others who were 5’7″, 150. Elmer Vasko had good size by anybody’s standards. At 6’3″ and 210 lbs, he could skate on any modern blue line (though he’d probably play about 15 pounds heavier). When you see him in old clips, particularly with the thinner equipment, he looks like a mountain out there.
I get the feeling, just by reading between the lines a bit, that the thing that kept Vasko from achieving a Chara-like status was that he didn’t really show a big mean streak. He fought rarely, topped 100 penalty minutes just once in his career and generally had fewer minutes in the box than games played. If a player of that size had had a bit of Gordie Howe in him, he might have been a legend. As it was, he was a highly-respected defenseman for a lot of years.
He walked away from the game after 1965-66, saying the thrill had gone. He was enticed back by the expansion Minnesota North Stars, who were not one of the better teams. They finished dead last in 1968-69 and Vasko was singled out at one point by GM John Muckler for not being physical enough. He still represented them in the 1969 All-Star game.
Elmer Vasko died of cancer in 1998.
His rookie card from 1957-58 is one of my favourites, rating up there with Wendel Clark’s for sheer attitude displayed. Look at this expression. Who wouldn’t want a player like this on their blue line?