In the birthday tribute post to Mr. Milton C. Schmidt, I referenced an article I wrote on him where I had the opportunity to speak at length with him about his NHL career and the game of hockey.
I went through my archives and found the draft I submitted to my editors at New England Hockey Journal 15 years ago, so here it is- unedited and in it’s original format. Enjoy!
Milt Schmidt- Boston’s Captain Emeritus
On February 10, 1942- the entire globe was plunged into the throes of the Second World War, but for one last magical night, the Boston Bruins’ famed “Kraut Line” dazzled spectators in the confines of the Boston Garden, treating them to an 8-1 thrashing of their hated rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, while giving the fans in attendance a final look at the team’s most prolific scoring unit of that time. Milt Schmidt, a strapping soon-to-be 24-year old, was the line’s centerpiece and one of the National Hockey League’s premier talents. Wingers Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer flanked Schmidt, and on that evening, the trio, also known as the “Kitchener Kids,” because they all came from the same part of Ontario, erupted for eight points in the rout. At the end of the game, both teammates and opponents carried them off the Garden ice on their shoulders, where the three friends left hockey for service in the Royal Canadian Air Force. It was a defining moment in Schmidt’s career, a mere snapshot of many glorious occasions he presided over both in uniform as a player, and as a member of the team’s management as coach and GM.
Milton Conrad Schmidt was born in Kitchener, Ontario on March 5, 1918 and wasted little time becoming a standout hockey player in his hometown. A 16-year old Schmidt caught the eye of Frank Selke, who was manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs back then, and Selke approached Leafs owner Conn Smythe about signing the talented center and adding him to an already impressive stable of players. Much to Selke’s chagrin, Smythe balked at the thought of bringing Schmidt on board.
“Mr. Selke had seen me playing in Ontario at the Maple Leaf Gardens and liked me very much, so he had Mr. Smythe come down and take a look at me and he (Smythe) immediately said that I was too small,” Schmidt, now 83 and living in Boston, told the New England Hockey Journal recently. “That opened the door for me to end up in Boston, but a few years later, I saw a quote from Mr. Smythe and he said, ‘Frank Selke didn’t tell me that Milt Schmidt was only 16!’”
Toronto’s loss was Boston’s gain, and the team successfully courted Schmidt at the urging of his boyhood chums, Bauer and Dumart. Coach and General Manager Art Ross inked Schmidt to his first contract, valued at $3,000. Schmidt’s debut late in the 1936-37 season was nothing spectacular statistically (2 goals in 26 games), but in short order, he and his friends got a feel for the speed and rhythm of big league hockey and the dynamic Kraut Line arrived to the cheers of Bruins fans everywhere.
“The first thing you have to realize about our line is that we were all very close friends,” said Schmidt of Dumart, who was also from Kitchener, and Bauer, who hailed from nearby Waterloo, Ontario. “We played junior hockey together and were as close as three friends could be. I might add that in Woody’s first year in the pros, he played as a defenceman. Mr. Ross made a forward out of him, and when I turned pro in ’36, we were put together on the same line. It was a natural chemistry.”
The Kraut Line didn’t limit their closeness to game situations, either. According to Schmidt, they were inseparable off the ice as well. “We roomed together at Ma Snow’s in Brookline, and that gave us the opportunity to talk after games. We used to stay up sometimes until one o’clock in the morning, discussing the game that night- what went well, what didn’t go well and so on.”
To Schmidt, what made the line so special was that each player brought something a little different to the table. “Bobby was very brainy,” he said. “He wasn’t the biggest guy around, but he was a great defensive player and was so smart. He could beat you a variety of ways. Then there was Woody…he had a real heavy shot for that day. In fact, one thing I clearly remember about his shot when I first came up from junior hockey, was that in practice, (Cecil) ‘Tiny’ Thompson, our goaltender, would just step aside and let Woody’s shot go straight into the net!
“Myself, I would say I was a little bit of everything. I was an aggressive player, but I was fair. I guess you could say that I had a little bit of something that helped me to be successful, but the credit belongs to all of us. We all helped to make each other that much better over the years that we played together.”
Schmidt won numerous individual accolades over the course of his playing career, all of it spent in a Boston Bruins hockey sweater. He led the NHL in scoring in 1940 (22 goals and 52 points in 48 games), was named the league’s most valuable player in 1951, and was a First-Team All-Star three times. Schmidt was also a winner, helping the Bruins to a pair of Stanley Cup victories as a player in 1939 and 1941, and two more as the team’s General Manager in 1970 and 1972.
More than sixty- two years after his Bruins won the franchise’s second Stanley Cup to cap the 1938-39 season, Schmidt still clearly remembers that evening, the night that the Boston fans brought the great Eddie Shore, in the twilight of his storied career, back onto the Garden ice with a stirring tribute.
“We had so many great players on the team that year,” he said. “Eddie Shore, ‘Dit’ Clapper, Bill Cowley– all great players. After the final game, Eddie Shore skated off the ice and the fans gave such a huge ovation. They absolutely would not let the President of the NHL present us that Stanley Cup unless Shore came out with the rest of the team. So, someone had to go into the dressing room and retrieve him. When Shore appeared, the ovation he received from the Garden crowd was like no other I have ever heard; it gave me goosepimples just being there and hearing it. Maybe the one night I can remember that even approaches it, was when Bobby Orr’s number four was retired. Anyway, in those days, we didn’t skate around the ice with the Cup and raise it over our heads like they do today. Back then, there was a table set up and the trophy was placed on it and the league president would come out and present it to the winning team.”
Schmidt recalls the similarities between the teams he won the Stanley Cup with as a player, and the Big, Bad Bruins clubs that won it all in 1970 and 1972 with him at the helm as GM by saying, “I like to compare the 1970 Bruins to the team we had in ’38-’39- they had a little bit of everything, including number four, and I don’t think I have to tell you who that is! They were such a great club- they could play Sunday School hockey, but if you wanted to go into the backstreets and have a brawl, well they could do that too. And they did a fine job of it!”
If Schmidt’s accomplishment as a player, which earned him induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961 weren’t enough, he added to his aura in Boston with a successful tenure as Bruins GM from 1967 to 1972. It was Schmidt’s great trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, one that brought Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield to Boston, which firmly placed the Bruins back in contention as the NHL’s true powerhouse team in the late 60’s and early 70’s. As he engineered that deal with Chicago’s GM Tommy Ivan, Schmidt really had no inkling of how truly one-sided the trade would turn out to be for Boston. It helped to define the term, “blockbuster.”
“I had no idea how well it would turn out for us,” Schmidt said. “But at the time I made the trade, I knew that we couldn’t help but improve the team by making it. Freddie Stanfield was an instructor at my hockey school in Penland Falls, Ontario, and I was very impressed with him. He had so much ability, but whenever we played against Chicago, he was always sitting up in their pressbox. Kenny Hodge was suiting up for the games when we’d play them, but he spent most of the time at the end of the bench watching. Finally, I had heard that Phil Esposito didn’t get along very well with coach Billy Reay, so from my perspective, we were going to improve our team with any one of those guys, not to mention all three of them!”
Consummating the deal was easier said than done, however. Schmidt continues: “Tommy (Ivan) called me from Key Biscayne, Florida at about three o’clock in the afternoon and we finalized the trade at eight o’clock that evening. It took quite a long time to get all the names in the transaction straight, but even then, I had no idea how well it would turn out. It was just one of those things where I felt that we couldn’t help but improve no matter what, so I went through with it.”
Schmidt’s long tenure in Boston has made him privy to generations of fans that have supported the team, from the Boston Garden years, to the current residence in the cavernous FleetCenter. Through it all, the fans haven’t really changed, according to Schmidt.
“Bostonians are great hockey fans,” he said. “And they do know their hockey! They’ve always treated me well, that much is certain, and they have always supported the team. They’ve proven that in recent years by still coming out to the games despite a lack of success. So much has changed since I started playing in 1936…back then, there were only three ice rinks in the area to my knowledge. But the fans in Boston have always been both knowledgeable and very loyal. It makes for a great combination.”
Despite the fact that Schmidt lost three of the best years of his playing career to the war effort, he returned to Boston to complete ten more seasons with the Black and Gold. Although he didn’t win any more championships as a player, he continued to lead by example as the team’s captain as well as its heart and soul. In one of the proudest moments in franchise history, Bobby Bauer came out of retirement to play one last game with the Kraut Line. On that night, March 18, 1952, five years after Bauer had hung up his skates, the trio confounded the Chicago Blackhawks on the Garden ice en route to a 4-0 win in front of the hometown faithful. Schmidt scored the 200th goal of his career, assisted by both linemates, placing an exclamation point on the legacy of that unit.
Schmidt’s career numbers as a player (776GP, 229G, 346A, 575PTS) may seem modest in comparison to the modern era players who play 80 or more games in a season, but to him, the statistics matter very little when you measure the success and happiness he had while a member of the Bruins. Few are more qualified than Schmidt to try and define in words the tradition that is Boston Bruins hockey:
“I think that the best Bruins players have always been hard working, but aggressive. Combine that spirit with ability, and you have the kind of guy that true Bostonians love and appreciate, along with the color of that hockey sweater. You know, I never really ever heard about guys wanting out of Boston, and I think that has as much to do with the city and the fans than anything else.”
Those fans wishing to understand Milt Schmidt’s place in Bruins lore need merely glance up into the rafters at the FleetCenter where his number 15 proudly hangs, a testament of his dedication to those very ideals he describes.