first among veterans: chick webster, new york ranger

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Nick Knack: Chick Webster poses with New York Ranger teammates just before Christmas in 1949. That’s him standing second from left. Others pictured include Tony Leswick (to Webster’s right) and Pat Egan, to his left; Wally Stanowski (standing fifth from left); and captain Buddy O’Connor. Suited up as Santa is erstwhile Ranger Phil Watson, whose non-festive job had him coaching the EHL’s New York Rovers.

The Boston Bruins honoured their late captain, coach, and GM Milt Schmidt this week with a video tribute ahead of Thursday’s meeting with the Edmonton Oilers. On their sweaters, Bruin players wore a patch blazed with Schmidt’s 15 to commemorate the man they call the Ultimate Bruin.

With Schmidt’s death on Wednesday at the age of 98, the oldest living NHLer is Chick Webster, who’s 96. He lives in Mattawa, Ontario. If his hockey CV is 848 NHL games shorter than Schmidt’s and also lacks its Stanley Cups, it’s long and varied and entirely commendable in its own right. Born John Webster in Toronto in 1920, his NHL career spanned all of 14 games, all of which he played with the New York Rangers during the 1949-50 season.

On Friday, I exchanged e-mails with Rob Webster, Chick Webster’s son. He’d just spent the afternoon visiting his dad who, he said, had been saddened to hear about Schmidt. Never one to seek attention, he’s been taking this week’s sudden burst of interest in his brief stint in the NHL in stride.

“As far as his career goes,” Rob Webster wrote, “I think he just never really got the breaks at the right time.” Chick Webster was in his early 20s as the Second World War was metastasizing and just as his hockey career was getting going, he joined the Canadian Army. He had no regrets there, his son says. “He wanted to go. Not skating much for over two years was hard … so I guess still making it to the NHL original six was somewhat of a nice goal to achieve.”

As a teenager, Webster senior played for teams in Toronto called the Stockyard Packers and (as an OHA junior, with Baldy Cotton as his coach) the Native Sons. He wasn’t big, 5’11”, 160 pounds, but he was a good skater and a proficient playmaker.

As a 19-year-old in the fall of 1940, he took his trade to the Boston Bruins’ training camp in Hershey, Pennsylvania. That’s where he skated on a line, for as long as it lasted, with one of the team’s young veterans: Milt Schmidt. Webster told didn’t make the cut, but The Boston Daily Globe noted that he was a “simon pure” (i.e. amateur) coveted by all six NHL clubs. He played the year with the Baltimore Orioles of the Eastern Amateur Hockey League, leading the team in scoring. (Update: having talked to Chick Webster himself this week for a piece in The Hockey News, Eric Zweig reports that at one of Webster’s Bruin camps, he took Kraut duty, centring Bobby Bauer and Woody Dumart when Schmidt went down with an ankle injury. I recommend Eric’s full account of Webster’s career , which is here.)

Like Schmidt and many other hockey players during, Chick Webster decided he had another job he’d better do. Enlisting in the Canadian Army, he ended up skating for the Army’s Petawawa Grenades before shipping out for deployment overseas. Serving with the 13th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artlliery, he saw duty in England, France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany before the war’s end.

Chick Webster, Ranger winger

Chick Webster, Ranger winger

Back in hockey, he returned to the EAHL before graduating to the AHL’s New Haven Ramblers. It was from there that he launched into the NHL, called up by the New York Rangers in December of 1949. Coached by Lynn Patrick, the Rangers were up with Detroit and Montreal at the top of the league standings. Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Conner featured bright among the team’s forwards that year, and Fred Shero was on the defence. In goal, Chuck Rayner was backed up by Emile Francis.

Webster played his first game in Boston, helping the Rangers to beat Schmidt’s own Bruins 3-1 in a game distinguished by … well, no, according a local report, the game was as undistinguished as they come, “sluggish,” “sleepy,” “boring:” all in all, “one of the dullest exhibitions of hockey played on Garden ice in quite a spell.”

Christmas Day, in Toronto, he left a game against the Leafs charley horse’d. In mid-January, in a game with Detroit at Madison Square Garden, he broke a couple of bones in his left hand — unless someone else broke them for him. (Another Ranger winger, Ed Slowinski, also finished the game with a fractured hand). Either way, it was Webster’s 14th and final appearance on NHL ice. Playing left wing, he’d recorded no goals or assists while sitting out two minor penalties. When he’d healed a bit, he returned to the New Haven ice wearing a soft cast, finishing the season in the AHL while the Rangers went on to defeat in the Stanley Cup finals at the hands of the Red Wings.

Don Webster, Chick’s younger brother by four years, had his own NHL stint: he played 32 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs across the 1943-44 regular season and playoffs, scoring seven goals and 13 points. Don Webster died in 1978 at the age of 53.

I asked Rob Webster to ask his dad who were the players he’d admired in his playing days and the answer that came back included Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard, and teammates Laprade, O’Connor, and Rayner.

The latter years of his hockey career took him around the minor-league map — Tacoma, Cincinnati, Vancouver, and Syracuse (where he played, unhappily, under Eddie Shore) — before he made his return to the Toronto area. He continued to play after he went to work for de Havilland Aircraft of Canada, before retiring, in 1969, to Mattawa.

“Been there ever since,” Rob Webster wrote, and skating all the while: he organized an oldtimers team with the Mattawa Legion and played until he was nearly 80. The nickname? From the gum Chiclets, his son says. “He always chewed gum as a kid. He thinks his aunt was the first to give it to him. As long as I can remember he always chewed when he played.”

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In The Army Now: Chick Webster (that’s him in the front row, third from right) poses with the Petawawa Grenades, circa 1943-44.

(All images courtesy of Rob Webster)

joe klukay and the dying swan

fonds 1266, Globe and Mail fondsToronto would win the Stanley Cup that year — a strange sentence to write and believe in, today. This was 1947, April. The Canadiens were the defending champions, and they started the Finals strongly enough, prevailing at home by a score of 6-0. The Leafs rallied themselves to win four of the next five games, including the one depicted here, a 2-1 victory secured at Maple Leaf Gardens by a Syl Apps goal in overtime. “The game started off on a hectic note,” Jim Vipond accounted next day in The Globe and Mail, “and Referee Bill Chadwick, who handled a competent game, had his work cut out to prevent a riot.” In the moments before the camera found its focus, Kenny Reardon, ebullient Montreal defenceman, boarded Toronto’s rookie left winger Joe Klukay, “qui s’est frappé (La Patrie reported) violemment sur la clôture.” That’s him on the stretcher — you can just spy his nose through the arms of an attendant teammate. He was knocked out, Montreal and Toronto reporters mostly agreed, and his scalp wanted stitching.

“The fans screamed for a major penalty,” Vipond wrote, “and an electric tenseness seemed to fill the big Carlton Street sports palace. The game was less than five minutes old.” Reardon went to serve a minor; Klukay was carried from the ice.

Neither man was gone long. The Montreal Gazette’s Dink Carroll took a slightly more jaded view than some others: Klukay responded to Reardon’s hit, he wrote, with “the dying swan act and … he was back before the period was over.”

Also putting in an appearance above are Montreal’s Butch Bouchard (leaning over the patient) along with Toe Blake (observing, glove on stick), Glen Harmon (8), and Buddy O’Connor (10).

Apps’ winning goal came after 16 minutes and 36 seconds of overtime. Jim Vipond circulated through the Leafs’ dressing room afterwards, where he saw an exhausted Toronto coach, Hap Day, and a happy, Coke-drinking Conn Smythe. “It isn’t funny,” Day told Vipond, with no further explanation. “I’m proud of the whole team,” Smythe said.

Klukay was in the shower. Vipond hollered in to ask about his injury and Klukay hollered back out. “Nothing to it,” he said, “just my head.”

The Montreal room was more subdued. With the extra period, they should have missed their train home, but the 11.10 to Montreal was holding for them. The Canadiens dressed quickly and headed for Union Station.

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ott heller night

Ott Heller returned, as promised. The Rangers were playing in Montreal that Saturday night, February 14, 1942, against the last-place Canadiens, so it qualified as an upset when Montreal came out on top by a score of 5-3. Eyeing the line-up, you don’t see a Hab team for the ages: the top line had Terry Reardon between Toe Blake and Joe Benoit. Buddy O’Connor scored a couple of Hab goals, and there were fights. Listed in the line-up among the spares, Heller didn’t figure in the newspaper accounts: he made no news. Some of them make it sound like he kept to the bench the whole game, which I guess is possible. Or maybe he was pencilled in to play and didn’t, at the last minute, feel right.

o hThe Rangers caught the train home and the following night, Sunday, they met the Brooklyn Americans at Madison Square Garden. There was a trophy they played for in those years, New York teams, the winner of the season’s series got the William J. MacBeth Memorial Cup, and this would be the night they handed it over. It already belonged to the Rangers — they’d won five out of six games already that year — but the Americans measured out some revenge on the night by winning this one by a score of 5-1. Heller did play on this night, partnered with Neil Colville; Bill Juzda sat as the Rangers’ fifth defenceman. Heller played about 12 minutes and was, again, unnewsworthy.

“We’re in a slump,” said coach Frank Boucher, “no doubt of that. I only trust we shake it off before somebody catches us.”

Tuesday they had the Canadiens coming in. “The boys in the gallery,” advised Kerr N. Petrie of The New York Herald Tribune, “are busy getting their banners ready for ‘Ott Heller Night.’” The night of Heller’s injury in January, of course, they’d called off a tribute in fear of jinxing “the hard-working defense horse of the Manhattan Blues” (The New York Daily Mirror), so I suppose the feeling was that now they were clear to proceed hexfree.

Before he hurt his shoulder, Ranger management had been talking him up as a candidate for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. Jim Hurley at The Daily Mirror thought maybe he’d had better years behind him. Still:

Heller is a workman who certainly rates the highest praise for his consistently good performance over a 12-season period and the festivities tonight are quite in order.

His problem, maybe, was that fans with unschooled eyes couldn’t discern his contributions. He was hiding in plain sight. Hurley again:

Since he lacks the splash and color of some rearguard workers, and the murderous mien of others, the fans have no conception of Heller as a glamor player. His best endorsement comes from rival players and coaches, who are cognizant of the consistently steady game he turns in.

The Rangers, at least, were going to give him a trophy, inscribed “To Ehrhardt (Ott) Heller in appreciation — N.Y. Rangers,” and also (Hurley reported) “a nice boodle of defense bonds.” His teammates had presents for him, too, and the fans were planning “demonstrations.” The Brooklyn Americans (interestingly) were all planning to attend, along with 1,000 members of the Rovers Rooter Club — fans of the Rangers’ New York farm club. Continue reading