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)

cold comfort

glad rangers

The New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1940, it’s true, but mostly their standing during the years of the Second World War was lowly: from 1943 through the spring of 1945, the team finished last in the NHL every time. The worst ever to have worn Ranger sweaters, GM Lester Patrick called those teams. Heading into the post-war, he had reason, at least, for hope. Returning from military service were many of the stalwarts of that Cup-winning team from back in ’40, including Alex Shibicky, Mac and Neil Colville and Patrick’s own sons, Muzz and Lynn. Lesser lights back from the wars included the wingers shown above expressing their pleasure at being back on NHL ice at Madison Square Garden: left is Hal Brown, 25, from Brandon, Manitoba and, on the right, and Toronto-born Alan Kuntz, 26. In goal, the Rangers had Jim Henry and Chuck Rayner coming in to replace the ’44-45 partnership of Ken McAuley and Doug Stevenson. And rookies looking to make the team for the first time included Edgar Laprade and Cal Gardner. It took another whole year, as it turned out, for the Rangers to ascend from the basement, moving into fifth ahead of Chicago in 1946-47. Another year after that, they even made the playoffs. By 1950, they were improved enough to play for the Stanley Cup — though they did, of course, lose in the finals to Detroit.

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Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Laprade and Mr. and Mrs. Bert Laprade. Date of Original: 1938(Thunder Bay Public Library)

Bearcats of the Lakehead: The Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Laprades (left) catch a train with the Mr. and Mrs. Bert Laprades in Port Arthur, Ontario, in 1938. (Thunder Bay Public Library)

If it were anyone else, we might be able to swing players around to fill the gap. But the loss of Laprade is serious trouble.
• Frank Boucher in January of 1951

Edgar Laprade was 94 when he died last Monday at home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. A revered New York Ranger, the closest he came to winning a Stanley Cup was in 1950, when the Rangers lost in Game-7 double overtime to Detroit. He was a four-time All Star and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie in 1945-46 and the Lady Byng, for peacefulness, in 1949-50. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1993 as a Veteran. That, he said at the time, was his biggest hockey thrill. Richard Goldstein has a good obituary in The New York Times. Otherwise, a few further notes on a quietly outstanding career:

1. Mine Centre, Ontario, was where he was born, in October of 1919, at the Lakehead, 190 miles west of Port Arthur on the Canadian Northern Railway. “There’s some good fishing there,” Laprade told Kevin Shea at the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2006.

2. Prospectors had struck copper in May of 1916. A year later the Port Arthur Copper Company was selling shares on the property at 30 cents apiece. “This is the great time in the world’s history for mining,” one of their ads crowed. “Metal is King. Copper is at the highest point in years.”

3. Playing in Port Arthur, Laprade was a Bruin before he graduated to the mighty Bearcats, for whom he starred with his brother Bert, a defenceman. They won the Allan Cup in 1939, beating the Montreal Royals, and would have gone on to represent Canada at the 1940 Winter Olympics if war hadn’t swept it off the calendar. In February of 1941, local fans organized Laprade Night ahead of a game with the Fort William Hurricanes where they presented the boys with silver tea services. Actually, no, just the one: it was wartime, after all, and they would have to be content to share.

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4. He was the best senior hockey player in the country in those years. The New York Rangers held his rights and twice the manager there, Lester Patrick, invited him to training camp and each time Laprade said no. “We tried again this fall,” Rangers’ PR man Jersey Jones was saying in 1941, when Laprade was 22, “but it doesn’t look very promising. Lester’s raised the ante several times, I understand, but still no go. Probably when he makes up his mind to give the Rangers a break — if he ever does — he’ll have to make the trip in a wheelchair.”

5. After Elmer Lach broke his arm in the fall of 1941, Canadiens’ manager Tommy Gorman tried to lure Laprade to Montreal, and it looked like he might be lured, too, until Patrick said nyah-uh, refused to cede his rights.

6. As Don MacEachern has written in his review of western Canadian service hockey, the Port Arthur hockey team bifurcated in 1942, creating a new team, Shipbuilders, to compete against the Bearcats. Edgar and Bert stuck with the latter while a third Laprade brother, Remi, suited up for the new team. A hybrid version of the two ended up in the Allan Cup Final in the spring of 1942 where they lost to a powerhouse RCAF Flyer team boosted by the talents of recent Boston Bruins Woody Dumart, Milt Schmidt, and Bobby Bauer.

By the fall of 1943 Bert was on the ice for the RCAF. Edgar went to Ottawa to enlist in the Army’s Ordnance Corps. For the rest of the war he served, on the ice and off, in Winnipeg and Kingston.

7. That’s where Frank Boucher, who was coaching the Rangers, went to work, in the summer of 1945. Through a friend he found out that Laprade was worried about a $5000 payment on a house in Fort William. He got an old Kingston pal, former Ranger great Bill Cook, to arrange a dinner. Boucher’s offer was a two-year contract worth $15,000 along with a $5000 signing bonus. Laprade agreed. According to Boucher, he then had to convince Lester Patrick to go along with the deal. Which he did, eventually, grudgingly.

8. The Rangers weren’t sorry. At 26, Laprade won the Calder decisively, well ahead of Chicago’s George Gee and Montreal’s Jim Peters.

9. He impressed Lloyd Percival as the shiftiest puck-carrier in the NHL. And when the author of The Hockey Handbook (1951) asked veteran hockey writers who were the best skaters they’d seen, the list included Syl Apps, Eddie Shore, Howie Morenz, Max Bentley, Maurice Richard, Frank Mahovlich, Bill Mosienko, Gordie Howe, and Laprade.

10. He liked a nine lie on his stick, noteworthy because it’s unheard of. The lie, you’ll recall, is the angle between the shaft and the blade, and most players opt for a five or a six. This is from a Ranger teammate, Danny Lewicki:

He was very difficult to check as the lie of his stick meant he could keep the puck very close to his feet. I believe ‘Teeder’ Kennedy of the Leafs was the only other player of that era to also use the same lie stick.

11. The elusive little centre was a phrase used to describe him. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “His all-around ability and sparkling play made him the keyman of the team.” Around the Garden, there was a saying, apparently, in those years: “As Laprade goes, so go the Rangers.”

12. In 1949, he was said to be the hardest-working Ranger. It wasn’t a good team. In Laprade’s ten New York years, they only made the playoffs twice. It was his most potent weapon, his quickness. It helped him avoid some terrific smashes and even topped his superb ability as a stickhandler, a department in which he was as good as Detroit’s Sid Abel, “a real clever gent with a hockey stick.” This is all from Ralph Trost of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “That quickness,” he said, “is almost as sharp as that of a mongoose, the animal kingdom’s quickest operator in the clutches.” Just imagine if Laprade played between wingers like Howe and Lindsay. Which was more or less the point of the piece, headlined “Laprade’s Skill Lost With Rangers.”

13. A hard man to please, Ralph Trost. Here he is in 1951:

Few men in hockey have been better than Edgar. Between the blue lines, few have been his equal at puck control. Edgar and some other lad can dash in that center ice and both get spun around. But usually it is Laprade who comes up with the puck.

Yet, the same fellow within 15 feet hasn’t anywhere near the same control. His shots, when he gets them, are fluffy. The fastest man on balance at center ice seems to be the last one to get it down near the goal. How Laprade gets into that position where he has no shot but a futile backhander is a real puzzle.

Maybe if they could change that line around the goal from red to blue, nothing will stop him.

14. He never was a prolific scorer, it’s true. His best year, 1949-50, when he won the Lady Byng, he had 22 goals. In the 500 NHL games he played in his career, he notched 280 points, with another 13 in the playoffs.

15. Gentlemanly is an adjective he wears, and earned, no doubt. He went whole seasons, as the obituaries remind us, without incurring a single minute of penalty punishment. And yet he did what he had to do: in that tea-service game in 1941, the Laprades were front and centre in the game’s only fight, a double date in which they teamed up to trade punches with Fort William’s Stan Robertson and Joe Konderka.

16. “Like all peaceful guys,” wrote Tommy Holmes in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “he had the sins of the savage brought down upon him.” Which is to say that for all his lawfulness — because of it? — he seems to have been under constant attack. Here’s an erstwhile Red Wing, Benny Woit, from Rich Kincaid’s The Gods of Olympia Stadium: Legends of the Detroit Red Wings (2003):

Teddy Lindsay just nailed him this one time. You know, I still remember when he hit him. Oh, jeez, the blood all over the place.

That’s the only guy Ted Lindsay ever went back to and said he was sorry. He kind of looked at Edgar and he almost apologized. But I don’t think he did. Pretty close, yes.

17. “I never liked Gordie,” Laprade told The Globe and Mail’s Allan Maki in 2011. “Even his own linemates, like Ted Lindsay, didn’t like him. He wasn’t that clean of a player. He was a good player; you can’t take that away from him. But he elbowed me once for no reason.” Continue reading