first among veterans: chick webster, new york ranger

dads-hockey-pics-008

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.”

dads-hockey-pics-003

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)

milt schmidt, 1918—2017

schmidt

Word from Boston this afternoon that Milt Schmidt has died at the age of 98. The man who was the NHL’s oldest player had a long and distinguished Bruin career, first and foremost as a centreman (mostly on the Kraut Line), but also as a coach and general manager. Elevated to the Hall of Fame in 1961, he won two Stanley Cups as a player and shared in two more as GM.  Steve Conroy has an obituary (here) at The Boston Herald.

(Image © Arthur Griffin Courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography, photograph may not be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved.)

bru crew

 

Boston Cream: Never mind the world at war, the big hockey news in Boston in the winter of 1939-40 was that, in his 14th year as leader and idol of the Bruins, Eddie Shore was on his last turn. It wasn’t a particularly glorious ending: Shore played in just four Boston games that year and though the Bruins said they’d never trade him (right up to the moment they did), he ended the year (and his career) with the New York Americans. Without the man they were calling Old Mr. Hockey, a new generation of Boston stars took the team to the top of the NHL standings, where they finished the regular season. With his 22 goals and 52 points in 48 games, centreman Milt Schmidt led the league in scoring, followed in the charts by Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer, his two Kraut-Line wingers, each with 43 points. The Bruins couldn’t keep it going in the playoffs, though, losing out in the first round to the eventual champions, the New York Rangers. Above, in hats and spiffy jackets, a bevy of Bruins gather in a Garden stairwell. Front, from left, that’s: Jack Crawford, Schmidt, Bauer, and Dumart. Behind, left to right: Flash Hollett stands with Art Jackson, Frank Brimsek, Roy Conacher, Jack Shewchuk, and Dit Clapper.

(Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

war effort (3)

b bauer's collarbone

Bobby Bauer ended up in hospital in 1942, a month after he started skating for the RCAF Flyers. As a Bruin he’d only missed one game in five years, but serving his country he ended his season in practice with a fall that broke his collarbone. Above, his wife, Mauguerite, helps him with his shaving.

Porky Dumart was a defenseman all his amateur days — it was Art Ross who made him a left winger. As noted, Battleship Leduc was the one, coaching Milt Schmidt, Dumart, and Bobby Bauer when they played for the Providence Reds in 1937, who named the line. There are a couple of variations on this. Dumart says that he called them the Sauerkraut Line, which was later shortened to Kraut Line, “for our little German hometown.”

In 2002, Schmidt told it this way to Kevin Shea at the Hockey Hall of Fame. Leduc said:

“All you fellas come from Kitchener-Waterloo. There’s a lot of people of German descent from there. We gotta get a name for ya — the Kraut Line!” We didn’t mind. It was a name that kinda stuck to us.”

“It didn’t bother us,” Schmidt said in 1990. “The called us squareheads and everything else you can imagine back then. Who cared?”

War with Germany doesn’t seem to have brought about any immediate change in nomenclature. The Kitchener Kids was another nickname that dated back to their earliest days in Boston, and sometimes you see that in the wartime accounts, but mostly it’s Krauts.

A Boston paper, The Daily Record, did run a contest asking readers to rename the trio. And the winner was … The Buddy Line. “It didn’t last,” Schmidt said.

In February of 1942, joining the RCAF, he did think about adjusting his own name for the duration of the war. He asked his mother what she’d think of her son shipping overseas as a Smith. Go ahead, she said, fine.

“But I didn’t; I stayed with Schmidt. What the heck, I’d had it all my life.”

Arriving in Ottawa, they were described as “a mild-mannered group,” polite, not much to say. “We’re glad to be here,” Bauer confided. “We’ll do anything we can to help the air force. We’re taking this business seriously. Whether we play hockey depends on the air force and we’ll do our best to help the other members of the team bring the Allan Cup here.”

Which, of course, is just what they did, come April, though Bauer didn’t make it all that way, going down wounded in action, with a collarbone he fractured in practice. Continue reading