Pam Coburn didn’t know her grandfather well: she was just 12 when he died in December of 1968 at the age of 67. Growing up, she learned that her mother’s father’s legacy is fixed in the annals of hockey history as surely as his name is inscribed on the Stanley Cup that Lionel Hitchman won in 1929 as captain of the Boston Bruins.
Should Hitchman, a truly outstanding defenceman from the NHL’s earliest decades, be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? Probably so. Pursuing the question of why he’s been consistently overlooked, Coburn ended up writing and publishing her grandfather’s biography.
Now in her 60s, Coburn is a former executive director and CEO of Skate Canada who lives south of Ottawa, where she runs her own digital communications firm. Hitch:Hockey’s Unsung Herolaunched in April. If it doesn’t solve the mystery of her grandfather’s omission, it does detail his life and times as it’s never been detailed before, not least in its revelations relating to Hitchman’s many concussions and the tolls that injuries took on him in his later years.
A barber’s son, Frederick Lionel Hitchman was born in Toronto in 1901. Friends and hockey fans knew him as both Fredand Hitch throughout his career, which got going when he signed to play with the (late, lamented, original) Ottawa Senators in 1923, having resigned his day-job as a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police to devote himself to hockey.
He skated for parts of four seasons with the Senators before being sold, in 1925, to the Boston Bruins. His first partner there was Bobby Benson; later he’d pair up with Sprague Cleghorn and, lastingly, Eddie Shore. Ten years he played with the Bruins, through to 1934 when, slowed by injuries, he stepped aside to take up as playing coach for Boston’s farm team, theCubs.
If Hitchman’s name doesn’t now often set the hockey world buzzing, contemporary proofs of his prowess aren’t hard to come by. They confirm that he was, above all, a defender, which may have something to do with why he remains so undersung. The forwards he foiled on the ice never doubted his worth. Toronto Maple Leafs centreman Joe Primeau said Hitchman was the toughest player he ever faced. Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers classed him the best bodychecker he’d ever run into. “You could be carrying the puck in your teeth and Hitch would steal it from you,” sportswriter Jerry Nason recalled in 1946. Hitchman helped make his more prominent partner’s dominance possible. “In spite of Shore’s prestige,” Niven Busch wrote in 1930 in The New Yorker, “[Hitchman] has been voted the Bruins’ most valuable player. Shore doesn’t seem easy in his mind unless Hitchman is on the ice with him.”
Legendary referee Cooper Smeaton was another who took this line. “Always remember,” he said, “that Hitchman was the man back there blocking them when Eddie Shore was doing a lot of the rushing. There was no gamer or greater defensive player in every sense of the word than the same Hitch.”
In August, I e-mailed Pam Coburn a raft of questions about Hitch, her grandfather, and the first time she saw NHL hockey in person. She was good enough to answer.
What was your feeling in June when the Hockey Hall of Fame announced its 2019 inductees without (again) recognizing your grandfather? You say in the book “we are a resilient and optimistic family;” any signs that the message is getting through?
I’m very happy for the four players who made the cut in 2019, especially Hayley Wickenheiser. But it’s always disappointing when the latest class of the Hockey Hall of Fame is revealed, and my grandfather, Hitch, is again not honoured.
The goal of writing the book was to bring his story out from the shadows and to showcase his contribution to hockey. I’ve heard from many who have read the book or know Hitch’s story, and they can’t believe he’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
You talk about three Hall submissions that the family has organized over the years — any plans for formally mounting a fourth?
It’s a strong possibility! Since writing the book, I’ve heard from people like Don Cherry, Brian McFarlane, Eric Zweig, and Dave Stubbs who have all studied or knew about Hitch’s career and have expressed that he belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Plus I’ve heard from many who have read the book, encouraging me to mount another Hall of Fame submission.
The book is, itself, an answer to this question, but in a nutshell, why do you think he’s been overlooked for so long?
I think the Hall has overlooked Hitch because his contribution to hockey isn’t easily summed up with statistics.
On the surface, his offensive numbers are underwhelming, and when Hitch was playing, they didn’t keep defensive stats or have a trophy for best defenceman. Over time, the retelling of his hockey career became diluted. You need to delve into the reports of the 1920s and ’30s to fully understand his contribution to hockey, especially to its professional development in Boston. As Richard Johnson, the curator of the Boston Sports Museum, once told me, “Hitch was a gift to Boston.”
Again, the book lays out his virtues as a player in vivid detail, but if you were writing his citation for the Hall, what might it include?
February 22, 1934, was “Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden and the Boston Bruins formally retired Hitch’s number 3. It was the first number they retired, the second in pro sports. That night, Bruins’ management, players, and fans also presented a silver plaque to Hitch the “Athlete — Sportsman — Gentleman:” a perfect description of the person he was.
During the 12 seasons that Hitch played in the NHL, he earned the reputation as the “greatest defensive” defenseman and greatest “money-player” of his generation. He was a pioneer of and perfected the poke- and sweep-checks, and delivered the hardest (and cleanest) body checks in the league, making him the toughest defenseman to get by. For 60 years, he held the Boston Bruins record for the most overtime goals by a defenceman.
Hitch broke into the NHL in late February 1923, and with a crucial goal and his crushing checking, helped the Ottawa Senators earn the hardest-fought Stanley Cup championship to that date. The following season, while still with Ottawa, he tied for most assists in the NHL.
After the Boston Bruins acquired him in 1925 during their inaugural season, Art Ross and began building a team around him. In his four seasons as Boston captain, the team accomplished the following:
- four division titles,
- two Stanley Cup finals, plus,
- their first Stanley Cup championship (1929), and,
- in 1930, they earned the best team winning percentage (.875) in the NHL, which remains a record today.
Also, in 1930, Hitch placed second in Hart Trophy balloting.
As the target of some of the most brutal violence in hockey history, Hitch became a catalyst for improvements in establishing regulations and penalties for fighting, cross-checking, and high-sticking.
After his retirement, Hitch remained with the Bruins organization for another seven years.
He first coached their farm team, the Boston Cubs to a Canadian-American Hockey league final and championship. Later, back with the Bruins as an assistant coach, he helped scout, and develop promising young players who became Stanley Cup champions and, in the case of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer of “Kraut Line” fame, were inducted into the HHOF.
Hitch was the last original Boston Bruin, a cornerstone of Boston’s early success and the pioneer of its rugged style of defence that continues today.
You write about the first NHL game you attended, in 1969, and witnessing the infamous Green/Maki incident was a “horrific introduction” to the professional game. What are your memories of that? How did it influence your view of hockey and the NHL?
That incident of nearly 50 years ago remains a vivid memory for me. Hitch had died nine months earlier, and my grandmother wanted to do something nice for my 13th birthday. She asked my brother to take me to the Boston/St. Louis exhibition game in Ottawa that fall with the tickets she received from Hitch’s protégé, Milt Schmidt, who was now the Bruins’ GM. I still remember what I wore to the game, as it was going to be a special night, meeting Milt after the game. According to my grandmother, he idolized my grandfather and wanted to let us know this.
We had great seats in the Ottawa Civic Center, just up a few rows at centre ice with an unobstructed view of Wayne Maki’s stick landing on Ted Green’s head. And the sound of the lumber hitting his skull was horrifying. I still get an uneasy feeling just thinking about it. It was awful watching Green writhe in pain as he tried to stand with a strange expression on his face. When he tried to climb the wire mesh at the end of the rink, I began to cry. Even as a kid, I knew his injury was really bad. Then to top it off the entire Boston team cleared the bench and went after Maki. I feared for Maki and all the players that someone else would get as hurt as Green did.
After this incident, I steered away from hockey for a long time, both as a player and a fan. In fact, at the time, I was a strong skater from my figure skating training and was looking to play a team sport, and hockey should have been the logical transition. But I chose basketball instead, partly because the rules didn’t permit body contact. I did teach power skating to hockey players for a time and started playing hockey a bit as an adult, but it was only when the Ottawa Senators came back into the NHL that I became a fan of the sport.
After all your research into your grandfather’s life and times, what was the thing that surprised you most?
I learned so much about Hitch’s life and times, but the one thing that really sticks out is just how good a hockey player he was and how much his team depended on him.
Towards the end of the book, you write about “Hitch’s increasing reliance on alcohol to manage the lingering effects of his multiple head and body injuries” and the fact that he was turned down for military service for “his documented multiple concussions.” Was the price he paid for a long and distinguished hockey career ever discussed in your family? Do you think his experience has any bearing or light to shed on hockey’s modern-day concussion crisis?
I chronicled Hitch’s hockey career on a micro-level partly to know more about the head injuries I had heard about from my grandmother and parents. I stopped counting at ten. I didn’t even put all of them in the book. Knowing what we know now about the effects of such injuries, his story is indeed a cautionary tale.
Hitch was remarkably talented, excelling at every sport he took up, gifted in music, and wrote poems and literature. He was mild-mannered, generous to a fault, and had a strong sense of right and wrong.
Hitch never lost the traits that made him who he was, but in the late ’30s, he started to lose the ability to concentrate, making it difficult for him to use his talents to their full effect. My grandmother told us that Hitch suffered wicked headaches, was in constant physical pain, and became less dependable over the years. He took to the woods where he was happy and at peace. Hitch had a keen interest in protecting the forests and fortunately found work in the lumber industry as an assayer, which allowed him to spend lots of time there and earn a living. Later he became a forest ranger.
How has the book been received? Has there been particular response from Boston and/or the Bruins?
I’m delighted with the response to the book. Both the paperback and e-book are widely available online in Canada, the US and overseas and are doing well. For the fall, I’d like to get it into some local Boston bookstores.
The book has received supportive testimonials from hockey historians Brian McFarlane and Eric Zweig. I’ve heard from Don Cherry, who is a big supporter of Hitch, and the Boston Bruins Alumni has been very supportive.
This interview has been condensed and edited. Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Herois available in bookstores. For further news and advisories, visit pamcoburn.com.
The NHL didn’t play its first official All-Star Game until 1947, in Toronto, though the league’s marquee players were involved in a little-remembered all-star series in Cleveland in 1918 at the end of the NHL’s very first campaign. Between those dates, the best of the NHL’s best did also convene for several benefit games — in 1934, for one, after Toronto’s Ace Bailey had his career ended by Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins, and in 1937 and ’39 (for two more) after the sudden, shocking respective deaths of Howie Morenz and Babe Siebert.
The wartime winter of 1942 saw another gathering of premier players — though in this case, many of them were retired from regular NHL duty. Then again, at the Boston Garden on that Friday, February 6, the stars who turned out to play when the senescent All-Stars met the (not-yet-retired) Boston Bruins were only asked to play two 15-minute periods mixed into a regular-season game the Bruins’ farm team, the EAHL Boston Olympics, were playing against the Johnstown Bluebirds. A crowd of 14, 662 showed to see the evening’s program, which raised more than US$14,000 for military widows and orphans supported by the U.S. Army Relief Society.
Major-General Thomas Terry the evening’s military patron, a man who, for his day job, was in command of what was known as the First Corps Area, and thereby largely in charge of defending New England against enemy invasion. Meeting in January of ’42 with Boston sportswriters to announce the All-Star exhibition, he explained the good work that the Army Relief Society did and thanked the Bruins for supporting the cause. To those who wondered whether the NHL and other sporting organizations might be forced to suspend operations because of the war, his message was … equal parts mildly reassuring and grimly ominous.
“Go ahead and plan your sports as you have before,” General Terry said. “Go along until something happens to cause a curtailment. There is no reason to get panicky, but take reasonable precautions at all times. If it does become necessary for a curtailment, it will be apparent to all of us.”
To the Bruins that NHL mid-season, what might have seemed apparent was that their chances of repeating as Stanley Cup champions had already been all but suspended. They were still lodged in second place in the seven-team standings, behind the New York Rangers, but there was a sense that winter that health and international hostilities were working against them.
Centre Bill Cowley was out with a broken jaw and goaltender Frank Brimsek had just missed a game with a broken nose. The week of the Army benefit the Bruins went north to play the Maple Leafs, and did beat them — but left two forwards behind in Toronto General Hospital, Herb Cain and Dit Clapper, to be tended for a fractured cheek and a badly cut ankle, respectively.
Adding induction to injury, Bruins’ manager Art Ross was about to lose his top line, the famous Krauts, to the war effort: after Friday’s benefit, Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer would play one more NHL game, against Montreal on February 10, before departing the ice to join the Royal Canadian Air Force.
For all that, the abridged All-Star exhibition of February, 1942, was a success. A few notes on the night, which ended in a 4-4 tie, might include these:
• The referee on the night, Bill Stewart, had retired from NHL whistleblowing, but he was glad to partake. “I was in the Navy in the last war,” he said, “and I stand ready to do anything I can to help a cause which benefits any servicemen.”
• Tickets for the best seats — in the boxes, on the promenade, and some along the sides —were priced at $2.50 each. Lower-stadium and first-balcony tickets went for $1.65 and $1.10. An unreserved place in the upper balcony would set you back 55 cents.
• The Garden was dark for the introductions, except for a pair of spotlights that followed the players as they skated out to the blueline accompanied (the Boston Globe recorded) by “a fanfare of drums.”
Eddie Shore, who appeared last, got a two-minute ovation, and gave a little speech. “Everyone has special thrills in their lives,” he told the faithful, “but none of you know how much I appreciate this welcome or how I feel this evening. It’s like a fellow whom you haven’t seen for a long time walking up to you, holding out his hand, and slapping you on the shoulder. Then he says, ‘Gee, it’s nice to see you.’ That’s how I feel tonight, and thank you very much.”
• Also warmly received: former Bruins Tiny Thompson and Cooney Weiland along with Charlie Conacher and Ching Johnson, “whose bald dome glistened beautifully under the klieg lights.” Former Leaf Red Horner got cheers and boos — “and the big redhead showed the combination made him feel right at home by breaking out with a broad smile.”
• At 39, Shore was still skating professionally, the playing coach for his own AHL Springfield Indians. Busher Jackson, 31, was the only other active player on the All-Star roster — he was a serving Bruin. Both Shore and Jackson had, incidentally, played in all four benefit games cited above — the Bailey, Morenz, Siebert, and Army Relief.
• Jackson reunited with his old Maple Leaf Kid Line linemates on the night, Charlie Conacher, 32, and Joe Primeau, 36. Oldest man in the game was Bill Cook, 46, who lined up with his old New York Ranger linemates, brother Bun (44) and Frank Boucher (40). For some reason, no Montreal Canadiens alumni appeared in the game. The lack didn’t go unnoticed: a letter from a hockey purist published in the Globe that week complained that organizing a game like this without Aurèle Joliat or any Hab greats was like “having an American League old-timers’ game without including Ty Cobb or the New York Yankees.”
• Marty Barry and Larry Aurie said they hadn’t skated in, oh, a year. The Globe: “Large Charlie Conacher weighed in at 245 pounds for the affair, although Marty Barry looked plenty hefty at the 215 to which he admitted.”
• Warming up, the veterans all wore sweaters of the teams they’d last played for in the NHL — except for Shore, who showed up in his Springfield duds. For the game, the whole team wore the bestarred V (for Victory) sweaters shown in the photograph. Hooley Smith was pleased to learn he could keep his: in all his 17 years in the NHL, he said, he’d never kept any of his sweaters.
• Just before the opening puck-drop, as they’d always done in their Boston years together, Weiland and Thompson “went through their old Bruins’ custom of having Cooney put the last practice puck past Tiny.”
• “Believe it or not,” The Globe noted, “the old-timers actually had a wide territorial edge during the first period.”
• Injured Bill Cowley was called on to coach the Bruins, while Cooney Weiland took charge of the All-Stars. To start the second period, he put out five defencemen: Horner at centre between Cy Wentworth and George Owen, Shore and Johnson backing them on the blueline.
• Globe reporter Gerry Moore: “While truthful reporting demands the information that the glamorous old-timers were aided by some lenient officiating and no bodychecking from the Bruins in pulling off their garrison finish, the All-Stars displayed enough of their form from glory days to make the night not only the best financially of any single event staged for the Army Relief Fund, but one of the most interesting presentations ever offered in the Hub.”
• The Bruins went up 3-0 in the first half, on a pair goals from Bobby Bauer and one by rookie Gordie Bruce. In the second, the All-Stars went on a run, with Bill Cook twice beating Frank Brimsek and George Owen and Busher Jackson following his example.
• With “the rallying old men” ahead by 4-3, the game … failed to end. “At 15:56, or 56 seconds after the final gong should have been sounded,” Bruce again beat Tiny Thompson to tie the score. Allthe players hit the ice after that, with all 32 players playing “shinny in an effort to break the stalemate without success.”
• Eddie Shore was deemed the star of the night. “The crowd yelled for the Edmonton Express to pull off one of his patented rushes, but Eddie played cagily in the opening session.” Eventually he gave the people what they wanted, though he didn’t score. Thompson, too, was a stand-out.
And: “Bald Beaned Ching Johnson also came up with several thrilling gallops,” Gerry Moore wrote.
The Boston Bruins started the 1942-43 NHL season slowly, losing their first four games. Then again, to launch that wartime campaign, they weren’t exactly playing with a full deck. With Milt Schmidt, Bobby Bauer, and Porky Dumart gone to war and Boston’s civilian roster thinned by injuries and immigration troubles, coach Art Ross found just 12 players to dress (three under the league limit) for an early-November 3-0 loss to the Detroit Red Wings.
The Bruins turned themselves around, winning five of their next seven games as November came to an end. Key to their revival was a new forward line that The Boston Globewas was still wondering how best to nickname: Sprout Line or Baby Line for the trio that had 17-year-old Don Gallinger centering Bill Shill, 19, and 16-year-old Bep Guidolin?
Whatever you wanted to handle them, Shill contributed Boston’s third goal in the first period of the game the Bruins played on this night in 1942 against the Red Wings, with assists to both linemates. Detroit was atop the NHL standings by then, the Bruins in fourth place as the teams got together at the Boston Garden. The result doesn’t seem to have been much in doubt after that, and Bruins did indeed cruise to a 5-2 win to climb into a tie for second place overall.
What you might have noted if you were watching the ice right up until the end of the game was that … well, the Red Wings weren’t. Not all of them, anyway.
It seems that with time ticking away in the third, Detroit coach Jack Adams’ thoughts turned to the 11-o’clock train he wanted to catch from Boston’s South Station. Here’s how the Globe reported what happened next:
With three minutes to play and the Wings three goals behind, Manager Jack Adams cleared the bench of all but two subs and told them to hustle into the dressing room and change into their street pants. A moment later the bench was cleared completely — and the final few minutes of the game saw a losing team making only a feeble effort to come from behind.
The Globe thought this was poor form: “one of the traditional things about athletes is that the loser usually goes down fighting.”
For his part, Art Ross lodged a complaint with NHL President Frank Calder. Calder may have had a quiet word with Adams, but I can’t find evidence of any rebuke or sanction that went public. That doesn’t mean Ross didn’t have his say in the papers. “There was no transportation problem,” Ross told reporters. The Wings, he pointed out that Tuesday evening, didn’t play again until Sunday. “The team had five days to get home,” he said. And, also: “They could walk the distance in that time.”
Now, his own Bruins — just that past Saturday, in Montreal, the Boston squad was left just 11 minutes to get from the Forum to Westmount Station where they had to catch the train to New York for a game the following night. “Not a Boston player left his bench until the last ten seconds,” Ross said, “and then only to avoid crowd congestion. The squad had to go to the train wearing its playing uniforms.”
The Globe detailed this dash, too, adding one important detail: the surging Bruins did, in Montreal, change from skates to shoes.
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.
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.”
(All images courtesy of Rob Webster)
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.)
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)
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