a hockey babe ruth, they called him

There’s none of us now who was around to see Joe Simpson skate, so let’s listen to what his contemporaries had to say. Newsy Lalonde, circa 1923, called him the greatest hockey player alive. The great Duke Keats rated Simpson one of the best defencemen he ever saw, on a par with Eddie Shore and Sprague Cleghorn. “He made dazzling, dodging rushes,” Jim Coleman hymned in 1973, “a technique of puck-carrying that earned him [the] nickname ‘Corkscrew Joe.’”

There’s more on Simpson — including discussions of his many nicknames; just what the corkscrew might have looked like; reference to my grandfather; and Wally Stanowski turning pirouettes at Maple Leaf Gardens — over here. Here, for now, we’ll go on to recall that Harold Edward Simpson happens to have been born on an 1893 Sunday of this date in Selkirk, Manitoba, where he ended up skating with his hometown Fisherman before war broke in 1914.

There’s more to know about his military service — that’s still to come — but the short version with hockey at the forefront goes like this: having enlisted with Winnipeg’s 61st Battalion in the summer of 1915, Simpson led the battalion’s hockey team to an Allan Cup championship in 1916 before the soldiers stowed their hockey sticks and shipped out for France. Simpson was wounded on the Somme in ’16 and then again later in the war — but, again, we’ll come back to that another time. Returning from France in 1919, he rejoined the Selkirk Fishermen. The five subsequent seasons he played with the Edmonton Eskimos of the WCHL included a trip, in 1923, to the Stanley Cup finals (Edmonton lost to the Ottawa Senators). They called him Bullet Joe and the Babe Ruth of hockey when he arrived in the NHL in 1926, joining the newfound New York Americans at the age of 33. He played five seasons in New York and, later, served as coach for another three. Elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1963, Joe Simpson died in 1973, at the age of 80.

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)

here’s your hat, what’s your hurry

11 Detroit Jud McAtee 3 Leafs Reg Hamilton 8 ? Leafs Mel Hill 16 Wally Stanowski

Meet and Greet: Toronto was leading Detroit 3-2 after two periods on the night of April 14, 1945, in the fourth game of the Stanley Cup final at Maple Leaf Gardens, so they may have thought they be raising the trophy that very night. Led by Teeder Kennedy, backstopped by Frank McCool, they’d swept the first three games on the road. But the Red Wings stormed back on the night, winning the game 5-3, along with the next two. The Leafs would have to travel back to Detroit and win a seventh game before they could claim their fifth Cup championship in club history. Above, that’s Detroit’s Jud McAtee (11) cartwheeling after an encounter with a Leaf who may be Wally Stanowski, as the puck slides free. Also down, wearing 3, is the Leafs’ Reg Hamilton.

 

 

scragged it, were broken up

fonds 1266, Globe and Mail fonds

Montreal coach Dick Irvin called it the Series of the Deflected Puck, which sounds like a string of mysteries that Agatha Christie should have written. This was in the spring of 1945, back when Leafs and Canadiens used to play in Stanley Cup semi-finals. The Leafs, who won in six games, went on to win the Stanley Cup, beating Detroit; Montreal headed home on the train, a few days after the scene depicted here. No-one among the Canadiens was sadder than Maurice Richard when it was all over, according to The Globe and Mail’s Vern DeGeer:

The Rocket parked in a dressing room chair for several minutes without attempting to remove his equipment. He just sat there shaking his head and mumbling to himself.

Pictured above, a scene from the fourth game in Toronto. Gus Bodnar won it for the Leafs in overtime when a shot of Babe Pratt’s deflected off his his stick and passed by Bill Durnan. Toronto’s Sweeney Schriner — the foxy veteran, Dink Carroll from Montreal’s Gazette called him — scored, too, and while that’s him with elbow pads showing, the goal came earlier.

Here, in the third period, he’s arguing with Montreal’s Murph Chamberlain, numbered 12, a.k.a. Old Hardrock. Jim Coleman from The Globe and Mail noted that he was floored twice in the first period, first by the Leafs’ Jack McLean, then by Schriner. Referee King Clancy called no penalties at the time, but in the third (as told by Toronto’s Daily Star), Schriner threw the first punch of his career at Chamberlain. “They scragged it then,” the Star said, “were broken up.” Both players were excused with minor penalties.

Returned to the ice, they continued their discussions, with Clancy (white-sweatered in the middle) broke up. That’s (I think) Montreal’s Bob Fillion standing by, alongside Toronto’s Wally Stanowski and Reg Hamilton. The Star was good enough to report the gist of the conversation:

“You oughta give Schriner a major for fighting,” roared Chamberlain.

“You call what you two were doing fighting?” asked Clancy. “Sit down and shut up.”

Notice the front-row fan in the light-hued hat holding up his coat for protection or (possibly) playing at toreadoring. The Globe did report that in this very ruckus a woman ducked a stray punch.