When Milt Schmidt died at the age of 98 Wednesday, the NHL lost its oldest surviving member and a true gentleman.
When an accomplished person dies, it is often described as the end of an era. But when it comes to former Boston Bruins great and Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt, who died Wednesday at the age of 98, it’s the end of a whole bunch of eras. Because from the 1930s to ‘70s, there was not a part of the game that didn’t feel Schmidt’s impact.
Schmidt was the oldest surviving NHL player, a mantle that now belongs to 96-year-old John ‘Chick’ Webster, who played 14 games for the New York Rangers in 1949-50. But it wasn’t just longevity for which Schmidt should be remembered, although it was terribly impressive. Schmidt would shoot his age in golf and work out in the gym in his building into his early 90s. A stroke last week in Boston managed to do what hundreds of NHL players could not, stop him in his tracks.
Consider that Schmidt played before the Original 6 even existed. His rookie season of 1936-37 was the last for Howie Morenz, considered the first superstar in NHL history. Had the Selke Trophy been in existence when he played, Schmidt would have won a trophy case full of them to go with his Hart Trophy in 1951. More than 50 years before Eric Lindros spurned the Quebec Nordiques, Schmidt returned to his hometown of Kitchener rather than play for the Bruins for less than he felt he was worth. Everything from plus-minus to the trading of Phil Esposito to the building of the Big Bad Bruins in the 1970s has his fingerprints on it. He was also the first GM of the Washington Capitals.
But most of all, Schmidt will be remembered as a guy who was as graceful and gentlemanly off the ice as he was determined and relentless on it. Former Bruin and Hall of Famer Johnny Bucyk has been associated with Schmidt for almost 60 years, dating back to 1957 when Bucyk arrived from Detroit and Schmidt was coaching the Bruins.
“He was more than a coach or a boss to me,” Bucyk said. “He was like a big brother. I don’t think Milt knew how to swear. I never heard him swear, even in the dressing room during games. He always treated us like men. He would treat the 19-year-old and 20-year-old guys the same way he would treat the veterans.”
Ken Whitmell, a former card company executive who had many dealings with Schmidt marveled at Schmidt’s sense of modesty. “He was a guy who was completely oblivious to the greatness he achieved,” Whitmell said. “He was one of the most humble and gracious guys you’d ever meet. Even when he talked about going to war, he never made a big deal of it. He would say, ‘That’s just what you did.’ ”
Former NHL Players’ Association executive director Paul Kelly had played with Schmidt at the same Boston golf club since the 1980s with the likes of Bobby Orr and Eddie Johnston and said Schmidt is the only person he knew to shoot better than his age in his 70s, 80s and 90s. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a gentleman classier than Milt Schmidt,” Kelly said. “Never had an unkind word about anybody. He’s what Canada represents to people – honest, athletic, polite, likeable.”
Schmidt broke into the NHL in 1936 and soon became the centerpiece of ‘The Kraut Line’ along with boyhood friends and fellow Hall of Famers Bobby Bauer and Woody Dumart. He won two Cups with the Bruins as a player, then led the team to two more as the Bruins GM. Schmidt is one of only five men in NHL history – Serge Savard, Bob Gainey, Jack Adams and Eddie Gerard are the others – to win a Stanley Cup as both a player and GM. Savard is the only other man along with Schmidt to do it as a player and GM with the same team. It’s believed that Schmidt’s defensive play that led former Bruins GM Art Ross to wrack his brain to try to think of ways to measure defensive contributions, which ultimately led to plus-minus ratings.
Known as the best two-way player of his era and one of the best of all-time, Schmidt was a fierce competitor, both on the ice and at the negotiating table. In a book about Ross by Eric Zweig, Ross offered Schmidt his first contract and Schmidt wanted $500 more. Ross told Schmidt he would ask owner Charles Adams. Ross left his office, then returned to tell Schmidt that Ross had refused the higher amount. On his way out, he went to knock on Adams’ door, only to be told by the Bruins’ secretary that Adams had not arrived in the office yet. Schmidt stormed back to Ross’ office and called him on it and got his raise.
Later in his career, Ross found out that Schmidt was spending his summer cutting down trees for phone lines. He received a letter from Ross telling him the Bruins weren’t paying their players to cut down trees. Schmidt responded by saying that if the Bruins paid him a decent wage, he wouldn’t have to spend his summer cutting down trees. “I was able to make enough to buy my mother an electric stove and a refrigerator and a washing machine,” Schmidt told me five years ago. “Before that she had a coal stove and I was happy I was able to do that for her before she passed away. I guess you got more satisfaction over the small things then.”
One night against the Canadiens, Rocket Richard got his stick up on Schmidt and broke his nose. After getting repairs, Schmidt returned to the game and lined up Richard for a thundering bodycheck. “(Richard) starts skating toward me and he says, ‘Why you do dat?’ ” Schmidt recalled five years ago. “I just pointed at my nose and said, ‘Because you do dat!’ ”
That rivalry between the Bruins and Canadiens did not stop the Canadiens from carrying Schmidt, Dumart and Bauer off the ice on their shoulders on the night of Feb. 10, 1942, the day before they were shipped off to serve in World War II. The three were stationed in England and never did see active service, but he did miss three seasons in the prime of his career. “We were never bombed, but they fired on us a couple of time,” Schmidt told me this past summer. “We got really good at hiding under the bed.”