Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 5, 2017

An Old Hero Passes, But Fans Will Not Forget

If there is a downside to living a full life that extends to nearly a century, it is the possibility that one might outlive one’s own legend. The great exploits of youth, the fame and hero-worship that is accorded the young sports hero are often forgotten by almost all when that same figure faces old age. But this week, the remarkable outpouring of remembrance and devotion that followed the news that 98-year old Milt Schmidt had succumbed to a stroke at a hospice facility in Needham, Massachusetts, made plain that the Boston Bruins’ legend need never have feared such a fate. While there may be few who can claim to have seen his exploits on the ice in person, his contributions to Boston’s hockey franchise in multiple roles over parts of five decades live on in the hearts of Bruins fans.

Schmidt was born in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1918 as World War I was nearing its end. Just two years earlier the city had changed its name from Berlin, in response to the tide of anti-German sentiment spawned by that conflict. He grew up playing hockey with friends Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer, and in 1935 the Bruins acquired the rights to all three players. Two seasons later the trio would make their debut as a single offensive line, with Schmidt centering Dumart on the left wing and Bauer on the right. Because of their ancestry and common birthplace, they became known as both the Kraut Line and the Kitchener Kids.

Whatever the nickname, Schmidt and his linemates propelled Boston to the top of a league that few would recognize today. A forty-eight game regular season was contested among seven or eight teams, with the franchises that would be the basis of the subsequent “Original Six” era joined by the New York Americans and, for a time, the Montreal Maroons. The Bruins topped them all, posting the NHL’s best record four years in a row starting with the 1937-38 season. In two of those years Schmidt and company brought the Stanley Cup home to Boston. In the 1939-40 season Schmidt led the league in points with 52, while Dumart and Bauer tied for second with 43 points each.

The glory days of a line made up of three players from a town that changed its name because of one war essentially ended because of another one. All three left the Bruins in February 1942 to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. But while the Kraut Line as an offensive juggernaut may have passed into history, the careers of all three continued after World War II came to an end. In 1951 Schmidt was named to his third All-Star team and won the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player.

He would be revered by Bruins fans just for his playing career, but Schmidt’s contributions were only beginning when he retired midway through the 1954-55 season. He immediately moved behind the bench as the team’s head coach, a position he maintained for most of the next eleven years. Then in 1967, as the NHL doubled in size with six new franchises, he became Boston’s general manager.

Schmidt proved an able front office captain, navigating the club through the uncharted waters of the expansion era. His greatest coup was a six player trade in which he sent three journeymen to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield. Along with a kid from Parry Sound, Ontario named Orr, they formed the foundation of a team that won a pair of Stanley Cups. Hodge was an All-Star and Stanfield is remembered for firing a slap shot that broke goalie Jacques Plante’s mask in the first game of the 1970 Cup Finals; while Esposito became one of the greatest players in NHL history.

Long after his formal role with the Bruins ended he remained active with the club, mentoring players even as he slipped into retirement and, eventually, old age. So it was no surprise that current wearers of the black and gold spoke with sadness about Schmidt’s passing. Captain Zdeno Chara called him “one of our own breed,” and said “I will always cherish the times we had together listening to him reminisce about old time hockey as well as our conversations on today’s style of the game – the game that he just loved so much.” Patrice Bergeron, remembering this season’s home opener, when Schmidt and Orr together dropped the ceremonial puck, added “The last time I saw him, he was on the ice with Bobby earlier this year. He shook my hand and said ‘Go get ‘em.’ He was always rooting for the Bruins and in our corner. He lived an amazing life and I am very proud to have known him.”

Milt Schmidt is gone, the last living player from a team that won a pair of championships in a very different age. The game, the league and his beloved franchise are all vastly different now, not just from those long ago days but even from the more recent but still receding past, the time when Bobby Orr flew. In their long history the Boston Bruins have won six Stanley Cups. The first was won when Schmidt was still a youngster skating with his friends Dumart and Bauer in Kitchener, dreaming of one day wearing an NHL sweater. The last was six seasons ago, when he was in his dotage. Milt Schmidt had a very large hand in the middle four. That is more than enough to ensure that here in New England, he will always be a hero, and will always be remembered.

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Responses

  1. A nice tribute to a remarkable man, Mike.
    Ω


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