Schmidt’s finest assist was to the war effort
His ship was chock-full of some 15,000 teammates — US and Canadian soldiers — and it was that trip across the Atlantic that gave Milt Schmidt some worry. More than 68 years after the fact, he remembers being afraid, not so much of Hitler or the war itself, but because of where he bunked in the belly of the battle-ready Queen Elizabeth ocean liner.
“That’s the only time I was scared,’’ recalled the Bruins’ Hall of Fame center, reminiscing the other day, with Veterans Day coming up this week. “You see, my bunk was below the water line, and I remember many a time thinking, ‘Oh boy, if we ever get hit, I’ve had it.’ All I could do was hope that I’d be able to swim a few thousand miles.’’
Schmidt, the anchor of the Bruins’ famed Kraut Line, which had him flanked for years by hometown pals Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer, made it to Europe and remained there for the duration. Stationed in northern England, near Darlington, as a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, he instructed pilots and bombing crews how to survive in the ocean if their aircrafts were shot down or had to be ditched.
It would be some three years — and three full NHL seasons — before he sailed back to Halifax, Nova Scotia, aboard the Ile de France, his military tour ending rather abruptly.
“Bob went home first, I remember that,’’ said Schmidt. “Woody and I ended up on the same boat home. Actually, he was supposed to go home before I did, because I was going to be assigned to another post in the east. I’m not sure I ever knew where that post was.
“But then good ol’ Harry [Truman] saved me. He dropped the bomb and that ended it.’’
The Montreal Canadiens will be on Causeway Street Thursday, Veterans Day, what for Schmidt will serve as a vivid reminder of both his World War II service and how he, Dumart, and Bauer took their leave from the Garden on Feb. 10, 1942. Having formally signed on with the RCAF just weeks earlier, the three Krauts (so called because they came from the German stronghold of Kitchener, Ontario), that night played their final game of the season and collected 11 points in an 8-1 pasting of the Habs.
Bruins ownership, to commemorate the event, gave Schmidt and his pals parting gifts that included a watch, a gold bracelet, and paychecks that covered the remainder of the regular season and playoffs. With the Garden crowd cheering wildly, and “Auld Lang Syne’’ playing over the PA, players from both teams hoisted Schmidt, Bauer, and Dumart on their shoulders as heroes and carried them off the ice in an admirable display of bonhomie and brotherhood.
“Never to be forgotten,’’ said Schmidt. “It shows you, out on the ice you are enemies, but as soon as you are off the ice, you can be good friends. The hockey world is full of those kinds of friendships. To be treated like that, Bob, Woody, and I, before going into the service, it’s such a credit to the Montreal Canadiens, as players and people.’’
Had the Kitchener Kids not signed up with the RCAF in the days prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Schmidt recalled, they likely would have been hustled into battle as part of the American military.
“That’s correct,’’ said Schmidt, “and it only would have been right.’’
In fact, in order to leave Boston to sign their RCAF papers in Montreal, well ahead of Feb. 10, the three had to prove to draft authorities here that they weren’t attempting to circumvent their military obligations. Then when they signed in Canada, RCAF authorities wanted them to enter the service that day. It took some slick stickhandling, recalled Schmidt, to make it clear they first had to tie up some hockey business in Boston and then bid farewell to family and friends in Kitchener.
“All of it worked out eventually,’’ said Schmidt, now 92 and living comfortably in a retirement home in Westwood. “I do remember that last day at home in Kitchener, with mother and my sister in tears as I was leaving for the train station. I kept saying, ‘Mother, don’t worry, I’ll be fine. There’s nothing to worry about.’ ’’
Schmidt, who was then only 24 years old, recalls making it three-quarters of the way down the driveway and then turning back. He couldn’t leave without putting to rest one nagging, persistent thought.
“I came back up the driveway and I said, ‘Mother, can I change my name from Schmidt to Smith?’ ’’ he recalled. “I just figured, you know, going to Europe during a war with Germany, with a name like Schmidt . . . oh, heavens, that seemed dangerous.
“And Mother looked me in the eye and said, ‘Milt, you can do whatever you want.’ I was happy about that. But then, when I was on my own, I just figured, ‘Hey, it’s been my name my whole life, and it’s been good enough for my whole family. I’m keeping it.’ ’’
It wasn’t all war and no games in the United Kingdom. Schmidt and his band of Canadian brothers taught the locals to play baseball and eagerly joined them in soccer games and cricket matches. A few times, he recalled, he traveled 30-40 miles northeast to an ice rink in Durham to play hockey.
When the rink’s metal roof peeled off in a storm and all steel had to be committed to the war effort, the building was covered in canvas, making it a big-top tent sur glace. Large support beams, two anchored at each end of the ice, kept the canvas roof from collapsing.
“Instead of going around two defensemen,’’ said Schmidt, “you had to go around two defensemen and two posts!’’
Schmidt still has the watch the Bruins gave him the night of Feb. 10, 1942. When he was honored at the Garden 10 days ago for his 75 years of service to the club (player, captain, coach, GM, ambassador), his daughter, Nancy Summer, joined his son, Conrad, in helping raise his retired No. 15 to the rafters. Nancy wore the gold bracelet.
“What a great evening,’’ said Schmidt, who also received two miniature replicas of the Stanley Cup, commemorating his ’39 and ’41 championships in Boston. “I’d never had that privilege.
“In my day, if your number was retired, it just got put up there and that was it, no ceremony or anything. But, oh my, I’ll tell you, I had goose bumps. And since then, a lot of people have told me that their eyes got rather misty watching that. And I just say, ‘Well, move over pal — mine, too.’’
Again, it’s Veterans Day Thursday. It has been over over there for a long time. Thankfully, we still have vets like Schmidt to help us remember the time, the sacrifice, the cost, and, above all, the freedom it preserved.
Records have holes in themThe torrid 7-0-0 start by Bruins goalie Tim Thomas (left) has had him blocking an astounding 96.7 percent of the shots he’s faced (237 of 245). Win No. 7, 5-2 over the Sabres Wednesday, had him besting Tiny Thompson’s club mark of a 6-0-0 start in 1937-38.
In Thompson’s era, the pace was not nearly as frenetic and the shots not as voluminous. However, it is impossible to provide an accurate statistical comparison specific to shots, because the NHL’s stat book in that era is riddled with omissions and errors, reflecting a time when the business of hockey was often conducted and chronicled by institutional memory or scribbled on napkins and envelopes.
“There is no surviving information on shots on goal from the NHL’s ‘Stone Age,’ ’’ reports Bob Waterman, head of hockey stats for the Elias Sports Bureau, which only in recent years became the NHL’s official numbers keeper. “Numbers in newspaper accounts back then are so absurdly high in many cases that I am convinced that what they were recording was shots at goal and not on goal. Even that information has not survived.’’
Case in point, noted Waterman, the NHL Guide and Record Book credits the New York Americans and Pittsburgh Pirates with a league-record 141 shots in a 1925 game. Absurd, said Waterman.
“You’ve probably seen film of NHL action from the early days, and it was slow motion compared to the modern game,’’ he said. “There’s no way that two teams combined to average better than two shots on goal per minute back then, even if a team had to skate the puck out of its own defensive zone, as the rules required at the time.’’
Story of rescue is good as goldSomething about watching those Chilean miners get hauled safely from their hell made your faithful hockey chronicler think of the 1980 Olympic Games when Team USA won the gold at Lake Placid. It wasn’t so much the feat that compared, but the overall tenor and backdrop of the times. In 1980, feel-good stories were hard to come by, especially in the US, which had 52 citizens at the time held hostage in Iran. The US victory provided a welcome respite for even non-hockey fans. More than 30 years later, with multiple wars being waged and terrorism an ever-present threat, what a joy it was to witness the successful rescue of the miners (hockey guys, no doubt). “It was similar in terms of a country responding as one,’’ said Team USA captain Mike Eruzione. “It was a moment that captured the world — although [Chile] was about lives and ours was [just] sports. And to see all those flags . . . it looked like it rallied a country.’’ And, best we know, the “victory’’ in Chile didn’t lead to any roster demotions to Siberia.
Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.