BY DICK TRUST
Milt Schmidt's crystal ball can't tell him if the Boston Bruins will win the Stanley Cup this season, but he figures they'll be legitimate contenders.
"I haven't yet seen all the clubs they'll be playing -- I've seen only three or four of them so far -- so I can't really answer that question," said Schmidt, who served the Bruins as player, captain, coach, and general manager from the 1936-37 season through 1971-72.
“All I can say is what I said last season after they lost to the Montreal Canadiens [in a seven-game first-round series]: ‘This club is going to be heard from next year because they can skate with anybody,’ and the way they showed heart coming back in those playoffs was good enough for me.
“So I expected big things from them this year, and so far they’ve proved that I was right. The way they’re playing at the present time, they’re going to be very difficult to knock off from that top spot.”
The Bruins haven’t won the Cup since 1971-72, when Schmidt was 54 years old and the club’s GM, and Tom Johnson was the coach. The team was riding high with, among some significant others, the stars Schmidt acquired in a May 15, 1967, blockbuster trade with the Chicago Blackhawks.
The deal saw Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, and Fred Stanfield come to the Bruins in exchange for Pit Martin, Gilles Marotte, and young goalie prospect Jack Norris. Led by Bobby Orr, Johnny Bucyk, Wayne Cashman, and Derek Sanderson, Espo and his ex-Chicago mates roared to Stanley Cup titles in 1969-70 (coached by Harry Sinden) and 1971-72.
A Hockey Hall of Famer from Kitchener, Ontario, whose retired Bruins jersey No.15 hangs from the TD Banknorth Garden rafters, Schmidt is now a spry, clear-thinking 90 years old — far removed from his glory days as a three-time All-Star center, NHL scoring champion (1939-40), and league MVP (1950-51) — and he has his fingers crossed that this is the year.
“Let’s hope it is,” said Schmidt, who is the lone surviving member of the 1938-39 team that gave the Bruins their second Stanley Cup. “They’ve had patience and they’ve started to spend a little bit of money, which you have to in order to win nowadays. But they’ve had good management and good coaching, and they know what to do as far as putting that club together.
“They’re a real good skating club. That’s what I like about them. They can skate. And their goaltending has been great. It looks as though they’re pretty well set in there.”
Schmidt keeps tabs on the Bruins from his home at Fox Hill Village in Westwood, a continuing-care retirement community. Despite his ambulatory limitations, he hates to sit still.
“I’ve been quite busy, and I’ve managed to enjoy [life] as much as I possibly can,” said Schmidt, admired as one of hockey’s true off-ice gentlemen though a tough competitor on-ice. “And I don’t forget to count my blessings.”
This nonagenarian says he doesn’t feel 90 and is often told he doesn’t look it, either.
“They had a party here at Fox Hill for those who were 90 years of age and older,” Schmidt said, “and when I walked in, I heard a couple of ladies who were sitting at a different table say, ‘He’s not 90.’ It made me feel very good.”
Not quite good enough, though, to lace on a pair of skates and show the skills that led, in 1998, to his ranking as No. 27 on the Hockey News’ list of the 100 greatest hockey players of all time.
Two total left hip replacements and one on the right side have limited Schmidt’s mobility, and he relies on a cane 95 percent of the time. Still, he manages to get to six or seven Bruins home games a year. Thank goodness for elevators, which whisk him to the upper levels of the Garden, where he’s eye-to-eye with those championship banners and retired numbers. Of all his honors, having his number in the rafters ranks high on the list.
“I think back to all those great hockey players and I say, ‘Well, my number is up there as well,’” said Schmidt. “I’m very proud of the fact that they saw fit to put my number up there with the hockey greats.
“The only two that I was hoping maybe one day they would put up there is No. 17, which was Bobby Bauer’s, and No. 14, Woody Dumart’s. However, that’s not for me to decide.”
Milton Conrad Schmidt was truly among the elite performers in the NHL. At 18, he broke in as a rookie with the Bruins in 1936-37. He helped win Boston’s second Stanley Cup in 1938-39 and another in 1940-41.
Among Schmidt’s early teammates were the great Eddie Shore, Dit Clapper, Bill Cowley, Flash Hollett, Roy Conacher, and goalie Frank Brimsek.
He gained lasting fame as pivot man on the prolific Kraut Line with wings Bauer (who died in 1964) and Dumart (who died in 2001), friends and linemates from junior hockey in Kitchener.
“The reason why we had a great career is that we were great friends,” Schmidt said. “We not only played hockey together, in the off-season we played baseball together. When we were living here at home, the three of us lived in a big room where we could talk about good things and bad things.
“We never got mad at one another. We were as close as you could possibly be as friends. On the road we always went out to eat together. I think that had a lot to do with our success.”
Moreover, the trio took three peak years out of their careers during World War II and served in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Born too soon to reap the riches of today’s NHL players, Schmidt said he’s “too ashamed of it” to reveal how much money he made in his peak earning years, when agents were a thing of the future and players had to take what ownership offered or go home.
“Bobby, Woody, and I signed our contracts together,” Schmidt said. “Whatever one got, the others got.”
Whatever that was, it wasn’t enough to prevent a young Milt Schmidt from taking, out of necessity, a job in the off-season.
“It was very early in my NHL career that I took a job trimming trees away from telephone wires in the country, outside of Kitchener,” he said. “All of a sudden I get this letter from the Bruins and there was just one little line: ‘We do not pay our players to climb trees.’ It was from Art Ross, who was the [general] manager and coach at the time. I wrote a letter back to him, saying, ‘If you paid me enough, I wouldn’t have to climb trees.’
“When we got to training camp, he said, ‘I didn’t like that answer you sent me.’ I said, ‘Well, that was the truth.’”
OT contributor Dick Trust can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org