WESTWOOD, Mass. — Imagine a hockey player born in the 16 months between John F. Kennedy and Ted Williams, who impacted his game as much as JFK transformed politics or Teddy Ballgame mastered hitting.
Imagine a center who won two Stanley Cups in three years as part of a line with the cringeworthy moniker the “Kraut Line” before serving his country against Germany in World War II.
Imagine a coach, general manager and team ambassador whose association with the Boston Bruins began in the midst of the Great Depression and continues in 2016.
Imagine four Stanley Cups as player and GM and a fifth as his team’s Elder Living Legend.
As you may have guessed, we’re talking about the same hockey player, center, coach, general manager and team ambassador.
His name is Milt Schmidt, and he is the NHL's oldest living former player. Schmidt turns 98 on Saturday, born on March 5, 1918. He is a mere four months younger than the NHL itself. The former Boston Bruins center has been a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame for 55 years.
Schmidt played at 6'0", 180 pounds. He stands much taller in the annals of the NHL.
Don’t take our word for it.
Ask Bobby Orr.
“He was a feisty coach. He was a feisty general manager. He was a feisty player. He didn’t change his ways. He’s very consistent,” Orr tells Bleacher Report. “He’s one of the guys who set it up for us. And made it better for us, and the guys who followed. His contributions to the game were enormous, as a player, a coach, a GM, and he continues to be huge fan. He meant a great deal to our game.”
Carolina Hurricanes defenseman and Boston native Noah Hanifin was the youngest player in the NHL at the start of the season. Hanifin was born on Jan. 25, 1997. That puts him a mere 28,816 days behind Schmidt when it comes to making hockey history.
The retired No. 15 worn by Schmidt hangs in honor above the ice at TD Garden, as it did at the old Boston Garden.
Boston’s Patrice Bergeron says Schmidt will always represent what being a “Bruin means and is.”
“He came around the locker room earlier this year to wish us good luck. He’s a true gentleman. He’s a person everyone respects a lot, myself included,” Bergeron tells Bleacher Report.
And while “Gods do not answer letters,” Schmidt still picks up his phone when you call him at his home.
Recently, Schmidt sat for a lengthy interview with Bleacher Report. He offered a glimpse into his nine-decade association with hockey, the changes he’s seen in his lifetime and his thoughts on the game today.
To get a measure of the reverence reserved for Schmidt, Orr called this writer back after an interview—unsolicited—to reiterate his opinion on Schmidt’s character. “He is the ultimate gentleman. The most awesome gentleman I’ve ever known.”
Starting the "Big, Bad" Bruins
Whatever you may think of the “Big Bad” Boston Bruins in their purest form can be directly tied to Schmidt. The team’s lineage of blue-collar brilliance runs nearly uninterrupted from old-time hockey greats such as Eddie Shore, who played with Schmidt for parts of four seasons, through Schmidt, to Johnny Bucyk, Orr and Phil Esposito, Wayne Cashman, Terry O’Reilly, Ray Bourque and, finally, Zdeno Chara and Bergeron.
Schmidt “made the big deal with Chicago that got things going,” Orr says. On May 15, 1967, Schmidt brought Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield to the Bruins in exchange for Gilles Marotte, center Pit Martin and goalie Jack Norris. It turned out to be one of the most lopsided deals in NHL history.
“The Bruins organization is what it is—the Big Bad Bruins—because of guys like Milt Schmidt,” adds one-time Bruins enforcer Lyndon Byers, who is currently a morning drive-time co-host on Boston’s WAAF radio. “You’re up there in the alumni box, and he’s still dropping F-bombs, and calling people ‘p---ies’ and yelling, ‘How does that kid not kick that other kid’s ass?’ or ‘I would have labeled that guy with my stick.’ That kind of passion. It’s still there whenever he goes to a game.”
Orr laughs after hearing that assessment and agrees.
“He’s not afraid to give his opinion,” Orr deadpans. “When he speaks, he’s knows what he’s talking about. We talk a lot about hockey, especially about the Bruins. When we talk, it’s like two experts, suggesting changes, criticizing certain plays.”
“That’s the kind of guy he is,” adds Ray Bourque.
Bourque, another NHL Hall of Fame defenseman, played his first 21 seasons in Boston before closing his career with the 2001 Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.
“He was somebody that you really looked up to. The people that come before you, that’s what the Bruins are all about. People like Milt, Terry O’Reilly, Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito. They set the table and you try to follow them. You tried not to disappoint them in terms of what they established in terms of tradition,” Bourque tells Bleacher Report.
Bourque first met Schmidt when he was an 18-year-old rookie with Boston in 1979. “He’s done it all as a player, coach and general manager. More than that, he is an incredible first-class man. When I first met him, he would always have time for me. He’s never changed about his passion and knowledge of the game and how he cares about it.”
Finding Bobby Orr
As Boston's coach, Schmidt led the brain trust that first noticed a “toe-head” defenseman named Bobby Orr during a scouting trip to Ontario in 1961. Orr would eventually sign with the team a year later.
“They were there to see someone else,” Orr says. “We just happened to be facing that team in the playoffs. [Bruins scout] Wren Blair, I’m sure at Milt’s instructions, camped out in Parry Sound for a while and eventually convinced my mother to let me sign.”
Any mention of Orr brings Schmidt to the edge of his seat. Orr’s Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and ’72, when Schmidt was team general manager.
The two remain in regular contact.
“There’s nobody like Bobby Orr. If it hadn’t been for Bobby Orr, I don’t think we would have won any Stanley Cups,” Schmidt says with a surge of intensity in his voice. “There’s nothing that would stop him from dominating now, either. There’s nobody who could carry the puck like Bobby Orr. It’s going to take quite a while before you see somebody on the ice carry the puck like Bobby did. He was head and heels over everybody and still is. There are bigger players today, but there’s nobody better than Bobby Orr. He was the greatest.”
Orr’s talent was recognizable that first day.
“He was ahead of everybody else. He wasn’t difficult to watch. We went up there to look at two other players and we forgot the two other players. The only thing bad about it was the coach of the opposition...we stole Orr out from under his nose. He caught hell for that, and I think it cost him his job. There were five of us in agreement, and we said: ‘We’ll take that toe-head on the bench.’”
Once a regular sight at Bruins games as both a former player and manager of the Boston Garden's Blades and Board Club, Schmidt has dealt with health issues of late involving his ribs and left leg. He needs the assistance of a walker to get around his home but remains incredibly gracious and quick-witted when talking about the game that has been a part of his life for more than 90 years.
"The greatest game in the world"
So what makes hockey so special for Schmidt after nearly a century on the earth?
“You have to be in great condition to play the game. You have to be able to withstand a good check when you get it not necessarily against the boards. It is a game that the people like and which they should. It’s the greatest game in the world, as far as the National Hockey League is concerned. I don’t care what anyone says about the National Hockey League, and living as long as I have, they have treated me great,” Schmidt says.
As a boy, Schmidt worked at the ice rink near his Kitchener, Ontario, home, walked through snowy fields for pond-ice time and wasn’t afraid to put down his skates and fight the kids who played for a nearby rival school when he was headed home.
“We played outside. In my time, we had a pond, or outdoor surface, to skate on,” Schmidt says. “We didn’t have an inside rink. We used the next-best thing and skated wherever we could find a piece of ice.”
He began playing junior hockey at 14. Schmidt rejected an offer to sign with the Bruins for $2,000 in 1935. Boston signed him for the princely sum of $3,500 in the fall of 1936. Schmidt joined fellow Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, natives Bobby Bauer and Woody Dumart in Providence, Rhode Island. By early 1937, all three were together in Boston. The three formed what was known as the Kraut Line, named because of the Germanic heritage of many in Kitchener.
This was before political correctness and in between two wars against Germany.
Led by Schmidt, Bauer and Dumart, that Bruins team won four straight regular-season championships starting in 1938. Schmidt would raise the Stanley Cup in 1939 and '41. During the 1939-40 season, Schmidt’s line led the league scoring, as he won the scoring title with 52 points.
“The love of the game had more to do with it than anything else,” Schmidt said of the trio's success. “We played together. It didn’t matter to us who scored and who didn’t score.”
The NHL had eight teams in Schmidt’s early years (the so-called Original Six, plus a second team in Montreal and one in Brooklyn, which folded in 1942). Teams traveled mainly by train, with the schedule built around geography. Top player salaries averaged about $10,000. The per diem for players was a mere $6.
The topic of Schmidt’s salary as a player with the Bruins is one subject that brings an edge and increased volume to the conversation.
“I don’t think that’s anyone’s business for the simple reason is that I’m ashamed of what my salary was compared to others in the same category (as a center). I found what they got, after, and what I got. It’s embarrassing.”
The Kraut Line goes to war
The Bruins were in the early stages their own Decade of Dominance when Pearl Harbor was attacked. There was nothing for Schmidt and his fellow line members to be embarrassed about when they left the Bruins to serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II.
Schmidt’s final game before leaving for the military is the stuff of NHL folklore. It would no doubt today be the sort of event that would rule Twitter and Instagram, trend atop YouTube and dominate coverage across the media spectrum before ending up as an ESPN 30 for 30 film.
Boston beat Montreal 8-1 on Feb. 10, 1942 in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 10,400 at Boston Garden. The line figured in five goals and combined for 11 points. After the game, with “Auld Lang Syne” playing on the stadium organ, “The three Krauts were hoisted onto willing shoulders of both Bruins and Canadiens players and carried to the Bruins’ dressing room,” according to an account in the following day’s (Feb. 11, 1942) Boston Globe.
“It just goes to show you that the hatred is not carried on. The love of the game is carried on. The Montreal players showed that by carrying us off the ice surface. I think that’s an indication of the love of the game,” Schmidt recalls.
Schmidt, Bauer and Dumart were joined in service by Boston’s American-born Hall of Fame goalie Frank Brimsek. He was a Coast Guardsman eventually stationed in the South Pacific.
Like so many others who served in World War II, Schmidt says little about his time in the war. Schmidt, Bauer and Dumart spent their early time the war playing for Ottawa’s RCAF team in Canada before heading to England. Schmidt recently told a family friend about a near miss involving a German bombing raid while stationed overseas but wouldn’t elaborate to B/R.
“We were proud of what we did. We’re always there when we were called upon,” Schmidt says. “We were happy to do it. And that’s all I’ll say. We hope there isn’t another war when young people have to prove themselves.”
Like hundreds of others in the war who played pro sports, Schmidt and his linemates departed during the prime of their careers to serve. Seventy-four years later, that sacrifice has not gone unnoticed.
“You’d have to be a complete f--king assh--e athlete in 2016 if you can’t wrap your head around how insanely patriotic and courageous that was. The sacrifices. I get goosebumps thinking about those guys making that decision at that time to do what they did,” Byers says. “They’re the Greatest Generation for a reason. Guys like Milt, the others of his age, were the cat’s meow of their day. And they put everything—their sticks, their bats, their ball gloves and their sneakers—down and they volunteered to fight for their country. They put their lives on the line. There’s no way to know how that felt.”
Schmidt’s first game back with Boston came in December 1945. The Bruins enjoyed post-war success, reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 1957 and ’58. Boston would not win another Stanley Cup until Orr and Company swept the St. Louis Blues in 1970 during Schmidt’s tenure as general manager.
Fast, furious and fearless
As a player, Schmidt combined the puck-handling skills of today’s top skaters and scorers with the ferocity of today’s most brutal “enforcers.” While he was listed as a center, he often found himself back on defense because teams usually only carried four defensemen during his era.
“From what the guys tell me, he’d stick his nose in anywhere. He was fearless,” Orr says. “He’d attack the net. He’d chase the puck into the corner. He’d fight. He’d never back down. Who could that be? Would it be a [Cam] Neely type player? I don’t know. Cam in the corner? Milty in the corner? Guys didn’t like to play against him. They knew it would be hard.”
That physical and ferocious style led to a nearly constant stream of injuries. Schmidt began his NHL career with a broken jaw. Eventually, he would break his shoulder, collarbone, and ankle and destroy his knees. He missed five combined weeks due to torn knee ligaments during the 1947-48 season.
“I think Milt could have played goalie if he had to,” Bourque says. “He was very competitive. And he played the full 185 feet back in the Old Garden. The entire ice. Those are the type of guys you’d love to play with. And that’s the type of player you want to be.”
Schmidt fought both for the puck and against other players his entire NHL career. He was engaged in perpetual conflict with Toronto Maple Leafs center Ted Kennedy. Hostilities between the two peaked on Jan. 1, 1953 when Schmidt slammed Kennedy to the ice during a six-player brawl. The impact separated Kennedy’s shoulder, left him with a concussion and knocked him out for the remainder of the season.
Concussion protocols were nonexistent six decades ago. And, Schmidt says, concussions occurred far less frequently than today because players were more averse to driving opponents head-first into the boards.
“We didn’t have anything like that. We had the body checks against the boards. Nothing like they do today. They want to play that type of game, they suffer for it. They’re quite capable of playing real good and sound hockey or [commit] the charging. They charge more today than we ever did. We weren’t allowed to do it. I don’t know why they keep on doing it today? They have more concussions today than ever. We played a fast game when we played and played any kind of a game whatsoever. We played the type of game the fans loved—an all-out brand of hockey we were very proud of,” Schmidt says.
Schmidt was a four-time NHL All-Star and won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP in 1951. Chief among his many Hall of Fame opponents was the Detroit Red Wings' Gordie Howe. “He knew what to do with the puck and what not to do with it. He was one player who you couldn’t fool around with,” Schmidt says.
He called it quits as a player on Christmas Day 1954 during a road trip in Chicago. His heart still wanted to play but his knees had given up. "I had two bad knees at that time and I had to be taped up every day or I couldn't play. When I fell, I had a tough time getting up. I was 36 years of age,” he told the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2002.
"A helluva lot better now"
Schmidt coached the Bruins from 1955-62 and 1963-66. He then became the team’s general manager.
The NHL, meantime, expanded geographically, enjoyed dynasties in Montreal and Toronto, and broadened its audience thanks to television. Slowly, player salaries became more commensurate with team revenues. The second attempt of the players to form a union stuck in 1967 when the NHL Players’ Association was created.
Although he was a player, coach and executive, Schmidt identifies himself as a retired player.
Schmidt says he’s happy modern-day NHL players enjoy riches he and his peers could not imagine in the middle of the last century. He’s also adamant they realize what he and his peers did to help them earn it.
“It’s a helluva lot better now,” he says. “It’s too bad we didn’t have [the union] representing us during our National Hockey League play. ... The only problem now is the players knowing how to manage their own money [so that] they have it after they’re finished playing hockey. I hope that they all have their money and they’re not down the beach showing their muscles off to the girls or something like that. I hope they have their money because they don’t know exactly what we went through in order for them to get this money.”
After becoming GM, Schmidt executed the trade that brought Esposito and friends to Boston. As Orr blazed across arenas throughout the NHL, a dynasty appeared to be dawning on the horizon east of Causeway Street.
Under Schmidt’s rule as GM, the Bruins won two Stanley Cups in three years (1970, ’72), just as they did when he was a player (1939 and ’41). They would not win another championship until 2011.
Schmidt’s tenure as Boston general manager ended in calamitous fashion. It left Schmidt and many Bruins fans embittered.
After the 1972 Stanley Cup was secured in May, the Bruins quickly lost Gerry Cheevers, John McKenzie and Derek Sanderson to the bright lights and big money of the WHA. Schmidt would be the fall guy for the financial prudence of owner Weston Adams Jr.
In September 1972, Schmidt was pushed out of the GM’s chair in Boston, named “executive director” and was replaced by Harry Sinden. His 37-year run within the same organization would soon be over.
What went wrong in Boston?
“I’m not going to say. I don’t have anything to say about it. I could say how cheap they were toward my salary and the rest of the team. But I won’t,” Schmidt says. He says he remains friends with Sinden to this day but appears to have not yet forgiven Adams for the method and manner of his exit in Boston.
“I don’t care what anyone says about the National Hockey League, and living as long as I have, they have treated me great. A helluva lot better than the Boston Bruins ever thought about treating me,” he says with a hint of 40 years of anger in his voice. “They lied to me something terrible. I could go on and on about Harry Sinden coming. He and I are great friends and always will be. There's more than I can say about Weston Adams Jr. It’s a helluva thing to say to someone that you can’t tell the difference between a basketball and a hockey puck. That’s all I’m going to say about that.”
Schmidt had little luck and zero success with the young and inexperienced Capitals. The team finished 8-67-5 in its first season, going 1-39 on the road. “One of those things I thought it would be worthwhile to start a franchise. But just high school kids is all I had,” Schmidt says. “NHL President Clarence Campbell, he gets the most blame. He told us [as an expansion team], we were supposed to have first choice of any player sent down to the minors. That wasn’t so. We didn’t get the players we were supposed to get.”
Campbell died in 1984.
"You've got to be able to skate"
Schmidt told ESPN.com's Joe McDonald in December that Bergeron is his current favorite player. Beyond that, “everybody looks alike. They’re fortunate to be playing in the National Hockey League today. And (in) the way they’re being treated by the NHL,” Schmidt says.
The first quality he seeks in a player when watching a game in 2016 is the same as it was in 1936.
"Skating. You’ve got to be able to skate. We all could do a job. We did what they were told to do. You don’t see as much forechecking today as you did then,” he says. “The players today are not only bigger but they’re faster. They’re better skaters. Although we stood up for our rights (in other words, everybody fought), you might say. We could look out after ourselves. It’s an altogether different game. We skated very well but not as fast.”
And where the young Milt Schmidt once walked across snow-covered fields in Kitchener just to get playing time on a nearby pond, boys and girls today in places like Tampa, San Jose and Phoenix are driven to indoor rinks in their parents’ SUVs to practice year-round.
The NHL All-Star Game was held in Nashville this year. That city didn’t welcome the NHL until 60 years after Schmidt first wore a Bruins uniform.
The game of hockey, like the rest of the world, has experienced a millennium’s worth of change in the past century.
Schmidt remains the oldest man standing.
“I never give that a thought and don’t think I ever will. It’s an honor, no doubt. But there were a lot of honest hockey players many years ago that were as every bit as durable as I am.”
But very few who have made more of a difference.
Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who first covered the Bruins in 1987. He can be reached on Twitter @RealOBF or via email at email@example.com. Adrian Dater of Bleacher Report contributed to this report.