Video: Milt Schmidt centered Bruins' legendary 'Kraut Line'
"Milt Schmidt was the [Mark] Messier of his era, and that's really giving a lot of credit to Messier," said Dick Johnson, a sports historian and curator of The Sports Museum of New England.
For all of Schmidt's career highlights - and he had an abundance of them, as a Bruins player, coach and general manager - his most transcendent moment had nothing to do with Stanley Cup heroics or personal achievements, but with the noble and patriotic act of going to war.
It came on Feb. 11, 1942. The Bruins were playing their archrival, the Montreal Canadiens, at Boston Garden. Schmidt, as usual, was centering the so-called "Kraut Line" with his fellow Kitchener, Ontario, mates Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer. They were 1-2-3, respectively, in NHL scoring in 1939-40, an unprecedented feat, and two years later they outdid themselves, enlisting together in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Now they were playing their last game for the Bruins before going off to fight the Germans. The Bruins defeated the Canadiens 8-1, the "Kraut Line" accounting for 11 points, and at game's end the Bruins honored Schmidt, Dumart and Bauer, who were given their paychecks for the rest of the year, plus a bonus, before players from both the Bruins and the Canadiens lifted the three of them up, literally and figuratively, an impromptu salute to their countrymen, and why not?
Games: 776 | Goals: 229 | Assists: 346 | Points: 575
How often do men leave the rinks of the NHL to fight in the biggest and deadliest war in history?
"I cried," Schmidt said. "It just goes to show that you can have pretty bitter enemies out on that ice, but after the game is over, we're all friends, and I think that has a lot to say about the people who play the game."
Milt Schmidt had a career out of a hockey fairy tale, not least because he spent all of it with one team. He was born to German immigrants in Kitchener, a city that jettisoned its previous name - Berlin - after the outbreak of World War I. Schmidt fell in love with skating and hockey, a life direction that did not endear him to his elementary school principal, who called him in more than once to discuss his studies, concerned that he was spending more time on the ponds than he was with the books.
"Whatever is going to become of you?" the principal asked.
"I'm going to become a professional hockey player," Schmidt replied.
The principal liked that Milt had a goal, but had no clue that the kid actually had the ability to make it happen. Milt grew into a standout in junior hockey, before his friend Bauer touted him to Bruins boss Art Ross, who invited Schmidt to training camp in St. John's, New Brunswick. Schmidt made an immediate impression, signing with the Bruins and joining the Providence Reds, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Bruins, in 1936. Midway through the season, Schmidt was promoted to Boston, and two years later Schmidt, Bauer and Dumart were a vital force in the Bruins' Stanley Cup victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Bruins won again - their third Stanley Cup championship - in 1941, and once more Schmidt was an integral part of it, as the Bruins swept the Detroit Red Wings, Schmidt earning a reputation as not just a prolific scorer and brilliant assist man, but one of the toughest guys in the league.
Then came the war, though before leaving for Europe, Schmidt joined Bauer and Dumart on the suddenly fortified Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) hockey team, which, to the surprise of nobody, captured the Allan Cup in 1942 as the top senior amateur team in Canada, Schmidt piling up 23 points in 13 games.
Schmidt lost three full seasons to World War II, returning to the Bruins at age 27 for the 1945-46 season, scoring eight points in 10 postseason games to help the Bruins make it to the Stanley Cup Final against the Canadiens. He wound up having some of the best years of his career after the war; in 1950-51 the 32-year-old Schmidt captained the Bruins and won his only Hart Trophy as most valuable player, in recognition of his stellar, 22-goal, 39-assist season.
An utterly unselfish player who thrived on hustle, grit and a pass-first, shoot-second mentality, Schmidt retired midway through the 1954-55 season. The Bruins were in Chicago, and as Schmidt walked to the train station with coach Lynn Patrick the morning after a game against the Black Hawks, his aching body led to an epiphany of sorts.
"I had two [bad] knees at that time and I had to be taped up every day or I couldn't play," Schmidt said. "When I fell, I had a tough time getting up. . . . I said, 'Lynn, I don't know how much longer I can last with these knees. As a matter of fact, what would your thoughts be about me retiring?' He said, 'Milt, I know what you've been going through. You make up your own mind about retiring. I wouldn't blame you one bit if you did.'"
Schmidt never played another game, but didn't go far. Bruins president Walter Brown named him coach immediately. Schmidt wound up coaching the Bruins for parts of 11 seasons in two installments, taking the team to the Stanley Cup Final in 1957 and 1958, before becoming general manager in 1966, the same year a heralded 18-year-old defenseman named Orr made his debut. Some seven months later, Schmidt pulled off one of the most fabled trades in NHL annals; on May 15, 1967, he acquired forwards Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield from the Blackhawks for defenseman Gilles Marotte, center Pit Martin and goalie Jack Norris.
The Bruins would go on to win Stanley Cup titles in 1970 and 1972 - their first since Schmidt's 1940-41 team won it.
"When you consider that he won two Cups as a player, took two teams to the Cup Finals as a coach and won two more Cups as a general manager, is there anybody who really compares to Milton Conrad Schmidt in the totality of what they meant to their team?" said Johnson, the historian and curator, of Schmidt, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1961. "I think a case could be made for (Schmidt) being the greatest all-around hockey person in the history of the sport."
The Bruins honored Schmidt and Orr with a ceremony at the 2016-17 home opener, commemorating the 80th anniversary of Schmidt's debut, and the 50th anniversary of Orr's. They showed a video clip, and the crowd at TD Bank Garden stood and cheered as Orr, in his No. 4 sweater, and Schmidt, in his No. 15, made their way to center ice, where they dropped a ceremonial puck. It would be Schmidt's final appearance at a Bruins game; he died Jan. 4, 2017, at age 98.
"Ladies and gentlemen, you are having the privilege of seeing hockey's greatest," Schmidt said, referring to Orr. "And it wasn't only by my word that everybody knew he was the greatest. It didn't matter who you talked to. He was the man."
Orr, for his part, insisted the man he called "Milty" was the greatest of all Bruins.
"I've known Milt longer than 50 years," Orr said. "Milty scouted me when I was 12 years old. He's been a great friend, he's been my coach, my general manager, and most importantly my very good friend. I'm thrilled to be with him here tonight on the opening of the Bruins season."
Orr spoke of Schmidt's huge heart as a player, and John Bucyk, another Bruins legend, echoed the sentiment, adding that in all the years Schmidt coached him, he never heard him swear.
In an interview with Joe McDonald of ESPN, Schmidt explained why.
"You're not going to get them to play any better by swearing at them," Schmidt said.
Bucyk said, "He was a terrific coach and in many ways he's still coaching me. He is a true gentleman and maybe the most polite person I know."
For more, see all 100 Greatest Players