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NHL greats Lach, Schmidt still feisty at 90

by John McGourty

Hall of Fame center Elmer Lach played in the NHL from 1940-54, and spent his entire 14-year
career in Montreal, winning three Stanley Cups. 
The careers of great NHL players inevitably end, but apparently the respect they develop for each other never does, if Hart Trophy winners Milt Schmidt and Elmer Lach are any example.

Lach, the first Art Ross Trophy winner and a three-time Stanley Cup champion, and Schmidt, the 1951 Hart Trophy winner and twice a Stanley Cup champion as a player, both recently turned 90 years old. Lach's birthday was Jan. 22, while Schmidt celebrated his on March 5, surrounded by loving family members.

"It was a wonderful birthday party,” Schmidt said. “And me? I didn't want it at first. I'm glad I was overruled. It was a great family get-together, with people coming to Massachusetts from Florida, North Carolina, Washington, all over. The only one who couldn't make it was in Australia. The family wrote a poem and every one of my grandchildren got up and shared a story. It's a memory I'll take to my grave."

Schmidt broke in with the Boston Bruins during the 1936-37 season, joining a team that included future Hockey Hall of Famers Eddie Shore, Dit Clapper, Bill Cowley, Hooley Smith, Cooney Weiland, Bun Cook, Nels Stewart, Sylvio Mantha and goalie Tiny Thompson. In fact, it was Schmidt's development that allowed the Bruins to trade Stewart to the New York Rangers for cash.

Schmidt helped lead the Bruins to four straight regular-season titles between 1938-41 and Stanley Cups in 1939 and 1941. He was the leading scorer in 1940. The Art Ross Trophy that goes to the NHL's leading scorer wasn't awarded until 1948, when Lach was the League’s top scorer. Lach also was the leading scorer in 1945.

A lot of longtime hockey fans who grew accustomed to the Montreal Canadiens being one of the NHL’s best teams might be surprised to learn the Montreal team was not very good when Lach broke in during the 1940-41 season. Ownership cleaned house in the summer of 1940, naming Tommy Gorman general manager and Dick Irvin as coach. Lach was part of a group of young players added that season to a team that had been fading since the retirement of Aurel Joliat in 1938 and the death of Howie Morenz in 1937. Joining Lach that season were defenseman Ken Reardon, center John Quilty, right winger Joe Benoit and goalie Bert Gardiner.

The Canadiens were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs that season, while the Bruins swept the Detroit Red Wings for their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.

The Bruins were led by “The Kraut Line” of Schmidt, Bobby Bauer and Woody Dumart, who grew up in the German-dominated community of Kitchener, Ontario. They had Frankie Brimsek in net. Hollett, Shore, Clapper and Jack Portland were mainstays on defense. Roy Conacher joined Cowley, Mel Hill, Gord Pettinger, Ray Getliffe and player-coach Weiland on offense.
There was trouble afoot in the world outside NHL rinks, though. Europe already was at war and the United States would be drawn in on Dec. 7 by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Schmidt, Bauer and Dumart joined the Canadian Air Force, and played their last game in Boston on Jan. 10, 1942, downing the Canadiens and Lach by an 8-1 score.

"It was against the Canadiens, and we beat them badly," Schmidt told the Hockey Hall of Fame. "I don't think I'll ever forget what happened after the game. The players on both teams lifted the three of us on their shoulders and carried us off the ice and the crowd gave us an ovation. A man couldn't ever forget a thing like that."

"Milt was the best player in the League when I came up," Lach said. "Bauer was a kingpin on that line, too. Schmidt was fortunate to have a player like that on his line. It was like Gretzky had Messier. I had Rocket Richard on my line for many years. You have to be very fortunate to play with linemates like that.

"Milt was tall and very strong, bigger than me, so for many years, Kenny Mosdell played for us against him. Milt always felt abused playing against Kenny. He whined to me all the time about it. He was funny. Milt would always come up to me at the start and ask; 'What are we going to do tonight?' And then; ‘Let's wait and see what happens.’

"Milt had a favorite trick: He'd push the puck between my skates and then he'd just run right over me. They were a great line to play against and we had a lot of fun."

Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt spent over thirty years in
the Bruins' organization as a player, coach and GM,
and was a part of four Stanley Cup championships.
"Every time I played against Elmer, I knew I was playing against one of the best," Schmidt said. "I had to give my best every game. We had great battles against that line of Lach, Rocket Richard and Toe Blake. It was just ability against ability. I thought it brought out the best in the Kraut Line. We tried to hold them down and we scored very few goals against them. They scored more. Richard was the guy who scored them. It was a pleasure and an honor to play against those guys."

The three Bruins returned to the NHL in 1945-46 and helped Boston to the Stanley Cup Final against the Canadiens, who won in five games. Lach was the leading scorer in the playoffs, scoring five goals and adding 12 assists in nine games. Richard and Blake each had seven goals.

"It's always a disappointment when you lose," Schmidt said. "The problem is that someone else wants to win and sometimes they are better than you are. You have to give them credit. We were fortunate to go as far as we did.”

"We got back from the war and we had a tough time adjusting," Schmidt recalled. "Fitness wasn't a problem, but the red line had been introduced while we were away and we had a tough time adjusting to the passing and not going offside. Finally we got used to it and held our own out there. Bobby and Woody had great hockey sense. We had played juniors together in Kitchener and Bobby and Woody signed with the Bruins in 1935. They gave me an offer but I went home and played another year of juniors. Art Ross converted Woody from defense to forward. I signed the next year and Ross put our line together. We stayed together a long time."

Schmidt retired during the 1954-55 season to become the Bruins’ coach. He was named the club’s general manager in 1967 and guided the team to Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972. Schmidt was reminded of the parallel between the teams he starred on and the ones he managed. His 1938-41 Bruins were the NHL's best team, lost a Stanley Cup in 1940 they believe they should have won and then were broken up in 1942 by World War II. The 1969-72 Bruins were the League's best team, lost a Stanley Cup in 1971 they thought they would win and were broken up after 1972 by the rivalry with the World Hockey Association.

"You couldn't blame those players that went to the WHA," Schmidt said. "They were going off for hundreds of thousands of dollars more than they were getting. The WHA bit off more than they could chew and it led to their demise, but they sure put a dent in the Bruins."


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