Ordinarily, as if there were anything ordinary about the kingdom of Sport in these times, the subject of the week would be the NFL playoffs, that fierce if sometimes mindless celebration of pain and mayhem that has taken custody of the otherwise bleak month of January in our popular culture.
The premises of this year’s festival commanding our obligatory obsessions are compelling. Is that not a gleaming yellow brick road leading all the way to Houston on which your Patriots will merrily enjoy safe passage as they dance all the way to Super Sunday?
That, at least, seems the consensus of the adoring local media. It would appear the only thing your team has to fear may be the absence of fear itself. Anyway, that’s what I’ve been reading and hearing and, as you well know, we here are always eager to defer to the Conventional Wisdom. Some might suggest the Steelers, Packers, Seahawks, maybe even the Cowboys – ugh – are capable of dissent. But we’ll bypass such heresy for the moment. All that stuff can wait because this is Milt Schmidt’s week.
It’s off onto the long and ultimate road trip that Miltie has departed, and for those of us blessed to have had him for a friend, the opportunity to bid him hail and farewell is downright joyful. There should be no tears here. Few have led lives more demanding of celebration.
One of the more insufferable clichés in this business is to pronounce the passing of a notable character as bringing to an emphatic end an entire era. Rarely is it properly the case. But in Schmidty – gone just two months shy of his 99th birthday – we have the near unique exception.
He was the oldest alumnus of the National Hockey League, the last to have played meaningfully before World War II, arriving in 1936 as the game was mourning Howie Morenz. He played with Eddie Shore, was mentored by Dit Clapper, coached by Art Ross, on a line with Cooney Weiland, in front of Tiny Thompson in goal, all of whom, you need appreciate, having been founding fathers of the Bruins.
Milt was already an all-star, leading his team to a Cup the year a scrawny and petulant Ted Williams arrived in town with the Red Sox. Milt was the last of our pre-war athletes, the very last connection with an era that was truly precious.
And it was, of course, World War II that was the great divide, professionally and personally, for lads of that era. In the case of Milt and his “Kraut Line” mates, it was the war that inspired a fabulous moment that still much graces their legend. It unfolded the night of Feb. 10, 1942, when the Bruins, in first place and favorites for the Cup, thrashed Montreal at the old Garden, 8-1, which would have been noteworthy in any era except that this was the night the “Krauts” headed off to war.
Buddies since their childhood in Kitchener, Ontario, Woody Dumart, Bobby Bauer, and Milt Schmidt were all of German descent, proud of their heritage, and at the very height of their game. But there was no hesitation. Nine weeks after Pearl Harbor, as Singapore was falling to the Japanese, marking what Churchill himself called the war’s “darkest hour” for the British, the mates departed for the Royal Canadian Air Force in a vintage display of sentiment and patriotism.
When the game ended, the teams lined up for center-ice ceremonies and then, in a wonderfully impromptu gesture, the players – both Bruins and the much-loathed Canadiens – hoisted the three “Krauts” onto their soldiers and collectively skated them around the ice with great ceremony as the organist played “Auld Lang Syne.” When the music ended, off they went to England with the RCAF not to return for three and a half years. Reports from the time describe the crowd near ecstatic with nary a dry eye in the house.
It was of such marvelous stuff that the “Kraut Line” legend was forged: three sturdy, too-good-to-be-true chaps who played the game both honorably and well, genuine Musketeers, bonded in childhood and pals their entire lives. Milt was their captain – their D’Artagnan, if you will – and he played that fabulous role brilliantly. If they were the tender sentiments of a simpler, clearer time, it was no less a sweet chord they struck. And it lingered.
They were “gentlemen,” in what one regards, at the risk of seeming rather too nostalgic, the nicest old-fashioned sense of that special word. No one ever had a bad word to say of Milton Conrad Schmidt, certainly not in his world, where canons of honor and bearing were much prized. His was a timeless tale, and wonderful!