Coming when and as it did, Terry Sawchuk's sudden decision last week to quit hockey amounts to a terribly ironic turn of events for the Boston Bruins. This season, for the first time in many dreary winters, the Bruins have been in the battle for the league leadership all the way and are bent on proving during the second half of the season that they are no mere temporary sensation. Without Sawchuk, it will be harder. How much harder is suggested by the fact they have failed to win a game since he left.
The resurgence of the Bruins has effected a considerable change in the usual complexion of the National Hockey League. Over the last half-dozen years, the race, with only fleeting variations, has consisted of two separate races. First, there has been the battle for the top between the Detroit Red Wings and the Montreal Canadiens, the two teams which, incidentally, possess just about all of the game's current superstars. Then, since in the bizarre NHL structure all but the bottom two of the six teams qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, there has been the annual battle for third and fourth place between the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers.
Their decline over the past decade into second-rate powers scrounging for a playoff berth has been hard on New York and Toronto, but in a curious way it has perhaps been hardest of all on Boston. Since the close of World War II, what with the soul-searing annual collapse of the Red Sox and the almost uninterrupted hibernation of the Braves—not to mention such secondary disappointments as the Boston area's waning prestige in golf, tennis and track, the failure of its pro football team to grow roots and Harvard's slow but sure metamorphosis into the living epitome of deemphasis on sports, however accidentally achieved—being a sports-minded resident of the Massachusetts colony has meant existing on a cheerless frontier of frustration. It sends shivers up the spine to think of the depths of despair that might have been reached had there been no Boston Bruins to cheer for and be proud of. (This year the Celtics are, at length, helping out a great deal too.)
Organized in 1924, the Bruins started to catch on two years later (and the local preference for amateur hockey simultaneously receded) after it was revealed that Irving Small, an amateur star, was suing his club for back pay. About three years after this, George Owen, the wonderful all-around Harvard athlete, joined the Bruins as a defense-man—and a very fine one. The acquisition of Owen had the effect of banding together all varieties of Boston sports followers behind the Bruins, the first time that Bostonians had banded together behind anything since the days of, the Stamp Act. Always colorful and successful, Boston hockey reached its pinnacle in 1940-41. In that season the Bruins went 23 games without defeat, swept to their fourth consecutive NHL championship, and went on to carry off the Stanley Cup for the second time in that monumental stretch. Small boys growing up in New England during this period could tell you the goals and assists records of the famed Kraut Line of Schmidt, Bauer and Dumart with greater speed and accuracy than they could reel off the batting averages of Williams, Doerr and Foxx.
Boston hockey, which began to slip during the war when the farm system fell apart, reached one of its lowest points last March when the team failed even to qualify for the playoffs. The person who felt this unhappy state of affairs most keenly was Milt Schmidt, who had just finished his first full season as the Bruins' coach. During his 19-year career in the NHL in which he had come to personify the Bruins in flesh and spirit as completely as Pee Wee Reese does the Dodgers or Sammy Baugh did the old Washington Redskins, Schmidt had made it eminently clear that he knows only one way to play sports and that is to play to win—not to look good, not to tie, but to win. With the disastrous season irretrievably behind him, Schmidt started to build for a new and better one immediately by undertaking a long scouting tour of the minors. (One of the products of this trip was Larry Regan, the 26-year-old rookie whom Schmidt converted from a wing to a center and who has performed so brilliantly that everyone has been wondering how a player of his talent could have stayed undiscovered for so long.) When he assembled his squad for preseason training last September, Schmidt, convinced that he had been too convivial a fellow last year to be a successful coach, began to snap the whip with a real crack. Preseason training was held this year at the Boston Garden, and to make sure that his players were thinking of hockey, hockey, hockey, Schmidt made it mandatory for every member of his squad to live in the Hotel Manger, which adjoins the Garden. He moved in himself, the better to enforce a strict curfew of 11 p.m. Furthermore, every man had to be up by 7—there would be none of that lolling in bed and skipping breakfast and then trying to slide through morning practice without a good meal to fuel you. Schmidt made very few significant changes in arranging his team for maximum strength, other than shifting Doug Mohns from wing to defense. What he concentrated on was imbuing his club with bona-fide determination to win hockey games and driving them into tiptop condition necessary to go all-out every minute they were on the ice.
Rush to the top
The team got off well. In their third game, they beat Les Canadiens, a happy auspice. Two weeks later they defeated Les Canadiens on Les Canadiens' home ice, a rarer feat. In fourth place as the fifth week of the season began, the Bruins really began to move. They defeated the Rangers in New York, the Red Wings in Boston, Les Canadiens in Montreal encore une fois, and Les Canadiens in Boston—all this within a space of five nights. This terrific rush bolted the Bruins into first place. They have managed to stay in that general vicinity ever since.
The big point about the Bruins' renascence is that it has been, to use Schmidt's own phrase, "entirely a team effort." With the exception of Sawchuk, currently under suspension, the Bruins have no star players. In fact, on paper they are hardly an impressive crew at all, an amalgam of a few reliable veterans, a few revived castoffs and a few promising but not outstanding youngsters. But they have hustled like nobody's business, and hockey is essentially an inexact game in which a hustling B-plus player can more than hold his own against an A-minus (or even an A) player who is taking it a bit easy. The Bruins' success, in short, underlines an old fact that is too frequently forgotten in this day of overattention to individual performers: the strength of a team can be greater than the sum of its individual parts.
As Schmidt sees it, genuine team play can result only when every man on the team knows he is a valuable cog and is fired by those two old irreplaceables, desire and determination. "In the dressing room before every game," Schmidt told a friend this winter, "I look to see that every man is keyed up about the game, about what he's going to be doing to help the team. You've got to have those butterflies in your stomach. You'll lose them the minute you hit the ice, but you've got to start with them or you'll never be able to get in the game." Schmidt has succeeded so well in instilling the Bruins with his own will to win that, according to Herb Ralby of the Boston Globe, college coaches would do well to take their squads to the Bruins' dressing room so that they could see what real campus spirit is like.
Milton Schmidt's arrival as a productive coach marks, in a way, the culmination of one of the most heart-warming stories not only in hockey but in all of sport. It is the story also of Woody Dumart (left wing) and Bobby Bauer (right wing), who with Schmidt (at center) formed the Kraut Line, one of the great forward lines in the history of hockey and undoubtedly the greatest in the period between the passing of the Rangers' Cook-Boucher-Cook line and the formation of Les Canadiens' Punch Line of Blake-Lach-Richard. The story of the Krauts has the ring of those improbable novels that one is saturated with as a youngster—The Rover Boys in Andorra, The Golden Boys on Center Court at Wimbledon, and so on—in which devoted boyhood chums scale the heights together, all for one and one for all. Well, that is really the story of the Krauts, three very fine, thoroughly exceptional young men. (Offhand, I can think of only one other chapter in recent sports history that has the same quality of boyhood fiction about it, and that is the story of that amazing triumvirate of Oxford runners—Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway selflessly silencing their own immediate ambitions to work with their friend Roger Bannister on how they could best pace him in his effort to shatter the four-minute mile.)
It was Albert (Battleship) Leduc, the old defenseman, who christened Schmidt, Bauer and Dumart "The Krauts," and his inspiration was simple: the boys were all of German ancestry. Schmidt and Dumart were born in Kitchener, Ontario, an industrial town about 60 miles out of Toronto where the bulk of the 45,000 residents are of German descent. (Kitchener, as a matter of fact, had been originally called Berlin, but World War I decreed the discreet change of names. When World War II erupted, history repeated itself mildly, and the Kraut Line was temporarily rechristened the Kitchener Kids.) Schmidt's home in Kitchener was about a mile from Dumart's and just about a mile also from Bauer's in the adjoining twin town of Waterloo. "I don't remember exactly when I first met Porky—that's what we've always called Dumart," Schmidt was recalling recently, "but I must have been about 7 or 8. Pork was about a year and a half older than me, and big for his age, and he played defense. I didn't see so much of Bobby when I was a kid, since he lived across the river, but all of us knew each other and kept running into each other playing hockey or baseball."
Schmidt and Dumart became teammates for the first time when they both made the team that represented Kitchener in the Ontario Hockey League, a junior league for players 20 and under. In their third year, 1934-35, they were joined by Bauer, who had been attending St. Michael's College in Toronto and, incidentally, making quite a name for himself. At the close of that season Bauer was signed by the Bruins, after a fairly complicated negotiation with Toronto which had originally drafted him. Dumart was personally scouted by Art Ross, the Bruins' general manager, and also signed. Bauer and Dumart lost little time telling Ross about Schmidt, and Ross invited Schmidt, via letter, to attend the Boston training camp the following September. "None of us has ever forgotten Schmidtty's answer," Ross was remembering this winter. "He wrote that he appreciated the invitation very much, and would immediately get a job and start saving his money so that he could afford to make the trip. He had no idea the club paid a player's expenses."
An emigration en masse
A tall young man, Schmidt weighed about 125 pounds at the time of his first tryout. That was too light for pro hockey, so he went back to Kitchener for a final year of junior hockey and some general fattening up. The next year, when he was 18 and somewhat sturdier in physique than Deacon Waite, hockey's renowned "Dancing Hairpin," Schmidt joined Bauer and Dumart as a member of the Providence Reds, the Bruins' main farm club. In Providence they were placed on the same line at Ross's instigation. By the beginning of the '37-38 season, the Krauts had graduated en masse to the Bruins. There they stayed and played their unforgettable precise and imaginative hockey for 4½ years until they enlisted, as a trio, in the Royal Canadian Air Force. The trio fought the war together, and when it was over returned to the Bruins and put in two more seasons as a line before their partnership was dissolved by Bauer's decision to retire and to enter his father-in-law's business, the Canada Skate Co. Bobby is undoubtedly the only NHL player who ever chose to retire after a season in which he scored 30 goals, the equivalent of batting .350. Dumart remained an active player with the Bruins until 1954, when he was 37 years old. The previous spring, in a playoff series in which a mediocre Boston team unaccountably overwhelmed the Red Wings, Dumart turned in a last superlative performance when, with a tremendous exhibition of all-round defensive play, he held the great Gordon Howe in check game after game as Howe has never been checked before or since. Schmidtty hung on as a player until midway through the '54-55 season when, unable to do the things he could once do on ice, he accepted the coaching job that had been held waiting for him for many seasons.
The Krauts continue to be very close to each other. Bauer, of course, presently lives back in Kitchener-Waterloo, but he comes down to Boston fairly frequently on business trips and for special Bruin occasions. Such a one was the evening of March 18, 1952, Milt Schmidt Night at the Garden. For that one game against the Blackhawks, Bauer was officially reinstated as a player and the Krauts were reunited for one final fling together. What they did was almost too good to be true. Even though he had been in retirement for five years, Bauer managed to score a picture-postcard goal, and in the second period he and Dumart worked the puck down the ice, whipped it over to Schmidt in front of the cage, and Schmidtty slapped in the 200th goal of his NHL career. Since Dumart's retirement, he has been affiliated with Bauer's skate company as its New England representative, and the Dumarts live next door to the Schmidts in Needham, a suburb of Boston. Porky and Milt drive into and back from every home game together, talking things over, or if the Bruins are in a rough slump, shutting up together. "This year," Dumart says, "has been a much better one for conversation than last."
The spearhead of the Krauts, to be sure, was Schmidt, three-time All-League center, top league scorer in 1939-40, and as late as the 1950-51 season winner of the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player. "Schmidt was the fastest playmaker of all times," Art Ross has remarked. "By that I mean that no player ever skated at the tilt Schmidtty did and was still able to make the play." Because of his full-throttle style of attack, when Schmidt was body-checked by a rugged defenseman on the lines of "Black Jack" Stewart, the impact was more like a crash than a mere check. For all his sinew, Schmidt suffered an almost endless succession of injuries, which included broken ribs, a broken jaw, a broken nose, severe injuries to his knees and a recurrent wry neck. An incredible competitor, he almost always managed to get onto the ice somehow and play. Against the Leafs, for example, in one playoff series, when both his knees were so banged up from repeated injuries that he literally couldn't bend them, he had his legs taped from the ankle to the thigh and then had himself lifted off the table and "onto his skates." Not infrequently, Schmidt's injuries resulted from shuddering collisions with the metal goal posts. In a playoff game against Les Canadiens in 1947, just such a collision was the inevitable aftermath of one of the most spectacular of his countless spectacular goals. With the Canadiens trailing by a goal and pressing hard for the equalizer, Schmidt broke up a Montreal power play by getting the tip of his blade onto a pass that was being fed back from a corner to Butch Bouchard stationed at one of the points just inside the Boston blue line. He flipped the puck over Bouchard's stick, wheeled in a flash and corralled the loose puck at center ice a step ahead of Bouchard and one other pursuing Canadien. Usually, in a circumstance like this when a player in Schmidt's position has the chance for a breakaway, either he is overtaken by the defending players or else, in outskating them, he is simply going too fast to control himself and the puck at the same time. Schmidt, however, managed to stay in the clear with a terrific burst of speed and still retain partial control of the puck as he swept, more than a little off balance from his effort, into Montreal territory with only the goalie, Bill Durnan, to beat. Instead of just settling for getting a shot off and calling it a good play at that, Schmidt somehow poised himself just long enough to snap a hard low shot into the left-hand corner of the cage. Then, careening way out of control at almost the same instant, he tumbled over himself onto the ice and went sliding head-first against the goal post and off the goal post into the cage itself. After a few repairs, he was back in the game again, never sparing himself. As a coach, Schmidtty has never asked his players to do anything he didn't do himself, in spades, and this explains his success to a considerable measure.
A meaningful boast
If there is such a thing as the definitive Schmidt anecdote, it took place in the summer of 1955 when Schmidt, about to begin his first full season as the Bruins' coach, was having a drink after a round of golf with Lynn Patrick, the Bruins' present general manager whom Schmidt had succeeded as coach, and a small group of their mutual friends. The conversation turned to hockey. "Schmidt will never be as successful a coach as I was," Patrick suddenly volunteered. Patrick is a notoriously mature and unegoistic person, and hearing him talk like this staggered his listeners, Schmidt particularly. "That's true—Schmidtty will never be anywhere near as successful a coach as I was," Patrick repeated. "He'll never be able to look down the bench when the team's in trouble and say as I could, 'Milt, get out there.' "
PROVINCE OF ONTARIO, CANADA
BAUER (Right Wing)
DUMART (Left Wing)