He is 96 years old, just back from two heart attacks and four weeks in hospital – and Milt Schmidt is laughing heartily as he recalls the time he and Maurice (Rocket) Richard were at daggers drawn in the good old days – days that never seem to end so long as the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens are involved.
“The Rocket hit me across the nose with his stick and broke my nose,” says the former Bruins captain, Hall of Famer and 1951 Hart Trophy winner of the former Canadiens captain, Hall of Famer and 1947 Hart Trophy winner as the NHL’s most valuable player.
“The blow also cracked my teeth and they later turned black and I had to have them pulled. I went to the dressing room and the doctor said, ‘You can’t go back out.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because your nose is broken and you can’t breathe.’ ‘Well,’ I told him, ‘I don’t skate with my nose – I got legs.’
“The doctor said I could sit on the bench and watch. Well, Lynn Patrick was our coach and I said to him, ‘Lynn, first time the Rocket is on the ice, I want to go, too.’ The Rocket goes out and Lynn says, ‘Okay, Milt,’ and I go on. I bodychecked Rocket – not fair and square, but with all the dirtiness that you can think of. I got a penalty and I deserved it. Rocket gets up and I say, ‘You want to go, Rocket?’ and he says ‘No, no, no – why’d you do that?’ and I pointed to my busted nose and said, ‘Because you did that.’
“I’d be telling you a lie if I told you the two teams ever got along. It was no Sunday school picnic.”
‘Stuff of legend’
It never has been – and certainly was not Thursday night in Boston as the Canadiens won a dramatic, no-picnic opening game 4-3 in double overtime. Game 2 in this Eastern Conference semi-final is scheduled for Saturday back at TD Garden.
Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin has called Boston-Montreal “probably the best rivalry in all of sports” – and it very likely is. When Montreal and Boston met again Thursday, it marked the 34th time in NHL history that the two franchises have met in the playoffs, starting in 1929. While the Habs won 24 of those first 33 series – and 18 in a row from 1946 to 1987 – the “Big Bad Bruins” have taken the past two, including a seventh-game white-knuckler in 2011 that sent Boston on to capture the Stanley Cup.
The numbers are so mind-boggling – 171 playoff games, Montreal winning 103 of them, the Canadiens outscoring the Bruins 515-423 in postseason play – that it defies comparison.
“Part of what makes it so unbelievable, surely,” says Ken Dryden, the Hall of Fame goaltender who was in the Montreal net during several monumental battles during the 1970s, “is that no one has played each other as much in the playoffs as have Montreal and the Bruins. There’s no way anyone in Major League Baseball has played each other 33 times, nobody in the NBA and no one in the NFL.”
Dryden sees a symbiotic relationship between the two powerful original six postwar franchises. “Every athlete and every team needs a great opponent,” he says. “It’s the opponent that defines you. Ali needed Frazier. The Yankees needed the Dodgers. The Lakers and Celtics. Nicklaus and Palmer. Bird and Magic … As much as each can stand alone, you stand higher with each other.”
One of hockey’s most iconic photographs is found on the wall outside the Bruins’ dressing room and captures perfectly the rivalry: a bloodied Rocket Richard shaking hands with Boston goaltender Samuel James (Sugar Jim) Henry after the 1952 semi-finals. Richard had been knocked unconscious by a Leo Labine check, badly cut, yet came back to score the series winner. As Montreal great Jean Béliveau wrote in his memoirs, “It is the stuff of legend.”