On the night the Kraut Line went to war, the hockey game was less important than a ceremony to honour departing warriors.
On Feb. 10, 1942, the mighty Boston Bruins, the defending Stanley Cup champions, whipped the Montreal Canadiens 8-1 in a game overshadowed by the Second World War. Boston's top line – childhood friends Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer, all from the neighbouring Ontario cities of Kitchener and Waterloo – recorded 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in their final National Hockey League game for the duration of the war. The trio was exchanging Boston's black-and-yellow hockey sweater for the smart blue tunic of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Such a sacrifice did not go unhonoured. After the game, Bruins management presented the men with cheques for a full season of play, plus bonuses. Teammates gave them gold identification bracelets, while manager Art Ross presented each with a wristwatch. He called them "the most loyal and courageous players in the Bruins' history."
Then, in a rare sight in the hockey arena, the players were hoisted onto the shoulders of friendly Bruins and enemy Canadiens alike to be escorted off the ice.
The three spent much of the war playing for morale-boosting air force hockey teams, seeing more action on the blueline than the front line.
Mr. Schmidt, the last survivor of the trio, all of whom have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, died on Jan. 4, at the age of 98. At the time of his death, he was believed to be the oldest living former NHL player, a distinction that now falls to 14-game New York Rangers player John (Chick) Webster, 96, of Mattawa, Ont.
A tall, skinny centre at six-foot, 185 pounds, Mr. Schmidt was known for his stickhandling and playmaking. A crooked nose offered evidence of a willingness to absorb punishment around the net. He helped the Bruins win Stanley Cups in 1939 and 1941. The absence of the Kraut Line from the Bruins' roster ended the possibility of a Boston dynasty and the city would not celebrate another Stanley Cup championship for a generation.
In the 1939-40 season, the trio finished 1-2-3 in the league scoring race with Mr. Schmidt leading the way with 22 goals and 30 assists.
"The three of us roomed together in Brookline, Mass.," Mr. Schmidt told Kevin Shea of the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2002. "We had one big room, so that we were always together. After practices, we discussed things we should work on. After a game, we'd say, 'We did this wrong, or we did that wrong.' There was no nightlife or anything like that."
After military service, the centre resumed his playing career, serving as Bruins captain for five seasons. He then coached the team for a decade before a tenure as general manager, during which he added his name again to the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972.
Mr. Schmidt played a direct role in four of the franchise's six hockey championships. (He was 11-years-old when Boston won its first Stanley Cup in 1929 and 93 when it won its most recent title in 2011.) He became a revered figure in Boston, where he was known both as "Mr. Bruin" and as "The Ultimate Bruin."
Milton Conrad Schmidt was born on March 5, 1918, in Kitchener, just 10 weeks after the start of the first NHL season. He was the youngest of six children (three boys, three girls) born to Emma (née Warnholz) and Carl Schmidt, both German immigrants. His father worked as a labourer at a tannery. The boy delivered newspapers and sold peanuts at the local rink. Both of his older brothers played hockey. One of them, Carl Jr., nicknamed Gunboat, tended goal for the junior Kitchener Empires, a team Milt joined at age 15. He skated alongside an older boy named Woodrow Wilson Clarence Dumart, known also by the nicknames Woody and Porky.
In 1934, the boys were joined on the Kitchener Greenshirts by the older Robert Theodore Bauer, nicknamed Bingo, who was born in Waterloo. Mr. Schmidt scored a remarkable 20 goals in just 17 games, earning an invitation to the Bruins training camp that fall in Saint John, N.B. The skinny teenager shared ice with the likes of Dit Clapper and Eddie Shore, who left him feeling somewhat overawed by the experience. He declined an offer to sign with the Boston organization, which would have meant toiling in the minor leagues, opting instead to return to Kitchener to finish his junior career.
He signed with the Bruins organization a year later and was assigned to the Providence Reds, where he was reunited with linemates Mr. Bauer and Mr. Dumart. The trio was dubbed the Baby Line and the Kitchener Kids. Coach Albert (Battleship) Leduc, a former NHL defenceman with the Canadiens, called them the Sauerkraut Line, which became shortened to the Kraut Line. After just 26 games as a minor professional, Mr. Schmidt was called up to the parent Bruins.
The youthful trio was a sensation with the cagey Mr. Bauer on right wing and the pacific Mr. Dumart on left, all showing an uncanny ability to deliver timely passes to one another.
The Kraut Line came to dominance just as Hitler's armies began rolling over Europe. The Bruins held a contest to rename the trio, settling on the Buddy Line, which never caught on. Mr. Schmidt himself considered changing his name to Smith.
A week after the line's last game with Boston, the trio skated for an air-force team against the Bruins in a charity match in Ottawa. The Kraut Line went on to lead the Ottawa RCAF Flyers to an Allan Cup victory as senior Dominion championships.
Mr. Schmidt served as a physical education instructor. After training, he was posted to northeastern England, where he led pilots and crews in workouts to keep in shape. More importantly, he conducted training sessions in a swimming pool as he taught airmen the tricky manoeuvre in which a raft is inflated and flipped. An unknown number of his pupils may have relied on the lifesaving skill after ditching in the English Channel or the North Sea.
In the fall of 1943, Mr. Schmidt was promoted to pilot officer, meaning his linemates, both corporals, had to address him as "Sir."
Mr. Schmidt returned to the Bruins at war's end, only to discover the style of play had changed. The league had introduced a centre red-line in their absence, which encouraged fore-checking and a crowded offensive zone at either end. The trio adjusted their game, and led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost in five games to the Canadiens, Mr. Schmidt was held scoreless after suffering a severe charley horse in his right thigh in Game 2.
Mr. Bauer left Boston after the 1946-47 season, during which he scored 30 goals and won his third Lady Byng trophy for gentlemanly play, bringing an end to one of hockey's most storied forward lines.
A final hurrah came on March 18, 1952, when Mr. Bauer returned after a five-year hiatus for a single game during which the trio was to be honoured. NHL president Clarence Campbell, a former referee, presented each with a silver watch, while Boston's sports writers gave Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Dumart inscribed silver trays, while Mr. Bauer got a silver pitcher. Other gifts included radios, golf shoes, cigarette lighters, a record player and groceries, including a six-month supply of ice cream. The ushers at the Boston Garden presented Mr. Dumart's son and Mr. Schmidt's son and daughter with bicycles.
The Bruins went on to defeat the Chicago Blackhawks 4-0 with Mr. Schmidt recording four points, including his 200th career goal. Mr. Bauer also scored, to the delight of the Boston faithful.
As age and injuries (a broken jaw, broken nose, broken ribs, a wrenched neck and countless knee ailments) took a toll, Mr. Schmidt retired as a player in 1954 to take over the reins as head coach. He had scored 229 goals with 346 assists in 776 NHL regular-season games, adding another 25 goals and 49 assists in 86 playoff games. The stylish centre won the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player in 1951.
As coach, Mr. Schmidt twice led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup finals against the Canadiens, losing both times. He lost far more games than he won, learning a lesson.
"My greatest mistake was in expecting all players to have the same attitude toward hockey that I had as a player," he told Jim Proudfoot of the Toronto Star in 1963. "To me, every game was a matter of life and death, every practice serious business. But all players don't feel that way, including players who are assets to a team."
The Bruins missed the playoffs for six consecutive seasons in the 1960s before Mr. Schmidt was made the team's general manager. The arrival of heralded rookie defenceman Bobby Orr for the 1966-67 season gave Boston hope of embarking on a new era. At the end of the season, Mr. Schmidt traded centre Pit Martin, defenceman Gilles Marotte and goalie Jack Norris to Chicago for centres Phil Esposito and Fred Stanfield, as well as right winger Ken Hodge. The trade has gone down in NHL lore as one of the most one-sided deals of all time, as Mr. Esposito emerged as the league's top scorer while Mr. Hodge became a 50-goal scorer.
Mr. Schmidt left the Bruins organization after a contract dispute in 1973. He emerged a year later as the founding general manager of the expansion Washington Capitals, a woeful team now legendary for their incompetence. The former star player, whose name was on the Stanley Cup four times, spent part of two seasons behind the bench with the Capitals, winning just five games against 32 losses and five ties. It was an ignominious end to a storied career on the ice and in the front office.
In 1996, the league awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy to Mr. Schmidt for his contributions to hockey in the United States.
He eventually made up with the Bruins and in recent years was feted as among the greatest of them all, sharing the spotlight with Mr. Orr at an event at the TD Garden last year. Mr. Schmidt, in a wheelchair, was pushed to centre ice on a red carpet by Mr. Orr, whom he had met and scouted at the age of 12. The ceremony marked Mr. Orr's 50th anniversary of joining the club and Mr. Schmidt's 80th.
The Bruins retired Mr. Schmidt's No. 15 sweater in 1980. After his death, the number was painted on the ice behind both nets at the TD Garden in Boston. As well, the Bruins players will wear No. 15 patches on their sweaters for the remainder of the season.
In 1957, Sports Illustrated magazine published an anecdote in which Lynn Patrick, the son of Lester Patrick and Mr. Schmidt's immediate predecessor as Bruins coach, asserted Mr. Schmidt would never be as successful behind the bench as he had been. The claim shocked those who heard it, as Mr. Patrick was known to be a generous and modest man. "Schmitty will never be anywhere near as successful a coach as I was," he 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.'"
Mr. Schmidt, a resident of Westwood, Mass., died at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, Mass., a Boston suburb. He leaves a daughter, Nancy Marie Sommer, of New Smyrna Beach, Fla., and a son, Milton Conrad Schmidt Jr., known as Con, of Medfield, Mass., who had a brief career as a minor pro hockey player. He also leaves four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his Danish-born wife of 53 years, the former Marie Petersen, who died in 1999 at the age of 78.