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."
As well, hockey's most political moment also involved the two teams, with again Richard but this time Boston defenceman Hal Laycoe in a wild stick-swinging brawl that led to Richard's suspension and, four days later, to the Richard Riot of St. Patrick's Day, 1955.
Murray Costello, who would go on one day to head Hockey Canada, was a 21-year-old centre for Boston when Laycoe and Richard had their momentous tilt in Boston. Costello had just come off the ice from killing a penalty and Laycoe "sweep" checked Richard close to the Boston bench. Laycoe's stick rode up and clipped Richard around the hairline. Costello watched as Richard continued on, curled around the Boston net and took a glove off to check his head, finding he was fast leaking blood.
"The fire in his eyes was very real," says Costello, now 80 years old and retired in Ottawa. "He was a man obsessed."
The players on the bench tried to warn Laycoe, who was attempting to get off the ice, but before he could protect himself Richard had smashed his stick over Laycoe's face and shoulder. He kept swinging until the stick broke.
The two players – once tennis partners when Laycoe had himself been a Hab – began trading punches, and big linesman Cliff Thompson tried to get them apart. "He came up between the two of them just as Rocket was coming over with another punch," Costello remembers. "His face came up right in the middle of that punch and it caught him right under the eye."
Now there was blood everywhere. The Bruins tossed towels out to the bleeding threesome and soon the white towels were soaked red.
"It really looked like a war scene," Costello says. "I was on the bench watching it all. It kind of makes you wonder what you're involved in."
It got worse. Boston police tried to arrest Richard in the dressing room but the players barricaded the door. NHL president Clarence Campbell then suspended Richard for the remainder of the season – costing Richard his best chance at a scoring title – and Thursday night back in Montreal, with the Detroit Red Wings in town to play the Habs, the fans rose up against Campbell, the game was forfeited to Detroit and the furious fans poured out onto Ste-Catherine Street. The riot was on: stores looted, cars overturned, people arrested by the score and a dozen police injured.
Two days later another team came to town – the Boston Bruins.
"It was very touchy," Costello recalls. "We were instructed to stay in our rooms rather than hang around the lobby. At 6 o'clock, five or six cabs lined up and they got us out into them and took us to the Forum where the cops formed a barricade to get us in safely.
"There's just no question that added to the rivalry – it never diminished after that."
'The rivalry was there'
Milt Schmidt now lives in a retirement home in a small community a half-hour south of Boston. "I sometimes sit down in my big easy chair and stare into space," he says. He looks up and sees four Stanley Cup replicas: two presented to him by the Bruins a few years ago to represent the two Cups Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito brought to the city during Schmidt's tenure as general manager, and two treasured ones from his playing days, 1938-39 and 1940-41.
"I can honestly say I break into tears," he says. "I am the only one left from those teams."
So many memories, and so many involving Montreal. There was the night he took on Richard and the night at the old Forum when Boston's No. 15, now retired and hanging from the rafters, so infuriated the Montreal fans that they took off toe rubbers and tossed them down as Schmidt ducked for cover by the boards.
Schmidt and two childhood friends from Kitchener – Bobby Bauer and Woody Dumart – formed "the Kraut Line" in days long before political correctness. They were fast but often the Canadiens were even faster, and Schmidt thinks there is a link here that partially explains the rivalry.
"Montreal had faster ice than anyone else," he says. "Because it was so cold up there. They were used to it and we weren't. We had to play physical hockey just to keep up to them. But they were physical as well.
"We had tough guys like Eddie Shore and [Aubrey] Dit Clapper, who was the toughest guy in the National Hockey League. Dit never fought at home, to my knowledge, but on the road he looked after Bobby, Woody and me. We had to play Montreal hard to have a chance."
"Montreal had guys who could score," Costello adds. "The rivalry was there. It was sure felt among the fans in Boston. It was serious. They knew there was a lot of tension and it had big meaning to play Montreal. They always knew it was going to be a special go. And Montreal had all the big-name guys, so they knew they had to beat the star players like Rocket and Béliveau and Doug Harvey to have a chance."
Costello recalls that famous 1952 portrait of the Rocket and Sugar Jim, bloodied warriors, shaking hands at the end of a typical Montreal-Boston series. "I used to look at it from time to time," he says of his playing days in Boston. "That picture pretty much epitomizes the rivalry."
Bob Gainey thinks part of the reason for such passion has to do with simple location. "It's one of those geographical rivalries," he says, "where the cities are close enough together in distance, but in other ways thousands of miles apart. They are very different, and yet it's very familiar for each to visit the other."
Gainey believes Montreal fans enjoyed the rivalry with Boston more than with any other team. "I think occasionally the Boston-Montreal rivalry would get out of hand physically," he says, "but most of the time it was focused toward who was the better team. It's a great opportunity to have that kind of competition laid in front of you as a competitor and to have the opportunity to participate in it."
And so it has been since that first meeting in 1929. Since then there have been a thousand Boston-Montreal tales told and retold: Richard and Sugar Jim, Richard and Laycoe, Dryden's remarkable "pre-rookie" spring of 1971, Boston coach Don Cherry and the too-many-men call in 1979 that led to a Boston loss in overtime, Boston captain Zdeno Chara's gut-wrenching hit on Montreal's Max Pacioretty in the weeks before the two teams last met in 2011 and went to a Game 7 overtime, P.K. Subban's overtime heroics Thursday night, much to the chagrin of the hometown crowd …
"Perhaps," Gainey suggests, "the number of times that it comes up as a reality rather than as a discussion about time past helps keep it vivid and clear for each new generation."
It began in the 1920s, exploded in the 1950s, grew in stature in the 1970s and remains in 2014 and, surely, through generations to come.
"Regardless of whether or not it's a bad thing," Milt Schmidt says, "it still continues."