CHICAGO — It had been a long, slow train ride from Montreal. Blizzard conditions much of the way. When the Bruins finally pulled into downtown, nearly two hours late for faceoff, the Black Hawks already were in uniform, Chicago Stadium was packed and the ice covered with paper planes.
“Oh, I’m not sure I can tell you what year it was,’’ said Milt Schmidt, thinking back decades, figuring it might have been sometime in the 1940s, a couple of decades before NHL clubs finally switched to full-time air travel. “I’m 95 years of age now, so my memory is . . . I guess you’d say my memory is what it should be at 95.’’
With great detail, though, Schmidt can recall the train rides of the NHL’s Original Six days, especially that one long, snow-filled trek down from Quebec. Increasingly obvious that there would be no time to waste upon arrival, trainers Win Green and Hammy Moore scurried to the train’s baggage car to retrieve their charges’ skates and uniforms. The Bruins might be late for faceoff, but they would be ready. When the train finally pulled in, Schmidt and his teammates were already in uniform, in need only of slipping on their skates and grabbing their sticks once at the rink.
“The Illinois State Police were there to greet us at the station and escort us to the game,’’ recalled Schmidt, laughing now with the glee of a kid reliving a day at Six Flags. “We piled into a bus and, I’ll tell you . . . what a ride! Lights flashing. Sirens blaring. We went through I can’t tell you how many red lights and stop signs . . . one close call after another. But we made it, yes, we sure did.
“And we lost. I think the fright of that ride to the rink just took it all out of us.’’
The Bruins, now two games deep into their matchup with Chicago in the Stanley Cup Final, on Sunday will leave here and travel via charter plane back to Boston. By the time they board their private bus at their downtown hotel, the trip will have taken them door to door in three, maybe four hours, leaving them well rested for Game 3 Monday night on Causeway Street. The Blackhawks will travel in similar, comfortable, stress-free style.
NHLers of Schmidt’s playing days made their way around the six-team league exclusively by train. Chicago and Boston were the league’s western and eastern poles, separated by approximately 1,000 miles, a train ride Schmidt figures took 16-18 hours in his era. A typical western swing for the Bruins included stops in both Detroit and Chicago to maximize efficiency of travel. Often, Schmidt recalled, the trip also included a first stop in Toronto or Montreal, as it did on that one memorable, snow-filled journey.
“Sleeper cars,’’ said Schmidt. “Sometimes you were so tired after a game, you were thankful if you had a lower berth, so you wouldn’t need the energy to climb to the upper berth. Heck, I’d be so tired some nights I could have slept on the floor.’’
Train rides required some financial planning as well as some dining strategy on the players’ parts. In Schmidt’s day, NHL per diem was $6 per player, which spent too quickly, he said, in the dining car. A typical player’s salary was around $10,000 per season, which didn’t allow for lavish spending on food.
“Truth be told, the dining car was usually closed if we were pulling out of Montreal around midnight,’’ he said. “So before the game in Montreal or Toronto, we’d make our way to a local deli and buy sandwiches . . . corned beef, roast beef, turkey. You needed something because you wouldn’t eat after 2 or 3 o’clock on a game day.’’
Trains didn’t have televisions or radios. Players didn’t come aboard with hundreds of songs stored in battery-powered listening devices or with DVD movies to play on their laptops. The endless hours of train travel were spent sleeping, talking with teammates, playing cards or reading newspapers.
“We played a little bit of poker for a while, but Art Ross [Boston’s coach and general manager through the years] put a stop to that — he didn’t want his players gambling,’’ recalled Schmidt. “So we still played, but we only played hearts after Mr. Ross said, ‘There’ll be none of that poker!’ Really, that was about it . . . card playing, napping, and reading the paper. And, heavens, good luck to you if Gordie Pettinger caught you asleep with a newspaper.’’
Pettinger, a center acquired from the Red Wings in 1937, startled many a sleeping teammate by setting those papers on fire.
“He was the practical joker in the bunch,’’ said Schmidt, laughing out loud at the memory of Pettinger delivering the hot news. “Some of the guys would get mad, and I suppose rightly so, because it could have been dangerous. But it was funny. I’d say he and Bill Cowley were the comics in the bunch, but Cowley was the one who really stood out. Good player, too. A bit slow, but could he ever stickhandle. And he could make anybody laugh — even Eddie Shore.’’
The Boston-Chicago rivalry wasn’t nearly as intense as Boston’s matchups with Montreal, Toronto, and the Rangers. The best Chicago players of Schmidt’s day were Bill Mosienko, the Bentley brothers Doug and Max, and John Mariucci. Be it the long distance between the clubs or the comparative strength of rosters, the Bruins-Hawks games were fairly tame compared to some of the other Boston matchups.
“Oh, boy, one night with Montreal, I’ll never forget,’’ recalled Schmidt. “We had Leo Labine in a stick fight with one of their guys. He’s there, holding out his stick, telling their guy that the only animal that eats wood is a beaver, or some crazy thing. ‘You get one step closer,’ says Leo, ‘and I’m going to make you eat this stick!’ ’’
It was not uncommon after games in Montreal, said Schmidt, for the Canadiens and Bruins to be racing to catch the same train out of town, with the Bruins headed, say, to Chicago, and the Habs en route to Detroit. Heated rivals one moment, fellow passengers the next.
“We stayed in our separate cars, though, because there was no talking between the teams,’’ Schmidt said. “You were on the same train, but you really didn’t see one another. Oh, maybe if you went to the dining car for breakfast you’d see a guy, maybe nod, but that was about it. Polite, as it should be, but nothing else.’’
In the new NHL, trains have rolled down the track for good. It’s a league of multimillionaire players who stay in luxury hotels and fly on charter flights with sumptuous on-board meals. There is no wanting, no waiting. Like the pace of the game itself, everything today is streamlined, uptempo. No snow tracks, mostly blue skies.
“You can talk about trains, plane rides, whatever,’’ said Schmidt. “But I can honestly say that train rides benefited the Boston Bruins hockey club, as it did all the other teams of the National Hockey League. We had a togetherness. We knew each other as friends and teammates. And togetherness had a lot to do with success.’’