Sports

For Bruins legend Milt Schmidt, outdoor hockey was a rite of passage

KITCHENER, Ontario — Milton Schmidt, one of the six Schmidt kids raised here at 130 Shanley St., knew of the bigger rinks with their glassy-smooth ice surfaces. They were the era’s few and coveted indoor arenas, with boards and regulation hockey nets, scoreboard and clock.

Barely a mile away, right around the corner from the downtown’s elegant Walper Hotel, stood the Kitchener Auditorium. In the 1920s, young Milt sold peanuts at the Aud for 5 cents a bag so he could watch the Kitchener Millionaires play in the Canadian Professional Hockey League.

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He would arrive early on game days and help the players, already suited up in their Millionaire uniforms, carry their skates and sticks from hotel to rink. One day, he was certain, he would skate on fine, manicured ice, make it all the way to the NHL.

“Mr. Bain, I’m going to be a professional hockey player,’’ Schmidt recalled saying, thinking back to his grammar school days at nearby King Edward Public School, where principal W.G. Bain prioritized books over rinks. “He’d tell me, ‘Milton, it’s good to have that in the back of your mind, but there are different things besides hockey.’ And I said, ‘We’ll see.’ ’’

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Schmidt, who lives in Westwood, Mass., and will turn 98 years old in March, went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Bruins as a fierce and prolific center in the 1930s, ’40s, and into the ’50s. He hopes to visit Gillette Stadium in the next few days, with the Bruins and Canadiens prepared to take to the stadium’s outdoor ice as part of the NHL’s annual Jan. 1 Winter Classic series.

In Schmidt’s childhood days here, some 70 miles southwest of Toronto, “outdoor hockey’’ was ostensibly a redundant term. To play the game, which he did night, day, and in his dreams, meant to take to the frozen ponds or other outdoor patches that dotted the neighborhoods near Shanley Street. Hockey was almost exclusively an outdoor game, the same as baseball or soccer. No car rides to rinks for early-morning practices. No Zamboni machines to turn out pristine sheets.

Kids in Kitchener had a nose for the game, albeit with a bit of frostbite. They earned their ice time, with shovel and broom.

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Out the front door on Shanley Street, Schmidt would turn left and trudge upward of a mile through a snow-covered field, sometimes in his sister’s skates, to play at Lippert’s Farm Pond. To the right, he’d walk the half-dozen blocks to school, where the custodian’s duties included maintaining an ice rink on school grounds for use when the King Eddy boys faced off each Saturday morning against one of the area’s other public schools.

“Purple and Gold! Purple and Gold! These are the colors that we shall hold!’’ trumpeted Schmidt, reborn as a ruddy-faced grammar schooler as he sang the school fight song. “Zis, Boom, Bah!, Zis, Boom, Bah! King Edward! King Edward! Rah, Rah, Rah!’’

Hold those colors they did, in awe and reverence. According to Schmidt, come Friday afternoons during hockey season each boy on the team was presented a prized heavy woolen King Edward hockey sweater to wear in the next day’s game. Be it from the principal or coach — sometimes one and the same — the boys would be handed their sweaters, along with stern reminders to return them to school on Monday, washed and dried.

“We would wear them home and we would wear them that night to bed,’’ recalled Schmidt, who played for King Edward in the mid- and late-1920s. “No ins or outs about it. We wore them with pride.’’

Young Milton Conrad Schmidt, King Eddy’s gifted center, recalled wearing his KE sweater to bed every Friday night. Emma Schmidt, even with five other children to look after, made certain the sweater was clean and dry for him to carry to school on Monday morn.

“Yes, good Mother did a fine job,’’ he said, remembering that Emma Schmidt also sometimes would scrape together an extra 15 cents for a new hockey stick.

With skates slung over his shoulder, and clean sweater tucked under an arm, Schmidt would make his way to school and pass by Sacred Heart, the Catholic Church lower on Shanley Street, where, he said, he had more than his share of fistfights with the boys who played for the parish school’s hockey team.

‘[W]e looked forward to playing our games outside. It didn’t matter, for one simple reason, there was no other place to play — outside was it.’

Milt Schmidt 
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“You had to fight for the sake of the hockey team,’’ recalled Schmidt, who believed the same when he wore Bruins colors. “We fought there and we fought in games, too.’’

Upon season’s end, he recalled, King Edward and Sacred Heart squared off at one of their respective school’s outdoor rinks to determine an unofficial neighborhood champion.

“It was the Protestants against the Catholics,’’ he recalled. “And I got into more fights. Today, it doesn’t matter to me whether it’s Protestant or Sacred Heart . . . [and then] it really didn’t matter.’’

A different time

Milt Schmidt, then the Bruins’ captain, in a photo from 1953.

Associated Press/File

Milt Schmidt, then the Bruins’ captain, in a photo from 1953.

The skating scene here in Schmidt’s old North Ward neighborhood is considerably different today. With indoor rinks aplenty, as true throughout most North American cities the last 50-60 years, the schools don’t maintain outdoor rinks on their grounds. Often in Ontario and throughout Canada, however, parents will band together and share the upkeep of an outdoor neighborhood sheet, be it in a local park or on a resident’s small patch of lawn.

A visit to Kitchener by a Globe reporter earlier this month, amid an inordinate warm stretch, turned up no outdoor ice in Kitchener, other than a tidy refrigerated sheet the city maintains in front of City Hall.

Schmidt’s old grammar school, opened in 1887, remains open to this day for Kitchener students, pre-kindergarten through Grade 6. Pavement now covers the area behind the school where the custodian once flooded the grass to make ice for the King Edward Lions. Standard playground paraphernalia fills the space behind the school where Schmidt once might have taken a faceoff against rival Margaret Avenue. A Four Square box has been painted on the asphalt.

“We used to keep a big box of skates here that the kids could use,’’ said school secretary Judy Kraemer, noting that some students still skate at a neighborhood rink near school property. “But with regulations, we don’t do that anymore . . . someone could get hurt.’’

A search through the school’s archives, located in King Edward’s second-floor library, failed to produce a picture of Schmidt and his hockey teammates from the ’20s. But there were a couple of team pictures from later years, along with replica Purple and Gold sweaters. “King Edward! King Edward! Rah, Rah, Rah!’’

There is no King Edward trophy case, athletic hall of fame, or plaque to note that Schmidt, be it to Mr. Bain’s chagrin or delight, went on to become an NHL great and win two Stanley Cups in his Boston playing days. Schmidt also was the Bruins’ coach for years, and later as general manager engineered key trades that helped them win the Cup in 1970 and ’72.

Lippert’s Farm Pond, according to 75-year-old Murray Straus, who grew up near Sacred Heart Church on Shanley Street, disappeared years ago as the neighborhood built out with houses and streets.

Straus, whose niece, Brenda Szasz, now lives in what was the Schmidt home, fondly recalled the years when King Edward and Sacred Heart flooded their grounds to make rinks. Schmidt’s father, in fact, maintained the ice on church grounds. If the boys weren’t playing there or at King Edward, he said, they were playing shinny (street hockey) up and down Shanley Street.

According to Schmidt, “no lifting’’ was the rule of the day when he played shinny near his house, meaning the puck was never to leave the ground. But there were times, he said, when shots rocketed into the air and broke a neighbor’s window.

“And right away, we’d yell, ‘We’re not paying! We’re not paying!’ ’’ recalled Schmidt, again chuckling like a little kid. “But we would. We’d all take up a collection and buy a new pane of glass.’’

Schmidt had long left for Boston, recalled Szasz, when her family moved one house over and bought 130 Shanley from Emma and Christian Schmidt for $8,000 in 1956. A child of the ’50s and ’60s, she could not recall seeing rinks at area schools, but she said it remained very much a hockey neighborhood in her childhood years. There were shinny games all the time, she said, and most everyone in her house was glued to the TV on Saturday eves to watch “Hockey Night in Canada.”

“Not me,’’ said Szasz, sitting in the living room of the former Schmidt family home. “I must have been snatched away at birth. I’d be over in a corner doing something else, and my family would be watching ‘Hockey Night in Canada,’ yelling, ‘Kill ’em!’ It just wasn’t for me. I think there was some disappointment for the Leafs, because they’d lose to Montreal.’’

According to Szasz, there is still the occasional knock at the door at 130 Shanley, people curious to know if she’s aware of the house’s connection to Schmidt. Her late mother, said Szasz, was always excited to tell people that it was the house where Milt Schmidt grew up. The house bears no overt connection to Boston these days, other than, as a recent visitor noted to Szasz, the two rescue Boston Terriers she keeps as pets.

“Oh, my gosh, I never thought of that!’’ said Szasz. “That’s so funny!’’

The two dogs, Taboo and Keegan, were oblivious to the irony as they rested curled up on a living room couch.

Szasz’s uncle, Murray Straus, one of nine Straus children who grew up by Sacred Heart Church, recalled how kids up and down Shanley Street idolized Schmidt, the local boy who turned out to be an NHL star. Each summer, recalled Strauss, Schmidt would return home in a bright and shiny American-built car, always a Pontiac.

“A perfect gentleman to everyone,’’ said Straus. “Always has been.’’

In the mid- and late-1940s, said Straus, he delivered the newspaper to the Schmidt residence. One year, he said, Emma Schmidt included a $1 bill as a tip, and another year she gave him a 50-cent piece.

“She signed the cards, ‘Merry Christmas, Emma Schmidt,’ ’’ said Straus, who has kept the cards all these days. “I kept the dollar and the 50-cent piece, too. That was a lot of money back then.’’

Plenty of changes

Schmidt hasn’t returned to his old skating grounds in years, nor can he recall when he last saw boys or girls last playing or skating on outdoor rinks in his old neighborhood.

The old Kitchener Auditorium, which in later years was turned into a dance hall, burned down decades ago. Its site is now a stretch of road that runs parallel to Queen Street, address of the Walper Hotel, which today is closed for renovations. Visits to three nearby businesses, a flower shop, a yoga studio, and a military surplus store, turned up no one on duty who knew of the old Aud.

“I don’t know that,’’ said a man behind the counter at ABC Military Surplus, eyes fixed on a laptop computer screen atop one of the shop’s counters. “I am not long enough here.’’

Woody Dumart, who ultimately joined Schmidt on the Bruins’ famed “Kraut Line,’’ also grew up here. Dumart often played against Schmidt when he played for the nearby Margaret Ave. Public School team. The slightly older Bobby Bauer, the third member of the Kraut Line, also grew up playing school and pond hockey here. When they weren’t referred to as the “Krauts’’ — a nickname given to them by their coach in Providence before they became Bruins — they were known as the “Kitchener Kids.’’

“Believe me or not,’’ said Schmidt, again reflecting on decades long gone by, “we looked forward to playing our games outside. It didn’t matter, for one simple reason, there was no other place to play — outside was it.’’

Outside, in what he recalled often were bone-chilling temps, Schmidt regularly played pickup games at Lippert’s Farm Pond. For the most part, the boys paid little heed to the chill.

Goalies, vulnerable to the cold because they weren’t moving much in net, often rotated out to play shifts at defense or forward to stay warm. If they chose to remain in net, recalled Schmidt, goalies would swap their knit caps with other players, counting on the warmth of a sweaty tuque to ward off the cold — a Winter Classic move if ever there was one.

“We wouldn’t leave the house without bringing brooms and shovels with our skates to get the ice ready,’’ said Schmidt. “Boy, I am telling you, what we went through to play. I think we deserved a medal of honor. But you know, it was worth it. It was outside. It’s all we knew. And we surely loved it.’’

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD
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