Surrounded by family and friends, Milt Schmidt celebrated his 98th birthday on Saturday. His No. 15, which hangs proudly among the retired Bruins sweaters in the Garden rafters, was crafted delicately into the cake’s rich, sugary icing.
In deference to a man of his years, the once-fearsome center was spared having to blow out 98 candles.
“I would never be able to do it now,’’ Schmidt said through his impish, infectious laugh, just hours before guests started to arrive for the weekend’s quiet celebration at his retirement community along Route 128. “But, oh well, I had a great career.’’
Our city has never known anyone quite like Schmidt, for his on-ice heroics, his longevity, his enduring greatness, presence, and unwavering dignity. Born with World War I in its final throes, he arrived here from Kitchener, Ontario, as a rawboned, 18-year-old in 1936 and went on to win two Stanley Cups as a player and two more as a member of the front office. He served for years as captain, then coach, and as assistant GM in 1967 he orchestrated the trade that brought Phil Esposito here from Chicago.
In 1960, Schmidt was also among the club’s cognoscenti who stood in a little rink in Gananoque, Ontario, along the St. Lawrence River, to check out a couple of hot prospects, last names Eaton and Higgins, both high on the Bruins’ watch list. Those two hot shots never made it. But the 12-year-old pee-wee with the buzzcut who played in the same game for Parry Sound left Schmidt and the rest of the Boston party in utter amazement.
“Five of us went that day,’’ said Schmidt, recalling nearly to the hour when the Bruins’ courtship of Robert Gordon Orr officially began. “And everyone one of us said, ‘To hell with Eaton and Higgins! There’s that No. 2 on defense from Parry Sound who’s a hell of a lot better than Eaton and Higgins.’ ’’
Two years later, promised that the Bruins would paint his parents’ stucco home in Parry Sound, a 14-year-old Orr signed his amateur playing rights over to the Bruins. This September will mark 50 years since he arrived on Causeway Street to rattle our dormant hockey gene with a thunderous clout.
“The best hockey player I’ve ever seen,’’ said Schmidt, the TV in his cozy one-bedroom apartment tuned nowadays for every Bruins game. “No question about it. None. The players are all bigger and faster now. But if Bobby Orr played today, forget it, he’d make them sick.’’
When Schmidt arrived in 1936, the next World War on the brew, a legendary Boston defenseman was already in residence. Eddie Shore, his aggressive, game-changing attacks with the puck a trademark, often made flamboyant entrances on the ice, a cape draped over his shoulders. Skilled, complex, and brooding, Shore was in his early 30s and a veteran of 10 NHL seasons when Schmidt joined the roster.
In one of his first exchanges with the great defenseman, recalled Schmidt, the two were working out at Boston Arena (now owned by Northeastern), with the Bruins out of town. Shore was on the mend from injury and Schmidt yet to crack the lineup full time.
“ ‘Mister . . . Schmidt . . . come . . . here!’ ’’ Schmidt recalled a full 80 years later, mimicking Shore’s deliberate, ominous cadence. “He talked very slowly. I was 18 years of age. And I said, ‘Yes, sir, what’s on your mind?’ ’’
The No. 1 star in the NHL imparted his words of wisdom on the wide-eyed teenager.
“ ‘Let me tell you, son, you will never stay in the National Hockey League if you do not change your style of skating,’ ’’ recalled Schmidt. “Eddie was an [erect] skater. I was stooped over. The same thing for Syl Apps of Toronto, who, as far as I was concerned, was the greatest hockey player I played against. I started to cry when he first told me that.’’
Days later, the Bruins home from their trip, defenseman Dit Clapper could sense something had happened. Even for a kid, Schmidt was uncharacteristically quiet in the dressing room.
“He had a different name for me,’’ recalled Schmidt, again laughing, an obvious sense of relief in his voice, “and he yelled over, ‘Hey, Schnitzelpuss! What’s the problem with you?!’ ’’
Schmidt said he informed Clapper of the exchange with Shore, prompting Clapper to tell his fellow vet to lay off the rookie.
“Dit says to me, ‘Let me handle this!’ ’’ said Schmidt. “Clapper was like a father to me. He would have knocked the hell out of Eddie Shore . . . oh, let me tell you. That was it. I never heard from Shore again.’’
Over the course of some two hours on Thursday, his soft voice at times rising to a crescendo over vivid memories, Schmidt recalled bits of his life’s long journey, from growing up on a quiet street in Kitchener, quitting school at age 14, working odd jobs in a shoe factory (18 cents an hour), a tannery, and a brewery’s ice house to keep playing junior hockey and fulfill his NHL dream.
Of all the tasks, recalled Schmidt, the nearby Lang tannery provided the toughest. The dye from the hides drenched and stained the full length of his powerful arms. Far worse, the hooks to hang the hides minced his fingertips, rendering them too painful and swollen for him to clutch a bat or throw a ball.
Off the ice, Schmidt played baseball every summer in Kitchener, and he recalled that he earned an invite to tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals only two years into his career with Boston.
“They called up and asked where I was,’’ he said, again delighted over the distant memory. “And I said immediately, ‘If you think I am reporting to you guys and running around in that hot sun . . . no way, forget me, I’m a hockey player and I intend to stay with that.’ I think I made the right choice.’’
They sang “Happy Birthday” and shared cake and ice cream with Schmidt on Saturday. Daughter Nancy Sommer and son Connie were there, along with some of his half-dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and a smattering of close friends. He is nearly a century old, with a glimmer yet present in his eye, his voice clear, his memory sharp, his mark on the Bruins as bold as the eight spokes that frame the Boston “B” logo.
And the key to making it to 98?
“Most of the time I minded my own business out there,’’ he said. “I think that had a lot to do with it. I’ve had a good life.’’