Coming when and as it did, Terry Sawchuk's sudden decision last week to quit hockey amounts to a terribly ironic turn of events for the Boston Bruins. This season, for the first time in many dreary winters, the Bruins have been in the battle for the league leadership all the way and are bent on proving during the second half of the season that they are no mere temporary sensation. Without Sawchuk, it will be harder. How much harder is suggested by the fact they have failed to win a game since he left.
The resurgence of the Bruins has effected a considerable change in the usual complexion of the National Hockey League. Over the last half-dozen years, the race, with only fleeting variations, has consisted of two separate races. First, there has been the battle for the top between the Detroit Red Wings and the Montreal Canadiens, the two teams which, incidentally, possess just about all of the game's current superstars. Then, since in the bizarre NHL structure all but the bottom two of the six teams qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, there has been the annual battle for third and fourth place between the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers.
Their decline over the past decade into second-rate powers scrounging for a playoff berth has been hard on New York and Toronto, but in a curious way it has perhaps been hardest of all on Boston. Since the close of World War II, what with the soul-searing annual collapse of the Red Sox and the almost uninterrupted hibernation of the Braves—not to mention such secondary disappointments as the Boston area's waning prestige in golf, tennis and track, the failure of its pro football team to grow roots and Harvard's slow but sure metamorphosis into the living epitome of deemphasis on sports, however accidentally achieved—being a sports-minded resident of the Massachusetts colony has meant existing on a cheerless frontier of frustration. It sends shivers up the spine to think of the depths of despair that might have been reached had there been no Boston Bruins to cheer for and be proud of. (This year the Celtics are, at length, helping out a great deal too.)
Organized in 1924, the Bruins started to catch on two years later (and the local preference for amateur hockey simultaneously receded) after it was revealed that Irving Small, an amateur star, was suing his club for back pay. About three years after this, George Owen, the wonderful all-around Harvard athlete, joined the Bruins as a defense-man—and a very fine one. The acquisition of Owen had the effect of banding together all varieties of Boston sports followers behind the Bruins, the first time that Bostonians had banded together behind anything since the days of, the Stamp Act. Always colorful and successful, Boston hockey reached its pinnacle in 1940-41. In that season the Bruins went 23 games without defeat, swept to their fourth consecutive NHL championship, and went on to carry off the Stanley Cup for the second time in that monumental stretch. Small boys growing up in New England during this period could tell you the goals and assists records of the famed Kraut Line of Schmidt, Bauer and Dumart with greater speed and accuracy than they could reel off the batting averages of Williams, Doerr and Foxx.
Boston hockey, which began to slip during the war when the farm system fell apart, reached one of its lowest points last March when the team failed even to qualify for the playoffs. The person who felt this unhappy state of affairs most keenly was Milt Schmidt, who had just finished his first full season as the Bruins' coach. During his 19-year career in the NHL in which he had come to personify the Bruins in flesh and spirit as completely as Pee Wee Reese does the Dodgers or Sammy Baugh did the old Washington Redskins, Schmidt had made it eminently clear that he knows only one way to play sports and that is to play to win—not to look good, not to tie, but to win. With the disastrous season irretrievably behind him, Schmidt started to build for a new and better one immediately by undertaking a long scouting tour of the minors. (One of the products of this trip was Larry Regan, the 26-year-old rookie whom Schmidt converted from a wing to a center and who has performed so brilliantly that everyone has been wondering how a player of his talent could have stayed undiscovered for so long.) When he assembled his squad for preseason training last September, Schmidt, convinced that he had been too convivial a fellow last year to be a successful coach, began to snap the whip with a real crack. Preseason training was held this year at the Boston Garden, and to make sure that his players were thinking of hockey, hockey, hockey, Schmidt made it mandatory for every member of his squad to live in the Hotel Manger, which adjoins the Garden. He moved in himself, the better to enforce a strict curfew of 11 p.m. Furthermore, every man had to be up by 7—there would be none of that lolling in bed and skipping breakfast and then trying to slide through morning practice without a good meal to fuel you. Schmidt made very few significant changes in arranging his team for maximum strength, other than shifting Doug Mohns from wing to defense. What he concentrated on was imbuing his club with bona-fide determination to win hockey games and driving them into tiptop condition necessary to go all-out every minute they were on the ice.
Rush to the top
The team got off well. In their third game, they beat Les Canadiens, a happy auspice. Two weeks later they defeated Les Canadiens on Les Canadiens' home ice, a rarer feat. In fourth place as the fifth week of the season began, the Bruins really began to move. They defeated the Rangers in New York, the Red Wings in Boston, Les Canadiens in Montreal encore une fois, and Les Canadiens in Boston—all this within a space of five nights. This terrific rush bolted the Bruins into first place. They have managed to stay in that general vicinity ever since.
The big point about the Bruins' renascence is that it has been, to use Schmidt's own phrase, "entirely a team effort." With the exception of Sawchuk, currently under suspension, the Bruins have no star players. In fact, on paper they are hardly an impressive crew at all, an amalgam of a few reliable veterans, a few revived castoffs and a few promising but not outstanding youngsters. But they have hustled like nobody's business, and hockey is essentially an inexact game in which a hustling B-plus player can more than hold his own against an A-minus (or even an A) player who is taking it a bit easy. The Bruins' success, in short, underlines an old fact that is too frequently forgotten in this day of overattention to individual performers: the strength of a team can be greater than the sum of its individual parts.
As Schmidt sees it, genuine team play can result only when every man on the team knows he is a valuable cog and is fired by those two old irreplaceables, desire and determination. "In the dressing room before every game," Schmidt told a friend this winter, "I look to see that every man is keyed up about the game, about what he's going to be doing to help the team. You've got to have those butterflies in your stomach. You'll lose them the minute you hit the ice, but you've got to start with them or you'll never be able to get in the game." Schmidt has succeeded so well in instilling the Bruins with his own will to win that, according to Herb Ralby of the Boston Globe, college coaches would do well to take their squads to the Bruins' dressing room so that they could see what real campus spirit is like.
Milton Schmidt's arrival as a productive coach marks, in a way, the culmination of one of the most heart-warming stories not only in hockey but in all of sport. It is the story also of Woody Dumart (left wing) and Bobby Bauer (right wing), who with Schmidt (at center) formed the Kraut Line, one of the great forward lines in the history of hockey and undoubtedly the greatest in the period between the passing of the Rangers' Cook-Boucher-Cook line and the formation of Les Canadiens' Punch Line of Blake-Lach-Richard. The story of the Krauts has the ring of those improbable novels that one is saturated with as a youngster—The Rover Boys in Andorra, The Golden Boys on Center Court at Wimbledon, and so on—in which devoted boyhood chums scale the heights together, all for one and one for all. Well, that is really the story of the Krauts, three very fine, thoroughly exceptional young men. (Offhand, I can think of only one other chapter in recent sports history that has the same quality of boyhood fiction about it, and that is the story of that amazing triumvirate of Oxford runners—Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway selflessly silencing their own immediate ambitions to work with their friend Roger Bannister on how they could best pace him in his effort to shatter the four-minute mile.)