Boston Bruins, 1967-1972
Washington Capitals, 1974-1976
Eastern Division Titles, 1970-1972
Playoff Appearances: 1968-1972
Stanley Cup Finals Appearances: 1970, 1972
Stanley Cup Victories: 1970, 1972
Milt Schmidt wasn’t a part of NHL history. He is NHL history. One of the game’s greatest players, examining Milt Schmidt’s hockey career is like studying the growth rings of a tree with Adam and Eve’s initials carved into the bark. Before the arrival of Bobby Orr, Milt Schmidt was the greatest Boston Bruin ever to take the ice.
He was, remains, and always will be one of the game’s greatest ambassadors and a living embodiment of the hockey’s glorious past.
Milt Schmidt is a member of a small, unique hockey club. He is one of at least ten known individuals who reached the Stanley Cup finals as a player, head coach, and general manager. (Emile Francis is another one of the ten; so, too, were Eddie Gerard, Sid Abel, and Lynn Patrick. The other five members of that special club will be discussed in the weeks and months to come).
When Schmidt’s playing career ended during the 1954/55 Season he became head coach of the Bruins and helped lead the team to two Stanley Cup finals appearances in 1957 and 1958 but after 1959 it was Schmidt’s misfortune to preside over the darkest years in Bruin’s franchise history. During the pre-amateur draft years, it was hard for Boston to gain enough quality players to make the city playoff competitors; from 1960 to 1967 Boston resided in or near the NHL basement.
In 1965 Milt Schmidt became assistant general manager of the Bruins under Hap Emms. Two years later he became general manager.
It didn’t take long for Schmidt to leave a lasting mark as a general manager.
Less than two weeks after the 1967 Stanley Cup finals ended Schmidt presided over one of the greatest landmark trades in NHL history. The acquisition of Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge Sr. and Fred Stanfield from the Chicago Blackhawks while giving up Jack Norris, Pit Martin, and Gilles Marcotte remains one of the greatest classic steals in NHL trading history.
Interestingly enough the trade almost didn’t happen. In a 2010 interview with Harry Sinden (who was head coach of Boston during the time), Sinden told me that Milt Schmidt was initially reluctant and skeptical to acquire Esposito; that it took the intervention of the late Tom Johnson (who was assistant GM to Schmidt) to include Espo into the mix. Sinden maintains that Johnson was very keen on Esposito’s scoring skills and that he prevailed upon Schmidt to ask for Esposito.
Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr became the twin pillars to the big bad Boston Bruins who terrorized the NHL from 1967 to 1974.
When it came to drafting talent, Schmidt’s record was mixed. The only draft pick Schmidt made that benefited the Bruins was Terry O’Reilly in 1971. Schmidt did draft future NHLers Rick Macleish, Reggie Leach, and Dan Bouchard only to let them go to other teams where they excelled.
Schmidt suffered other significant losses as well; Derek Sanderson and Gerry Cheevers defected to the WHA. (Unlike Emile Francis, Schmidt’s failure to adjust to presence of the rebel league and its effect on player salaries cost the Bruins dearly). He allowed the New York Islanders to claim superb defensive forward Ed Westfall. The loss of these men seriously compromised the defensive strength of the Bruins and cost the team the chance to win Stanley Cups in 1973 and 1974.
Despite all this the Bruins still won two Stanley Cups while Milt Schmidt reigned as GM. These were the team’s first Cup wins since 1941 (when Milt Schmidt was at his peak as a player).
Schmidt left as Bruins GM and in 1974 became the first general manager of the expansion Washington Capitals. The two years he spent as the Caps GM (and also interim head coach) tarnished the luster he gained during his years with Boston. All 20 of his minus points were gained during his brief tenure at Washington.
Schmidt’s stint as Caps GM was pathetic but he was far from being the worst GM in the team’s history. That honor belongs to his successor Max McNab.
Today Milt Schmidt lives in quiet retirement in the greater Boston area. He remains one of the game’s greatest goodwill ambassadors; showing graciousness and courtesy to hockey fans young and old. His legend endures forever.
(My next column will feature St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong.)