Do the names Hub Anslow, Ron Rowe, Herb Foster, Huddy Bell, Jean-Paul Denis or Alex Ritson, ring a bell? How about Len Wharton, Henry Dyck, Max Labovitch or Art Strobel? Unless you’re a true student of the game and the Rangers of the 1940s and 50s, most of those names are unfamiliar to you. They are among the many “Forgotten Blueshirts,” players who as war-time replacements or emergency call ups played only a handful of games for the Rangers and were never seen in the NHL again.
Another one of those “Forgotten Blueshirts” was a swift-skating native of Toronto, Ontario named “Chick” Webster, who played 14 games for the Rangers during the 1949-50 season and did not register a goal or an assist.
John Webster, who was nicknames “Chick” due to his fondness for Chicklets chewing gum, was born on November 3, 1920. Webster began playing organized hockey at the age of 17 with the Toronto Native Sons of the OHA in 1937-38. He was coached and scouted by Baldy Cotton and invited to the Boston Bruins 1940 training camp where he became friends with future Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt. He even saw action in an exhibition game on the famed “Kraut Line” with Schmidt and Woody Dumart when right wing Bobby Bauer was out with a “charlie horse.” The Bruins liked what they saw in Webster and sent him to Baltimore of the AHL, where he scored 24 goals with 37 assists. But by the next season Boston had made a coaching change and Chick was back in Canada playing senior league hockey.
Webster missed two seasons from 1943 to 1945 while serving in the Canadian military during World War II. Ironically, while Chick was overseas, his younger brother Don saw action as a wartime replacement player with the 1943-44 Maple Leafs, recording seven goals with six assists in 27 games.
Webster, 5-11, 160 lbs., was invited to the Rangers training camp in Winnipeg in 1946 and signed as a free agent. He spent the next three seasons in their system playing for the New York Rovers (EHL) and New Haven Ramblers (AHL).
Another player trying to crack the Rangers lineup with Chick was Herb Carnegie, who he had played against in juniors. “Herbie Carnegie was a very good friend of mine,” Chick told writer Jim Amodeo. “He was a hell of a nice guy. He was at the training camp the following year and he was the best guy at camp. The Rangers offered him $4,500 or something, but he said, ‘Oh no, I can make that back in Quebec,’ so he didn’t sign.”
Webster made his Ranger debut at the age of 29, on December 17, 1949 in Boston. “The Rangers had some injuries, and needed a checker,” said his son Rob. “He was a good, fast skater, and was told penalty killing and checking would be his job, not scoring. It was kind of a whirlwind for him to go up,” Rob continued. “I think he was in St. Louis and was told to take train, he would be playing against Boston for his first game up. He knew a lot of the Ranger players, having been in the organization for 3-4 years prior.”
In 14 games, Chick was not credited with a goal or an assist, but did get called for four penalty minutes. His time with the Blueshirts ended on January 15, 1950 when a check by George Gee of Detroit broke three bones in his wrist. He then finished the season in New Haven wearing a soft cast and was never brought back to New York. “I think he got a fair shot,“ said Rob, “He did think he would come back, but circumstances and his hand injury proved a bit much. It was very hard to break into a solid line-up in those days. Owners and coaches had their favorites, and were loyal to them to a point.”
Although his time with the Rangers was brief, he enjoyed several aspects of life in New York, including going out with teammates to nightclubs like the China Doll. “Broadway was a just about a block away from us,” Webster said. “That was a big deal. It was great town then.” However, Chick found Rangers GM\Coach Frank Boucher to be rather tight-fisted with a buck. “He was a hard guy to deal with and he offered you peanuts at contract time. One year I went in and asked for a raise. He was only paying me $4,500 or something. He said, ‘We can’t give you a raise, if you want to go home and pick up a lunch pail Chick go ahead.’ And that was it.”
Webster never got back to the NHL. With only six teams in the league, the number of roster spots for a checking forward were few and far between. Chick finished his career in the minors, retiring in 1953 at the age of 32. He then worked for the de Havilland Aircraft Company, in Toronto, and then retired in Mattawa, Ontario, where his wife’s parents lived.
“Dad loved the game and the friends he made along the way” recalled Rob. “He liked Emile Francis, Edgar Laprade, Jackie McLeod, Sherman White, Nick Mickoski, Clint Smith and really became close friends with Buddy O’Connor. In fact he got into a fight with a teammate in Cincinnati who he thought ran Buddy into the boards a little too hard during practice, and dad thought he was not showing the respect he should have to Buddy.”
Despite the constant uprooting of their family, Chick and his wife Leona raised five children, two daughters, Jackie and Jayne and three sons, Robert, John and Jamie. Unfortunately, John was killed in 1977 at the age of 27 and Leona died in 2009 of complications due to Alzheimer’s disease.
Chick gained a degree of notoriety in 2017 when his friend Milt Schmidt passed away at 99, making him at 96, the oldest living NHLer. Sadly, Chick died in January 2018 at the age of 98.
Chick Webster wore the uniforms of 14 teams in nine leagues during his 15-year playing career. His story is not unlike that of any number of other players of the era, who had a “cup of coffee” in the six-team NHL but never got that break or were in the right place at the right time to get that second shot at the big time. Yet it was their perseverance and love of the game and the camaraderie of their teammates that drove them to keep playing in minor league towns across the United States and Canada. And for that they should be applauded.