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Remembering Milt Schmidt

Stories from the late Schmidt’s woeful first seasons with the expansion-era Caps

Washington Capitals v Boston Bruins Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

Hockey Hall of Fame member and Boston legend Milt Schmidt passed away yesterday at the ripe old age of 98. One of the all-time greats, he is most often associated with the Bruins organization, where he spent the bulk of his career - but Caps fans, especially the long-time locals, likely remember him more as the first general manager (and eventually the second head coach) in Washington’s history.

Here’s our friend Glenn Dreyfuss with stories from Schmidt’s eventful but not-so-glorious days in DC...

Of the 1,435 words in the glowing nhl.com tribute to Milt Schmidt, who died Wednesday, 41 of them are devoted to his time with the Capitals. "Schmidt left the Bruins in 1973 to become the first GM of the expansion Washington Capitals. They went 8-67-5 in their first season, which finished with Schmidt as GM and coach, and he was let go early in the 1975-76 season."

Expect the torrent of articles about Schmidt to be similarly weighted, if the Capitals get mentioned at all. And who would argue? Milt himself said, not long ago, "I don't wish to discuss that (season). It's still too painful to think about." Even in 2015, 40 years after he left the franchise, the wounds were still fresh.

Schmidt never saw it coming. He'd won two Stanley Cups centering Boston's famous, if offensively named, "Kraut" line, and two more as general manager. When Schmidt became the first G.M. of the Capitals, he gushed, "I feel like a kid with a new toy." In a May, 1974 photo, you can see him kidding around with fellow expansion G.M. Sid Abel of Kansas City. Milt's won a coin toss for the first pick in the amateur draft, and he revels with a knowing wink.

The smiles soon faded. “It’s not fair,” Schmidt said about the slim pickings in the expansion draft. “We paid $6 million to join the league, and look how little other teams have left for us.” Schmidt had been equally miserly when he was G.M. of the Bruins, admitting, “I’m on the other side of the fence now.” Milt later said, “NHL President Clarence Campbell, he gets the most blame. He told us we were supposed to have first choice of any player sent down to the minors. That wasn’t so. We didn’t get the

players we were supposed to get.” Within the shallow talent pool, Schmidt made a tactical blunder. “We went for big guys and Kansas City went for skaters in the expansion draft,” Milt said. “I figured the big thing was not to get pushed around. The trouble was, the big guys I drafted - they don’t like to fight.”

In December, Schmidt traveled to Chicago in a mood of despair. The night before, fewer than 7,000 at Capital Center watched his team fall meekly, 5-2 to the almost as woeful California Seals. The loss dropped the Caps' record to 2-19-3. Now, as he rose to speak at a meeting of his fellow general managers, the words had to catch in his throat. “Look, for the good of the whole league," Milt began, "The Washington franchise could use some help. Many of you have players sitting in the stands who could help in Washington. Our team is willing to deal a first round draft choice in return.”

His pleas - starkly summarized by The Hockey News in a banner headline, "Washington Begs For Player Help" - went unanswered. "It wasn’t easy to get personnel. I never even tried to trade because I didn’t have anybody to trade." Apparently a glutton for punishment, Milt was observed reading a newspaper account of the previous night's 12-1 loss, until he threw down the sports section in disgust. Could be that's why he once asked a reporter, "Do you mind if I wring your neck to relieve the tension?"

By the late stages of that eight-win season, G.M. Schmidt appointed himself coach - he had fired his first coach, while the second resigned because of ulcers. "I have been sitting upstairs and cursing all year," he said. "I had to go down to the bench and try to do something myself." Noting the lack of talent on his roster, Schmidt, age 57, mused, “If I was 10 years younger, I’d come back as a player, too.”

As training camp approached in 1975, Schmidt instituted a no-alcohol policy. Jack Egers and Stan Gilbertson, however, instituted a disregard-the-coach policy. The pair apparently ran a speakeasy in their hotel room after practice. A profanity-laced shouting match ensued. "They ran all over (former coach) Jimmy Anderson last year and one thing is for sure – they won't run all over Milt Schmidt," said Milt Schmidt. “I'm not afraid of these kids.” Schmidt suspended the pair who had violated Prohibition. His trade efforts failed, but Egers and Gilbertson were gone from D.C. by New Year's.

As it happened, so was Milt. His season-and-a-half at the helm left the Caps starved for wins (11-95-10). A rueful Schmidt admitted, “My pride is hurting something awful.” Schmidt was mercifully let go when the team won just three of its first 37 games in Season Two. In the mother of all understatements, Schmidt observed, "All in all, perhaps a change is for the best."

Now, don't feel bad for Milt Schmidt. Bobby Orr himself called Milt, "The greatest Bruin ever." Read the nhl.com tribute, and you'll find that Schmidt led a glorious, heroic, and beloved life - with a two year interlude in Landover in the mid '70's.

(Sources: The Hockey News, Windsor Star, New York Times, AP, UPI, bleacherreport.com, Capitals 20th Anniversary Book, Behind The Moves by Jason Farris)

You can read stories like this and much, much more in Glenn’s book The Legends of Landover... and we recommend that you do.