Sunday, March 26, 2017

THE AGELESS CHICK WEBSTER


When reading about professional hockey players many facts and figures tell their stories. In the case of Chick (John) Robert Webster, his birth on November 3, 1920, has recently propelled him into the headlines. When Boston Bruins legend, Milt Schmidt, passed away in early January, Webster became the oldest living former National Hockey League player.

Of course, there is so much more to Webster than his new place in NHL history. In a June 2013 telephone interview, I had the pleasure of getting to know this very humble and wonderful gentleman. At the end of our conversation, it was very evident that Webster enjoyed talking about the game and his love for the sport was unmistakable.

His career began in earnest during the 1937-38 OHA junior "A" season with the Toronto Native Sons. He was coached in '38-'39 by former Toronto Maple Leaf forward, Harold "Baldy" Cotton. "He was a great coach," Webster began. "Back then, coaches didn't do much except change the lines. They didn't give you too many pep-talks. They didn't run around behind the bench yelling or anything like that. "Baldy" was a hell of a nice guy and he was a very good coach. The players all liked him and didn't mind playing for him."

Perhaps, the best advice Cotton told his youngsters was what it took to become a pro. "He said if you guys were really interested in going anywhere in hockey, you got to give all you can out there. He mentioned there were scouts out there in the rink watching you." As for his style of game, Webster, a solid centre, stated, "When  I got out there I liked to carry the puck and I could skate fast."

I asked Webster what it was like playing junior in his hometown. "It was big time sort of. What we liked about it was that after we played in the afternoon, we stayed in our dressing room for a while and hung around and then, we got to watch the Maple Leafs at night."

When Webster skated for the Native Sons, hockey and financial concerns trumped the need for further education."It was during the depression in the 1930s. When I was 15, they took me out of school. My dad got me a job down at City Hall. So I worked from the time I was 15,  through the time I played junior, at City Hall in Toronto. I worked as an office boy."

Webster commented on the physical aspect of the junior game when he played. "There was some fighting. I used to get in a few, but nothing like the stuff of today. We didn't have the armour they have on today. Back then, we had respect, you knew a guy didn't have on a helmet and you weren't going to bang him into the boards. The elbow pads are hard today, ours were soft. To give a guy a elbow you're not going to knock him out."

Like many from his generation, Webster's career ambitions were cut short due to World War Two. "I was in the military for 4 years and overseas for 2. I was in the artillery. We went over to France and about 10 days after D-Day went right through to Germany. I only played once overseas in England."

Under these circumstances, players had to wonder if their hockey jobs were still available once they returned home. Certainly, they must have felt a lack of ice time dulled their skills and how difficult a challenge it would be to regain their hockey legs and touch. "I figured my hockey career was over," Webster said of his return. "I don't know how they found out where I lived, but I got a letter from the New York Rangers wanting me to come to training camp in Winnipeg. This was in 1946 when I was discharged. I signed with the Rangers organization and I went to New Haven, which was their farm club."

The experience of attending the New York Rangers training camp in 1946 opened up a new world for Webster. "There were a lot of young guys there," Webster recalled. "Like Andy Bathgate and a few guys from the Guelph juniors."

One player at training camp the following year was an opponent of Webster's in the OHA."Herbie Carnegie was a very good friend of mine. He was a hell of a nice guy and well spoken. He was at the training camp the following year and he was the best guy at camp. They (the NYR) offered him $4,500 or something, but he said, 'Oh no, I can make that back in Quebec,' so he didn't sign."

At the time, Carnegie was making a huge impact playing with Sherbrooke and would go on to have a successful run with the Quebec Aces of the QSHL and QMHL. Many are of the opinion that Carnegie's lack of advancement to the pro ranks was due to the colour of his skin. As a black man in the late 1940s and 1950s, doors weren't always being opened for him. "He should have been signed by somebody," Webster stated. "He could have played up there (in the NHL) easily."

Turning pro exposed Webster to the business end of the game. "Frank Boucher was the general manager of the New York Rangers. 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's crack at the big show came during the 1949-50 season. He began the year in the American Hockey League with the New Haven Ramblers. "The reason they called me up was because they sold a player to Boston. I was down in St. Louis with New Haven and after the game I was told to get on the train and go to Boston. So I went up and played at Boston Garden for the Rangers."

He settled in with the Blue Shirts, but an injury forced him out of the line-up. "I played a couple of games and I stayed up until I broke my hand." A check of Webster's stats reveals he performed in 14 contests with the New York Rangers and went pointless. Although he didn't make the scoring summary, Webster cherishes the time he shared the ice with the biggest stars in hockey. "I played against "Rocket" Richard a couple of times and didn't know he was even on the ice. But when I looked at the scoring sheet, he'd scored a couple of goals."

A particular memory remains entrenched in Webster's mind. "It was quite a thrill for me, especially playing against Gordie Howe. Hockey was all I wanted to do and to know Gordie Howe was pretty good." Without hesitation, he named Howe as the best player he competed against. "As far as all-round goes, Gordie Howe was tough, he could score and check."

After he hung-up his skates, Webster remained in touch Howe. "I used to go down to the games after I quit playing and if Detroit was in town, another guy and I would go out with Howe after the game. He was a real gentleman and a hell of a nice guy."

In 1950-51, Webster joined the Tacoma Rockets of the PCHL and spent the next four seasons in the minors with various teams. These clubs included the Cincinnati Mohawks and Syracuse Warriors of the American Hockey League. He left the game in 1953-54 after one term wth the OHA Stouffville Clippers.

Of note, Chick wasn't the only member of the Webster household to reach the NHL. His younger brother, Don, got into 27 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1943-44. His opportunity came about when the Leafs roster was depleted due to regulars joining the war effort. "That's exactly what happened," Chick said of his siblings jump from the AHL Providence Reds. "He wasn't a big guy, he was short and stocky, but he was good, there is no doubt about it." When players started to make their way home from serving in World War Two, Don Webster returned to the American Hockey League.

Chick Webster's current status in the game is best summed up by his son Rob. He told the New York Times, "His real story is about longevity, not hockey. Hockey was just something he was lucky enough to be a part of."

And thanks to Rob Webster for sending these wonderful photos of his dad.

A picture of Chick isolated from a team photo dating back to 1934 (see below)
Chick is situated in the front row, second from the right. Also in this photo is Jack Riley, front row, fourth from right. Jack went on to become the first GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Chick and Jack were teammates on the Baltimore Clippers (EHL) in 1945-46

Chick with the New Haven Ramblers
Chick with the New York Rangers
That's Chick in the back row, second from the left
Chick with the  Cincinnati Mohawks
Chick at his home Mattawa, Ontario
Chick and Rob
This photo of Chick was taken on March 21, 2017

At 96 years old, one can't help but admire the ageless Chick Webster, the oldest living former NHL player.










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