A Look At Bob Chrystal
92-year-old Bob Chrystal spent two seasons patrolling the New York Rangers blueline from 1953 to 1955.
For two seasons in the early 1950’s, 92-year-old Bob Chrystal was one of the top twenty defensemen in the world playing in the National Hockey League. Unfortunately, Bob played in the years where the New York Rangers weren’t all that good. His time was between the Rangers team that made the 1950 Stanley Cup finals and the late 50’s teams that were consistent playoff teams. However, he did have some playoff success in the other leagues he played in throughout his career.
Chrystal was the star defenseman on the 1948-49 Brandon Wheat Kings team that lost out to the Montreal Royals in the only eight-game Memorial Cup final ever played. He went on to play pro hockey and in the 1953 Calder Cup (AHL) final, Chrystal scored the cup-winning goal in overtime. That goal propelled Bob to the NHL where he spent the next two seasons patrolling the New York Rangers blueline.
The game has sure changed a lot from when Bob was playing at the highest level, notably how much players’ salaries are. The most money Bob Chrystal ever made in a season playing hockey was $8,500, which is merely peanuts when you look at today’s game. When Chrystal first signed on with the Rangers in 1953, he was making $100 a game and he felt like he was on top of the world.
After his two years in New York, Bob got royally screwed by coach Phil Watson of the New York Rangers who single-handedly cut his NHL career short prematurely.
All in all, Chrystal played in 132 regular season games for the New York Rangers between 1953 and 1955. He scored 11 goals and 14 assists for 25 points.
Chrystal would continue playing pro hockey in Western Canada for another four seasons before hanging up the skates in 1959. In those years he was captain of the WHL champion Brandon Regals in 1957 and was twice named as the league's top defenceman and to the First All-Star Team. Today, Bob’s an honoured member of the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame.
My first interaction with Bob Chrystal was when I called him up one day to talk about his buddy Sugar Jim Henry for my previous book Golden Boys: The Top 50 Manitoba Hockey Players of All-Time. Just from our fifteen-minute phone conversation I could tell how nice and genuine of a guy Bob was and he kind of left the door open if I ever wanted to get in touch with him again in the future.
Since then we met up a bunch of times and I started to document his hockey career a little bit, getting stories from Bob and looking through his hockey scrapbooks. Bob is extremely polite, very unassuming, and modest about his hockey career. That’s something that struck me about Bob pretty early on.
I didn’t plan at all to write a book about Bob’s life when I went first went over to his place to talk about his career, but the more we chatted, the more I wanted to do something to help document his life story. The end result was the 2018 book that we wrote together called Block That Shot: The Bob Chrystal Story.
Since working on the book, Bob and his wife Mimi have basically become like a third set of grandparents to me. They are just wonderful, down-to-earth people and I’m so thrilled to have gotten to know them and their family.
Here's a look into Bob’s hockey career. If you’d like to read his full story, please feel free to pick up a copy of the book we wrote together on Amazon called Block That Shot: The Bob Chrystal Story. It is available at the link below:
Here is Bob in his own words describing some of his time playing in the National Hockey League from 1953-1955 with the New York Rangers:
My first NHL game was on October 8th, 1953 in Detroit and we lost to them 4-1. On November 11th, 1953 I scored my first NHL goal in a game against the Chicago Blackhawks. I was playing on the left-point and one of our forwards had the puck to the right of the goal. I remember skating in towards the goal from the blueline and yelling for the puck. I forget who passed it to me, but I one-timed it past Al Rollins. It turned out to be the game-winning goal and it was the first time the Rangers had beaten Chicago in a while. I still have that first NHL goal puck. It sits on a mantle near the front door to my home. I gave the team the puck and they made a trophy for me with the puck.
I was just over six-feet tall and roughly 185 pounds playing size. The thing that was in my favour was that I was a fairly good skater. The first night I ever played forward after Bantam B, was against Jean Beliveau and the Montreal Canadiens in Jean’s first ever game at Madison Square Garden early on in that 1953- 54 campaign. Our forwards included Don Raleigh, Camille Henry and Paul Ronty who were not big men, so that’s why I got sent out there. Out of all of them, Ronty was probably the heaviest and he was only 160 pounds. Bones Raleigh was 150 and Henry was 140. Jean Beliveau came in at 6’3’’ and 210 pounds. I remember coach Frank Boucher saying to me, “You ever played forward?” I said, “oh yeah, but not since I was a kid.” He said, “well you are tonight.” The thing was that I could skate relatively good. Harry Howell was bigger than me, but I could skate better than he could in regard to how a forward would go. The other defensemen we had relied on brute force as their strengths. I guess I did a reasonably good job that night against Beliveau because I wound up being used as a defensive forward regularly. I spent a lot of nights covering the likes of Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Billy Mosienko, Teeder Kennedy, etc.
One of the lines I was on when I played as a forward was with Edgar Laprade and Aldo Guidolin. Laprade was a nice guy. He was a shorter fellow but played the game very well of course as he’s since been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Laprade played center between Aldo and myself. We became the checking line against the other teams’ top lines.
It was something that I wish had never happened because then they started pushing me up and down. I was a defenseman but in those days a player did anything he was asked to do if he wanted to stay in the league. I killed penalties – I did everything. When you made it there, you wanted to stay there. Being a left-handed shot, I was often asked to keep an eye on the top right-wingers.
The best players I ever played against were Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau. You could toss a coin between the three of them because they were all incredibly talented players. And Terry Sawchuk was the best goalie I ever saw. I don’t know whether you could gauge him with our team because we didn’t have any big goal scorers, but whatever we had, he could handle. I do remember once breaking in on him one-on-one and I made him look good because I fired the puck right into his pads. I was excited because I didn’t get many breakaways I guess. I didn’t know Terry well at all despite growing up around the same time in Winnipeg; but he was in East Kildonan and I was in the West End. Terry certainly had a great reputation and was a good all-around athlete with his baseball exploits too.
I used to tell myself whenever I was up against a really good player that I could stop ‘em and they weren’t going to get by me. Andy Hebenton was one of those players that when he got the puck I would start concentrating more. Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard, it was the same thing. When I was sent out and they were on the ice, it became my personal challenge. I’d try that much harder to stop them.
I remember one game against Toronto, it was Grey Cup weekend and we had an afternoon game and the football game was at night. All game I was covering the Leafs star player Ted “Teeder” Kennedy and I managed to limit him to only an assist. After the game Kennedy shook my hand, congratulated me on the game and said, “They must think I’m making a comeback when they put a kid on me like you.”
I also remember playing against some of the real old legends of the game. I played against Detroit’s Sid Abel. In Boston, they had the Kraut Line, so I played those guys at the end of their careers. In Montreal, I played against Elmer Lach and some of the other old timers. Someone told me once that I was the first Manitoba defensemen in five years to make the National Hockey League after Tom Johnson joined the Montreal Canadiens.
I didn’t have anyone really that I didn’t personally get along with. Ted Lindsay was real tough and mean on the ice. He wasn’t particularly mean to me, but I might have had my troubles with him if I’d stayed in the NHL any longer because I bodychecked him one night and I think he had dislocated his shoulder or something, so I don’t think he liked me too much. I was playing forward, and he tried to jump through the defense and I was cutting in behind and caught him in midair. It was probably the way he fell more than how I hit him.
Gordie Howe was a tough one to play against because you had to earn his respect, and sometimes you got it, and sometimes you didn’t. He gave me a couple of good shots over the times we played one another. He gave me quite an introduction the first time I played him by making my nose bleed with a backhand behind the play right after a faceoff as he was going by, while everyone else was watching the puck. They all wondered what I was doing lying on the ice holding my face. One time I was playing Gordie in New York and we were skating down the ice and the puck was ahead of us. I leaned on my stomach, belly flopped, and pushed the puck up into the corner so he couldn’t get a shot on goal. He then tapped me on the head once for four or five stitches. We had a trainer and he stitched me up in the dressing room and he had me ready to go pronto and I never missed a shift. One other instance I seem to recall is that I think he was trying to hold me to go into the goal post and back then the goal posts were solid. When we fell into the boards behind the net, I felt like I knew Gordie a little bit, so I looked at him and leaned over and said, “Christ Gordie, I don’t need that bullshit. I got a wife and two kids.” That didn’t stop him from giving me an elbow or making sure that I knew he was around, but I don’t recall after that whether he tried to do me any major harm. I certainly had enough brains to never try and fight him, which is probably my claim to fame.
Charlie Shaye was a good friend of mine that unfortunately had a young son with what I believe was brain cancer. The boy was quite a hockey fan and loved Gordie Howe. It was after my playing days but Gordie came to Winnipeg for a training camp and I asked him if he had time to see this boy and he did. It was a special meeting and Gordie, on his return to Detroit, sent the boy a sweater I believe, and autographs, etc. The next year when he was in Winnipeg, he went with me to see the boy again, but things were not as good. The boy had lost most of his eyesight and was declining fast. Gordie sat on the edge of his bed and read him a comic book with tears running down his face (mine too). Gordie was tough as hell on the ice but a real nice guy on grass.
In Montreal, Maurice Richard showed you respect if you gave it back to him. If you played him fair and hard he played the same way. And Jean Beliveau was always a gentleman. Marty Pavelich tested me a little bit one night and I smacked him back; he just smiled at me and nodded and that was that. I never saw him again. You sort of tested some guys to see what you could get away with. Hal Laycoe was big, tall and tough and had a big mean streak in him. He was Boston’s defensive forward and we had some tussles. It was the same with the referees – you knew which referees would call certain stuff and which wouldn’t. With only six teams in the league you knew what every player could do. You could lie in bed before the game and imagine their fifteen players – what they’d do and how they’d play. Which guy turned to his left and which to his right, like a pitcher in baseball almost.
I do remember twice in New York getting hit so hard that after the game I had blood in my urine. I must have got wracked pretty good. I know my mother came to watch me play in New York and I don’t think she lasted five minutes of the game because she was so nervous. She spent the night talking to the nurse in the first-aid room way up in the Garden. I do remember one night I was playing at the Amphitheatre and the guy in front of her said something derogatory about me and she clobbered him with her purse saying, “That’s my son!”
Stay tuned next week for more of Bob Chrystal’s story!
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