A Look At Bob Chrystal (Part Two)
Former Rangers defenseman of the 1950s, Bob Chrystal, describes his run-in with notorious coach Phil Watson.
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 time in the National Hockey League started its descent in the spring of 1955 on the weekend of the final two games of the season. I got hurt in practice and it happened in Montreal. I got hurt on the Friday and the season was over for us on Sunday because it was a home and home with Montreal. Ironically, my last NHL point came a few weeks prior on February 27th against Montreal when I got an assist.
Aldo Guidolin bodychecked me in a scrimmage at practice. There were only three of us on the ice, Lou Fontinato being the other. We were just stickhandling around, and he took a run at me and I guess his knee caught me in the thigh and I had a very severe charley horse. They had me fly back to New York where a Japanese doctor, Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa, operated on me. Aldo was maybe in the same league as I was as he was close to the same size as me, both of us were husky kids. I wanted to play defense and I was a much better defensemen for sure and probably even a better forward than he was. They had us killing penalties together and whether he thought maybe it would help his career to get me out of the road, I really don’t know. Probably not. I don’t really like to think that he meant to injure me, but there was really no reason for him to smack me a good one like he did with three guys left on the ice at the end of a practice.
Ron Murphy was a pretty good friend that second year. He was the only one on the team to come to the hospital and see me before I went home to Winnipeg for the summer. I guess the rest of the guys had packed their bags and took off, but Ron was the one that came up. I never saw any coaches or anyone else. That was probably one of the last times I saw or spoke to him.
The treatment and physiotherapy isn’t anything what it is today, how they have it on every street corner it seems. I wound up being at the Winnipeg General Hospital (now Health Sciences Centre). A doctor in Winnipeg was asked to look at me and I guess when he sent the report back to the Rangers, he didn’t think I should be playing hockey anymore. That was scary to hear. The Rangers of course freaked out on that and flew me back to New York to get me checked by the doctors that had done the operation. They basically talked about the law of averages and that the likelihood of me getting hit in the exact same spot again was low. So I came back to Winnipeg and Gord Mackie helped me devise a pad that I used to tape on my leg. It was very primitive as it was just a thigh pad with a big piece of sponge in it and I wrapped it around my leg with some tape. I ended up playing the rest of my career with that pad.
Like I said, physiotherapy was very different in those days. The bathtubs were really small at the rink and the trainers weren’t exactly professional trainers, and there was only really one of them per team. Frank Paice was the Rangers’ trainer and those guys liked the sport a lot but couldn’t play it themselves in a lot of cases. They just knew how to pack stuff and could give you a rub down if you were hurt, so it’s not like they were useless. The best trainer I had was Gord Mackie with the Winnipeg Warriors. I also had a good trainer in Saskatoon by the name of Scotty Morrison. Their job, I always used to say, was to make sure our sticks and shirts got to the next town to play.
I don’t even recall any places today like D’Arcy Bain Physiotherapy when I would come home in the summertime from my injury. That’s why when I was hurt like that, I wound up going to the Health Sciences Centre, which was then Winnipeg General Hospital. They had an English lady who was trained in England who was a physiotherapist and she worked on me.
When I came back to the Rangers for training camp in the fall, the new head coach, Phil Watson, greeted me with a “How’s your leg?” And he’d just finished asking Hergesheimer the same thing and Hergie was recovering from a broken leg, so we were kind of in the same boat. I saw Hergie tell him, “Well, I haven’t had a chance to try it.” We didn’t have artificial ice to play on in the summer. But Watson told him, “Take it easy Hergie and make sure it’s okay.” And then when he came to me, he asked the same question and I gave him pretty much the same answer and he quickly snapped, “It’d better be alright, or it’ll cost you your job.” I got real mad at that, and that was the start of our displeasures towards one another.
I didn’t really see Phil Watson too long – just the two weeks of that training camp and I just had enough of him. The big mistake I made when I went home is I didn’t tell anyone I was going. The only one I told was my roommate Andy Hebenton, I guess. I was rooming with Andy during the 1955-56 training camp and I told him that I’d had enough of Watson’s shit and that I was going home to Winnipeg. We had played against each other previously when he was in Cincinnati and I was in Cleveland. As kids we were friends but separated at a really early age, so we didn’t really hang together too much. But I remember him saying in that hotel room that, “I’m going to keep playing this game until they won’t let me play anymore.” And he went on to be the iron man of hockey with all of those games played, so Christ did Andy sure stick to his word there. The next day at practice they were wondering where I was, and Andy probably told them I’d gone home. I think I have a quote from a writer somewhere in my basement that says, “He was a fiery French-Canadian (Watson) and I was a stubborn Scotsman and we just didn’t get along.” We swore at each other and just didn’t get along. He went to Boston to coach later and didn’t do them any favours either.
I didn’t ever really see myself as a cocky person, but I was a very confident person. When I tangled with the Rangers, it was all to do with Phil Watson. When I had my run-in with Phil Watson and went home, I may have told him what to do with the team, and if I did, I’m sure he would have had a tough time walking. I really do not remember.
Another thing was that people didn’t communicate very well in those days and there was no real players association yet. When Phil Watson came in and I was still hurt, the number one thing he wanted was for me to fight more and I wasn’t a fighter, Christ I couldn’t beat up anyone. I got a lot of penalties, but it was mostly for holding, tripping or whatever. They wanted to send me down to Providence to get into shape because I had been hurt in March and I hadn’t been on skates since then. I had a split contract and they were only going to pay me my minor league salary, so I told them, if you want me to go to Providence (and at the time my wife was expecting a child), then pay me my full salary because I’m in the States, or let me go and play in Saskatoon, closer to home, where it won’t be as expensive to live and I’ll play there for my minor league salary. I didn’t refuse to go anywhere. I brought up Saskatoon because there I could play a couple of games and see my wife and kids and stuff like that. I thought it was a pretty fair compromise, but they made it clear right away that it wasn’t going to happen, and that’s when I got mad and left.
When I left the Rangers, so to speak, I didn’t have anything. I didn’t even take a pair of skates with me and I never had any Rangers jerseys or anything. I did have a Brandon Regals sweater, but my son wore that out, and I donated my Brandon Wheat Kings leather jacket to the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame. I did just get in the mail not too long ago a Rangers jacket the team sent to me, and some of the other Manitoba Rangers alumni that are still around. It was to commemorate the guys that played in the Original Six era I guess. I still have the Rangers alumni association card and hockey card in my wallet.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Phil Watson had never come into the picture. I would say that if he wasn’t there that I’d probably have played a little longer in the NHL. Watson was the one guy in hockey I really didn’t get along with. I don’t know anyone that liked the guy; certainly no one liked playing for him. Not even his old teammates when he used to play in the NHL. A story that Bill Juzda used to tell when he and Phil Watson were teammates in New York: Juzda used to hit him all the time in practice, and once Watson came over to him and said in his French accent, “Bill, how come you hit me all the time and you don’t hit those other guys. And Bill says, “Because I like the other guys.”
Bob ended up playing four more pro seasons in the WHL with the Saskatoon Quakers, Brandon Regals, Saskatoon/St. Paul Saints and Winnipeg Warriors. He retired after the 1958-59 campaign and began a career with Carling’s Breweries and Hiram Walkers Distillery (Sales and Public Relations). Bob and Mimi were married in 1952 and have three kids together. Since the late 1950’s to today, Bob and Mimi have lived in the same house on Rita Street in St. James.
A lot of great things happened to me in hockey. Winning a Calder Cup, making the Memorial Cup final, and playing in the NHL with the New York Rangers were all dreams come true. I was also inducted into the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995 when I was 65 years old, which was a big thrill for me. I’m also very proud of the fact that my 1948-49 Brandon Wheat Kings are members of both the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame and Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.
I like to think that my life has, for the most part, been very enjoyable. I’ve certainly had one heck of a ride in hockey. I don’t watch that much of the NHL on television anymore, I guess I’m bitter or jealous of the players today and the way hockey is now, but I’ll always have a strong passion for the game. That kind of thing doesn’t go away.
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