Babe Pratt

Walter Pratt was one of the best defensemen of his time and, for that matter, any era. He was an offensive blueliner before anyone had ever heard of Bobby Orr or Paul Coffey. He could rush the puck and score like defensemen of a more modern era.

At 6'3" and 215lbs, Pratt was a giant back in the 1940s. Likewise, he had a certain flair about him that made him larger than life - much like that of an athlete of a different sport in Babe Ruth. Thus, Pratt was eternally also known as the Babe.

Pratt was born on January 7, 1916 in Stony Mountain, Manitoba but grew up in Winnipeg. He learned to play hockey on the outdoor rinks in -40 degree temperatures. When he turned 15 he moved up to the junior level and began showing his awesome skills, catching the attention of Al Ritchie, a New York Ranger scout. The Rangers invited Pratt to their training camp by 1934. Though he played well and was offered a contract, the homesick Pratt opted to return home for another year of junior.

A year later Pratt returned to the Rangers and singed his first pro contract. He was initially sent to the minor leagues but was recalled and finished the season in New York. Pratt would stay in the Big Apple for the next six years.

Those Ranger teams were great.

"By the end of the 1930s the New York Rangers had really developed a powerful hockey club" remembered Pratt. "We could play terrifically, offensively, as well as defensively. Conn Smythe, who was then running the Toronto Maple Leafs, said the 1940 Rangers team were the greatest hockey club he'd ever seen."

Pratt was a big part of that success. Pratt loved to have fun, something he thinks is lacking in today's game.

"It was a different kind of game then. Today, they stress boardchecking and checking from behind, both unheard of when we played. We'd hit a man standing right up and now the players don't seem to want to take that kind of check. The only check they want is on the first and fifteenth of the month!"

"We played a tough games but we also had a million laughs. There was a newspaperman from the New York World-Telegram named Jim Burchard, who liked to drink, tell stories, and do wild things like swim across the Hudson River. We had quite a few jokers on the team. Ching Johnson was one; he was also one of the finest players when it came to working with rookies. Ching was from Winnipeg too, and he sort of took me under his wing."

Pratt's fun loving lifestyle helped get him traded from New York to Toronto in 1942. The Rangers took a promising rookie in Red Garrett - who died during WWII - and forward Hank Goldup in exchange for Pratt.

Pratt became a true front line player in Toronto - exploding offensively. He became a NHL all star and the 1944 Hart Trophy winner as he wowed NHL audiences. He scored 12, 17 and 18 goals in his first three years - astronomical numbers for a defenseman! Pratt almost single-handedly brought the Stanley Cup to Toronto in 1945. In game 7 of the thrilling finals, Pratt fired the puck past Red Wings goalie Harry Lumley late in the game, giving the Leafs a 2-1 win!

Conn Smythe was a long time admirer of Pratt's hockey skills, but must have been frustrated that he couldn't tame this wild horse.

"If he'd looked after himself he could have played until he was fifty. He was that good. But he was as big a drinker and all-around playboy as he was a hockey player." said Smythe.

Things went downhill drastically in 1946. On January 30, 1946 Pratt was suspended by the NHL. Pratt was the centerpiece of an infamous gambling scandal. Pratt was suspended for betting on NHL games involving games that didn't involve his Leafs. Initially the banishment was forever, but Pratt later admitted his ways and promised not to do them again. After missing 9 games, Pratt was reinstated.

Tired of the headaches that came with the greatness, Smythe moved Pratt to Boston shortly thereafter. He played one season there before he was sent to the minors. He called it a career in 1952 after ending up on the west coast.

Pratt fell in love with Canada's west coast when he played with the New Westminster Royals. Pratt stayed on the west coast, and became the goodwill ambassador for the Vancouver Canucks when they entered the NHL in 1970. His publicity, charity and community work was legendary.

Babe's son Tracy also played in the National Hockey League, including the Vancouver Canucks.


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