May 05, 2016

Norm Schmidt

Norm Schmidt wasn't a big defenseman by NHL standards. He was five-foot-eleven but was a solid 190 pounds and didn't mind the rough stuff.

His first junior season in 1979-80 was with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (24 points in 18 games). Between 1980-83 Norm played for the Oshawa Generals and was a OHL All-Star as well as winning the OHL title with the Generals. He scored 168 points (46 goals and 122 assists) in 193 games for Oshawa.

Pittsburgh picked Schmidt in the third round, 70th overall, in 1981. Unfortunately Norm's NHL career was plagued by injuries.

In his first professional season (1983-84) he split his time between Baltimore (AHL) and Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh he picked up a fine 18 points in only 34 games. In 1984-85 he started the season in Baltimore but suffered a season ending knee injury after only 33 games in a collision along the boards on December 28.

At the training camp prior to the 1985-86 season Norm re-injured his knee which forced him to miss the first 13 games. As soon as he returned he became a major force on the Penguins blueline. Despite missing the 13 games Norm scored 15 goals which at the time was the second highest total ever for a Pittsburgh defenseman. Only Randy Carlyle had scored more (16 goals in 1980-81).

After Norm's fine 1985-86 season big things were expected of him in 1986-87. He didn't have a very good training camp and ended up in Baltimore again before being called up to Pittsburgh in the middle of the season. Things were going pretty well for Norm before he was checked into the goal in a game against NY Islanders and hurt his back late in the season.

Norm shrugged off the injury and continued to play, but the condition of his back was more serious than he first thought. During the summer of 1987 Norm underwent an operation to treat the irritated nerve caused by that check in the Islanders game. He put himself through an exhaustive six-month rehabilitation program.

By December 1987, he was ready to return. Only for five games though. In the fourth against Philadelphia, he was hit hard and the pain began searing through his legs again. Heroically enough Norm dressed for one more game against New Jersey on December 17. But the pain was too much and Norm never played another game.

"At that time, I could not live with the pain," Norm said "I was getting so frustrated with it...I was going crazy. I've been able to overcome a fair amount of injuries in my time. But what I didn't realize - or didn't want to admit to myself - was that (everything you do) ...your back's involved, somehow or another."

Norm didn't give up though and resumed his regiment of injections, pain-killing pills and tests. But it was only the formality of a diagnosis that separated him from retirement. When he got it, the retirement was official.

" I knew there was something more than just an ordinary muscle tear, or getting your teeth bashed out or your knee knocked around, whatever. I could overcome those things, but this back...it came to how much pain a person can bear."

Norm likened his condition to "two telephone poles with a wire between them. If one pole's falling down, there's only so much tension a nerve can take." He also added: "At some point it's either going to break or give you pain. And pain is the indicator that tells you you've got to stop what you're doing."

As most Canadian kids Norm grew up dreaming about the NHL, but at the age of 25 he had to give up that dream.

" I didn't want to jeopardize the rest of my life. I didn't want to end up in a wheelchair." Norm said.

In his only full season Norm showed his potential by almost setting a team record for most goals in a season by a defenseman. Too bad that injuries deprived him and hockey fans of a player hitting his prime.

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