A chance to say ‘Bob’s your cousin’

It’s time for a little name dropping: My “cousin” was once one of the top 25 defencemen in hockey — in the world!

His name is Bob Chrystal.

Let me explain how he’s my cousin, hoping it won’t bore you to tears, or to sleep. My mother’s cousin was married to a man who was the cousin of Bob Chrystal’s father. Now it may been a stretch for me to have said “Bob’s your cousin” but when you’re a kid who’s in awe of pro hockey players, who cares?

More interesting is how HE met his father’s cousin. Bob Chrystal was a regular for the New York Rangers, one of the National Hockey League’s original six. Teams had only four defencemen then, and international players were unknown and incidental. So do the math…that’s 24 defencemen, playing at hockey’s highest level.

One day, a Scotman from the The Bronx named Johnstone Smith sent a letter to the Rangers, addressing it to Bob Chrystal. He had a long-lost cousin named Alex Chrystal whom he remembered from a 14th-birthday party, and he wondered if Alex and Bob were related.

They were. Father and son. Chrystal answered Smith’s letter, and they met socially. Late that season, Bob had knee surgery. His wife Mimi and baby daughter Linda lived with the Smiths in The Bronx, until Bob was sufficiently recovered to leave the hospital and fly home to Winnipeg (today, that would be a story that’s impossible, on so many levels). Mr. Smith went to Winnipeg to see family…and my mother discovered she had a “cousin” who played in the NHL. Her son was ecstatic.

Bob Chrystal’s NHL career lasted just two seasons, or 132 games. Before the 133rd, after a week of listening to profane insults from New York’s new and crude coach, Phil Watson, Bob walked out. He just quit. He managed to extend his career in the Western League, playing for the Brandon Regals, Saskatoon-St. Paul Saints and Winnipeg Warriors. That gave his young “relative” a chance to see him in action, in person, instead of following his every statistic in newspaper summaries.

After retiring, blessed with a smile that lit up his face and with his engaging personality, Chrystal became a brewery rep, as many ex-hockey players did. The young fan became a Winnipeg sports writer. Our paths crossed. I discovered he was everything young fans hope their heroes are, and more. Our casual friendship brought the Chrystals to our wedding (two Bobs, married to women who were classmates at hair dressing school).

And then…we exchanged Christmas cards but didn’t see each other for decades.

Bob continued doing PR for the liquor industry, enjoyed a dog’s life by raising and showing retrievers (mostly labs) and is currently winding down in a care home. He and Mimi, married for 70 years, never left Winnipeg again.

After his book about life in hockey (Block That Shot) was written, we re-connected, and last summer we met again.

“I’ve lived my time,” he told me one day. “Real good times, with a good wife. I’m lucky. I’ve done it all.”

Bob Chrystal’s 92 now, and among top 10 oldest living former NHLers…and once among the best 25 defencemen anywhere in the world.

Who says so?

His cousin.