Walter “Babe” Pratt was not your ordinary 1940s defenseman. Not only did he tower over his opposition at 6’3″ and 212 lbs (huge for that era), but while most defensemen were busy defending the net, Pratt often focused on keeping the puck in the offensive zone. Born in 1916 in Manitoba, Pratt spent his teen years playing minor hockey in his home province before moving out to New York, where his NHL career started with the Rangers in 1935. Pratt mostly played the the Rangers’ farm team in 1935-36, but did earn a call-up with the team midway through the season. While Pratt didn’t immediately produce, he did learn from some experienced veteran defenders on the Rangers.
The 1936-37 season was when Pratt first showed signs of his offensive prowess in the NHL, scoring 8 goals in 47 games, finishing 4th among defensemen in that category. Pratt’s playmaking stepped up in the 1937-38 season as his assist count doubled from 7 to 14, helping him reach 19 points, good for 4th in points among defenders. Pratt continued to step up his game in the 1938-39 season, with 21 points, placing him at third among NHL defensemen while playing all 48 games. The Rangers had a strong team in the 1939-40 season and Pratt paired up with Ott Heller to create a strong defensive pairing. The Rangers would go on to win the Stanley Cup in 1940. Over the next season, Pratt remained as one of the top defensemen in the league, both offensively and defensively.
In the 1941-42 season, the NHL began to become more offensive and Pratt with it. Pratt led all defensemen with a new best of 24 assists and finished behind only Flash Hollett with 28 points. Just four games into the 1942-43 season, the Rangers made a big mistake by trading away Pratt to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Pratt would go on to have a 12-goal, 39-point season with the Leafs, again finishing just behind Hollett in points, though in 44 games compared to Hollett’s 50 games.
In 1943-44, Pratt dominated the NHL with a record-breaking 40 assists and record-breaking 57 points in just 50 games. This time, he finished well ahead of Hollett and was rewarded with the Hart Trophy for his efforts. He was also voted to the First All-Star Team. Pratt continued to terrorize the league offensively in the 1944-45 season, scoring 18 goals and tying Hollett for the point lead among defensemen with 41. Pratt was voted to the Second All-Star Team at the end of the season, but more importantly, his Maple Leafs pulled a great upset on the dominant Montreal Canadiens in the first round eventually beating the Red Wings in a tight 7-game series to take home the Cup.
Offense plummeted in the 1945-46 season, but Pratt still managed to perform well, leading all defensemen with 25 points in 41 games. Pratt was traded to the Boston Bruins before the 1946-47 season and had a tough year, eventually being demoted to the minors. Pratt played well in the AHL and eventually moved on to the Pacific Coast Hockey League, where he would continue to dominate and eventually serve as a player-coach, winning two championships. Pratt retired from playing hockey for good in 1952.
Pratt would retire with the second most points among all defensemen in NHL history with 292 points in his 517 games, but his assist total of 209 was first all-time and would last until 1955 when Red Kelly beat the mark. Pratt’s single-season record of 57 points would last for 21 seasons until it was beaten by Pierre Pilote in the 1964-65 season and his 40-assist record would last for 11 years until the great Doug Harvey surpassed it. The award for the best defenseman on the Canucks was originally awarded in 1972, and was re-named to the Walter “Babe” Pratt Trophy in honour of Pratt after his death in 1988. Pratt was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966.