Walter "Babe" Pratt was a funny and outgoing man off the ice, keen on jokes and always good for a laugh, but he was considerably tougher with his hockey equipment on. Over a long career in leagues across North America, he proved consistently that the best defense is often a good offense. He was a defenseman who kept the puck deep in the other team's zone, sometimes deep in their net, and goalies on his squads could be sure their goals-against averages would drop when he was at his best. His leadership and ability are backed up by his remarkable winning record, from the National Hockey League to junior, as his teams won 15 championships over his 26 years in the game.
Pratt was born in Stony Mountain, Manitoba, in 1916. He played minor hockey in Winnipeg, much of it with the Atlantic Avenue Rink. He won the Winnipeg Playground Championship in the under-12 division with the club as a 10-year-old. Pratt's love after hockey was baseball and he was a promising young player. He was nicknamed "Babe," after Babe Ruth.
The next season he won the Manitoba juvenile title with Elmwood and led the league again in scoring. In 1933 he played for five teams in his area - high school, church league, juvenile, a senior league squad and the commercial league. Amazingly, every team won a championship. Later that year he made the move to the Kenora Thistles as a 17-year-old to play junior. Again he led the league in scoring, and the team easily won the Manitoba junior title. In his second year in junior he had 46 points in 20 games, tops in the league, and brought the Thistles to within a game of the final of the Memorial Cup, when they lost to the Winnipeg Monarchs.
He turned professional in 1935, having been signed by the New York Rangers. Ranger scout Al Ritchie called Pratt the best prospect he had ever seen. Pratt justified Ritchie's confidence with his play for the Rangers' farm team, the Philadelphia Ramblers, and midway through his first season with the Ramblers he was called up by the Rangers. In his rookie year, he had some veteran defenders to watch and play with, including Ching Johnson, Art Coulter and Ott Heller. In 1939-40, Pratt teamed with Heller to form the league's best defense pairing. In 48 games, they allowed only 17 goals and their play was instrumental in the Rangers' Stanley Cup win that season. Pratt had 28 points in 1941-42 as the Rangers won the regular-season championship.
Midway through the 1942-43 season, Pratt was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Hank Goldup and Red Garrett. Pratt had his best seasons with the Maple Leafs. In 1943-44, he led all defensemen with 57 points in 50 games - the best total ever by a defender and a mark that would stay in the books for 21 seasons. When Pierre Pilote broke the record with 59 points, he had played in 20 more games than Pratt. In 1944 Pratt was awarded the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player, an award rarely given to defensemen, and was placed on the league's First All-Star Team. He was a Second Team All-Star the next season, when the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup and he scored the winning goal.
Pratt continued to play hockey for six more years, many of them in the Pacific Coast Hockey League, after being traded to Boston in 1946-47 and then being demoted to the minors. Twice he was the league's most valuable player. He was a high-scoring defender with the two-time league champion New Westminster Royals, a team in his adopted province of British Columbia, and he later coached the club when he retired from play in 1952.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966, the year before his son, Tracy, entered the National Hockey League for his first of 10 seasons in the league.