ott heller night

Ott Heller returned, as promised. The Rangers were playing in Montreal that Saturday night, February 14, 1942, against the last-place Canadiens, so it qualified as an upset when Montreal came out on top by a score of 5-3. Eyeing the line-up, you don’t see a Hab team for the ages: the top line had Terry Reardon between Toe Blake and Joe Benoit. Buddy O’Connor scored a couple of Hab goals, and there were fights. Listed in the line-up among the spares, Heller didn’t figure in the newspaper accounts: he made no news. Some of them make it sound like he kept to the bench the whole game, which I guess is possible. Or maybe he was pencilled in to play and didn’t, at the last minute, feel right.

o hThe Rangers caught the train home and the following night, Sunday, they met the Brooklyn Americans at Madison Square Garden. There was a trophy they played for in those years, New York teams, the winner of the season’s series got the William J. MacBeth Memorial Cup, and this would be the night they handed it over. It already belonged to the Rangers — they’d won five out of six games already that year — but the Americans measured out some revenge on the night by winning this one by a score of 5-1. Heller did play on this night, partnered with Neil Colville; Bill Juzda sat as the Rangers’ fifth defenceman. Heller played about 12 minutes and was, again, unnewsworthy.

“We’re in a slump,” said coach Frank Boucher, “no doubt of that. I only trust we shake it off before somebody catches us.”

Tuesday they had the Canadiens coming in. “The boys in the gallery,” advised Kerr N. Petrie of The New York Herald Tribune, “are busy getting their banners ready for ‘Ott Heller Night.’” The night of Heller’s injury in January, of course, they’d called off a tribute in fear of jinxing “the hard-working defense horse of the Manhattan Blues” (The New York Daily Mirror), so I suppose the feeling was that now they were clear to proceed hexfree.

Before he hurt his shoulder, Ranger management had been talking him up as a candidate for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. Jim Hurley at The Daily Mirror thought maybe he’d had better years behind him. Still:

Heller is a workman who certainly rates the highest praise for his consistently good performance over a 12-season period and the festivities tonight are quite in order.

His problem, maybe, was that fans with unschooled eyes couldn’t discern his contributions. He was hiding in plain sight. Hurley again:

Since he lacks the splash and color of some rearguard workers, and the murderous mien of others, the fans have no conception of Heller as a glamor player. His best endorsement comes from rival players and coaches, who are cognizant of the consistently steady game he turns in.

The Rangers, at least, were going to give him a trophy, inscribed “To Ehrhardt (Ott) Heller in appreciation — N.Y. Rangers,” and also (Hurley reported) “a nice boodle of defense bonds.” His teammates had presents for him, too, and the fans were planning “demonstrations.” The Brooklyn Americans (interestingly) were all planning to attend, along with 1,000 members of the Rovers Rooter Club — fans of the Rangers’ New York farm club.

The Rangers’ publicity man at this time was Jersey Jones. He was talking up Heller and hexes to New York Times’ columnist John Kieran the day of the game. Heller, he said, had come to the Rangers, way back, as a forward. Because the team only had Ching Johnson and Earl Seibert on the blueline at the time, he’d dropped back. Also: Ott was the one who’d rallied the team at the start of the present year, when they weren’t playing well. “We were awful,” Jones said. “Heller stopped that.”

According to Jones, Ranger GM Lester Patrick had seen it too often play out before in baseball: a team fêted a player and he ended up striking out, committing errors in the outfield. But then, according to Jones:

They put on a Syd Howe Night in Detroit and Syd was a riot. He scored the two goals that beat Chicago, 2-0. As soon as he saw that Lester came in and said to put on an Ott Heller Night as soon as we could. So if Ott knocks the Canadiens for a goal at this party, Syd Howe ought to get an assist.

Didn’t happen. Again the Canadiens prevailed, this time by 2-1, in overtime. The papers who pointed out that Heller wasn’t himself put it down to hexing; none of them mentioned that in practice earlier in the week he’d taken a stick in the side and, heavily taped, was probably suffering from a broken rib.

On the silver side, Alex Shibicky’s goal for the Rangers assured that their streak of not being shut out was extended, now, to 92 games.

A crowd of 8,915 was on hand to see Colonel John Fitzpatrick, president of the Garden, hand Heller the silver cup and a defense bond. From his teammates he got an electric razor and a straight-grain pipe, along with a luck charm, tiny toy hockey skates suspended from a wishbone.