goalie on the verge

Andy Aitkenhead

Andy Aitkenhead was born on a Sunday of this date in 1904 in Glasgow in Scotland, though Saskatchewan is where he grew up and learned the goaling trade. As a young man in the 1920s in Saskatoon, he worked the nets for teams called Quakers, Nationals, Empires, and Sheiks, catching the attention, eventually, of Lester Patrick in New York, who signed him up for the Rangers. He seasoned two years in Portland, Oregon, before graduating to the NHL — that’s him here in his PCHL Buckaroos raiment. The glad news is that as a 28-year-old rookie Aitkenhead backstopped the Blueshirts to their second Stanley Cup to finish up the 1932-33 campaign, working all 48 of the team’s regular-season games and a further eight in the playoffs, winning 29 of those 56 encounters.

He didn’t miss a game the following year, either, despite suffering a nervous breakdown this month in 1934. Details of just what happened aren’t easy to discern from contemporary reports, though the newspapers of the day were all too pleased to blithely bandy the goaltender’s mental health across their columns. “Andy Aitkenhead’s nervous system has broken under the strain of National League hockey,” Vancouver’s Province reported mid-March as the Rangers prepared to start the playoffs and the defence of their title. Patrick denied it, even as he scrambled to find an emergency replacement. Heading into their final regular-season game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Rangers had lost six of their previous ten games; “Andy hasn’t been going so well lately” is as much as the manager would say. As Patrick sought permission from the NHL to bring in Alec Connell, the recently retired veteran of nine NHL campaigns, the newspapers cast their headlines across the continent:

New York Rangers’ Goalie / Suffers Attack of ‘Jitters’ (Edmonton Journal)

Andy Aitkenhead Suffers / From Nervous Breakdown (Boston Globe)

Aitkenhead Out of Game (Saskatoon Star-Phoenix)

Maple Leafs’ manager Conn Smythe thought it was all a, well, con, a case of Patrick trying to bend the rules and acquire a new goaltender after the NHL trade deadline had passed. “Nobody in all the world of sport can do such utterly unthinkable things except that doggone Lester,” Smythe brayed from Toronto. “He excites my admiration damn near every time he moves, and he moves frequently.”

As it turned out, Connell couldn’t get away — he had a regular job, as secretary of the Ottawa Fire Department. Aitkenhead was back in net for the Toronto game, and while the Rangers lost, 3-2, he stopped 41 shots while inspiring a brighter set of headlines in the days that followed:

Andy’s Jitters Not Permanent (Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

Aitkenhead Is Recovering (Winnipeg Tribune)

Andy Aitkenhead Beating Nerves (Edmonton Journal)

“Aitkenhead’s display lessened somewhat Patrick’s anxiety for the youngster,” the wires reported, “that examination by doctors had caused. Letters from the doctors said Aitkenhead’s reflexes revealed a high degree of nervousness although a physical examination failed to disclose any organic weakness. Encouragement was offered by the statement it might be a passing condition curable by rest.”

And that was pretty much it. Paul Gallico weighed in with a jolly column in the New York Daily News, but mostly,the discussion of Aitkenhead’s well-being sank away out of the news.

As for rest, he didn’t get much that March, starting both of New York’s playoff games later that same week. In a series to be decided by total goals, he and his Maroons’ counterpart Dave Kerr shared in allowing not a one in the first game in Montreal: the Daily News reported that, “though highly keyed up,” Aitkenhead was “magnificent” in stopping 26 shots to guarantee that the game ended 0-0 — while also commending his “coolness.” Five days later, when the teams met again at Madison Square Garden, the Maroons eliminated the Rangers with a 2-1 win secured by a third-period goal by Earl Robinson.

Andy Aitkenhead’s goaltending career had another six years to run, though he only ever played 10 more games in the NHL. The Rangers stumbled out of the gate to start the 1934-35, and they were a dismal 3-7 in December when the Rangers bought Dave Kerr from the Maroons and sent Aitkenhead packing. “I am far from satisfied that the fault was all Andy’s,” Lester Patrick said. “However, when a goalie lest as many get by him as Andy did, you know what happens. All I can say is, I’m sorry.”

Aitkenhead found his way back to the Buckaroos’ net in PCHL Portland, and he played there through to 1941. That’s where he stayed settled, too, after his retirement. Andy Aitkenhead died at the age of 64 in 1968.

(Top image: Oregonian/Barcroft Studios. Oregon Journal; Lot 1368; Box 371; 0371N013)