Frank Boucher’s legacy as an altogether upright and admirable citizen was already well-established in the fall of 1951 as the NHL prepared to launch into its 34th season on ice. Scion of a famous Ottawa sporting family, he’d served as a constable in the RCMP before starting into a stellar career as a pro hockey centreman for Ottawa’s original Senators, the old PCHA Vancouver Maroons, and (most notably) New York’s Rangers.
Elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958, Boucher had helped engineer Stanley Cup championships for the Rangers in 1928 and ’33, combining superlative skills with good graces, such that he was awarded the Lady Byng Trophy seven times in eight years in the NHL’s first decades. The respect for fair play he learned, he always said, from his hero, the original winner of the Lady Byng, Frank Nighbor. Boucher took as coach of the Rangers in 1939, and served a decade in the job. By 1951, he was concentrating on his role as the team’s GM — and on refining the hockey that was playing out on NHL ice.
Born in Ottawa in 1901 on a Monday of this past Thursday’s date, October 7, Frank Boucher found himself turning 50 this mid-century week in ’51. He was with his team at training camp in Guelph, Ontario, working with Rangers’ coach Neil Colville to evaluate his team’s talent and, ever an innovator, tinkering with the tenor of the game.
Rangerswise, Boucher considered his team to be 25 per cent better than it had been the previous year, when the Rangers had finished fifth — out of the playoffs — in the six-team NHL.
“The big difference will be in offensive power,” he told Al Nickleson from the Globe and Mail. “Now we have more fellows who can put the puck in the net. One of the new ones, Gaye Stewart, can help us plenty. The team is in much better shape than at this time last year. Centre Ed Laprade looks better right now than he has for the last three seasons and shows no effect from the leg he fractured last winter.”
If the previous season had been a write-off for the Rangers, it did include, for Boucher, at least one rewarding night. In February of ’51, ahead of a Madison Square Garden meeting with the Chicago Black Hawks, the Rangers celebrated Boucher with a generous testimonial. Bill and Bun Cook, Boucher’s old Ranger linemates, were on hand, along with Murray Murdoch, another Ranger original. New York mayor Vincent Impelliterri presented Boucher with the keys to a brand-new black 1951 Studebaker sedan, paid for by fan subscription.
Other gifts included a typewriter (from New York’s hockey writers); a tool chest (from the St. Paul Saints, a Ranger farm team); a pen-and-pencil set (from the MSG Corporation). Ranger captain Frank Eddolls and his Ranger teammates chipped in for a television — and a 5-1 win over the Black Hawks.
In September, as the off-season dwindled away, Boucher was back in the news, advocating for the NHL to institute an amateur draft. The league didn’t get around to doing that, of course, until 1963; in the meantime, as the longtime chairman of the NHL’s Rules Committee, Boucher was doing his best to streamline (and possibly even improve) the game the league was unleashing on the ice day-to-day.
By the first week of October, with the opening of the new season just a week away, Boucher’s mind was on the perennial challenge of how to keep players focussed on playing the hockey they were of capable of rather than concentrating on straying outside the rules to thwart their opponents.
A pre-season report from Guelph noted that he was telling his own players to cut out “hacking, slashing, boarding and other illegal tactics.”
“No particular person is to blame for the type of play that is spoiling the game,” he expounded. “The rules haven’t changed. The only thing needed is for the referees to call the play according to the book, and this rough stuff will be cut out.”
Boucher maintained that the rules committee was all for a crackdown. “Spectators like a good tough check, if it is clean, and the fans, players, club officials, and referees should be told that any rules infractions will be penalized. Then we’ll see some hockey.”
Unleash the league’s stars, Boucher implored. “[Montreal’s Maurice] Richard would be a truly great player if he didn’t have a couple of guys draped around him during a game.”
There’s no record of any official NHL response to Boucher’s opinionating — none that I’ve been able to unearth, anyway. League president Clarence Campbell was focussed on a project of his own: replacing the two 20-foot face-off circles that traditionally flanked NHL nets at either end of the rink with a single one, 30 feet in diameter, directly in front of each goal.
A decade had passed since the NHL’s introduction of the ten-foot circles. They’d been introduced to augment the face-off dots that had been in place since 1937 at the same time as the penalty-shot circle was erased from the high slot. The new-old face-off circle was described in press reports as Campbell’s “brainchild.” It quickly proved unpopular.
Campbell’s motive for refiguring each zone with a single central face-off circle? “It is his idea,” Windsor Star columnist Doug Vaughan explained, “that it will provide spectators with a clearer view of what takes place, livelier action, and prevent a lot of the old jamming along the boards.”
Frank Boucher didn’t agree. “Suicide,” he called it. The central face-off circle was, he said, unfair to goaltenders. “Also,” he argued, “the new circle will only prolong something we have long been trying to eliminate. At least under the old system the teams spread out for a face-off. Now they gang up in a huddle in front of the goal.”
Toronto Maple Leaf managing director Conn Smythe was with him. “In sport,” he ventured, “you want rules that won’t prevent the better side from winning. But you also them so that the better side doesn’t get the advantage of a rule. This new circle gives the advantage top the better team which can put on the pressure and keep the puck in there.”
“A goalie can make a great save, but can’t get rid of the puck before the whistle blows. Then, under this new plan, he’s actually penalized because the face-off is made directly in front of him. That’s not right.”
NHL referee-in-chief Carl Voss watched a couple of pre-season games in which the new circle was deployed and came out as another naysayer. “I was for it at first,” he said. “But now, in the last two games I’ve seen, the players seem to be getting on to it, and it’s not working out the way we had hoped.”
Major changes in the rules needed approval from all six teams. “It won’t get it,” Boucher said of unanimous support for Campbell’s plan. Never mind settling for the status quo, Boucher had his own variation to offer: keep the two face-off circles on either side of each net but enlarge them from 20 to 30 feet across.
The Rangers quickly put the expanded circles to the test in a pre-season game against the Black Hawks in Guelph. In Toronto, Smythe had them drawn in at Maple Leaf Gardens for a Leaf scrimmage. Both goaltenders, Turk Broda and Al Rollins, declared them a success.
Clarence Campbell, too, came around. He agreed that his idea posed problems for goaltenders. “We don’t want any rule which makes a good team better at the expense of its opponent,” he conceded. All six team were in favour of Boucher’s fix, Campbell said; it was duly adopted for the new season.