this week in 1951: frank boucher turns 50, redraws the nhl rink

Let’s Stick Together: Frank Boucher, in the middle, poses with two of his elder brothers in 1928. George (a.k.a. Buck) Boucher, at left, won four Stanley Cups with Ottawa’s powerhouse Senatos in the ’20s and went on to coach the Boston Bruins; Billy, on the right, spent most of his career with the Montreal Canadiens before signing with New York’s Americans.

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.

Try Out: Frank Boucher coached the New York Rangers rom 1939 through 1949 before he stepped back to focus on the job of GM. Here, circa the early ’50s, he measures up defenceman Allan Stanley.

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.

rod gilbert’s number 7: like a cardinal’s hat at st. patrick’s cathedral

Amid New York Rafters: This LeRoy Neiman portrait of the late Ranger great Rod Gilbert dates to 1976, near the end of Gilbert’s distinguished career with New York. In October of 1979, the Rangers retired Gilbert’s number 7 where (as per this subsequent caption of Neiman’s) it hung “like a Cardinal’s hat at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.” It was no fault of Gilbert’s then — and it’s no disrespect to his legacy now — to mention that the Rangers somehow forgot to honour that same 7 for the first Ranger to don it (in 1927), the inimitable (and possibly best-ever Ranger) Frank Boucher. Then again, the team has made a strange tradition of overlooking its earlier stalwarts, and any time the Rangers get around to retiring Bill Cook’s number 5 and his brother Bun’s 6 wouldn’t be too soon. Recognitions for Murray Murdoch, who wore 9 before Andy Bathgate and Adam Graves, and Ching Johnson, a long-serving 3 before Harry Howell, wouldn’t be out of place, either.  

the goose that laid 50 eggs

Towering Tiny: An artist’s rendition of Boston’s mighty Tiny Thompson from 1930.

Score it 0-0: the game that particular February 24 on a Sunday night in 1935 ended up without a puck getting by either goaltender through three regular periods and a ten-minute overtime. New York’s Madison Square Garden was the scene, with 26-year-old Dave Kerr tending the nets for the hometown Rangers against Tiny Thompson and the Boston Bruins in front of a crowd of 16,000 or so. The ice, by one account, was wretched.

“For Rangers,” the Boston Globe disclosed the next day, “Kerr was the whole works.” He stopped 43 pucks, recording the 15th shutout of his five-year career. His closest call? Harold Parrott from Brooklyn’s Daily Eagle said it came on a “rifle shot” from Boston’s Babe Siebert, “which nearly tore the goaler’s little finger off and hit the goal post with that dull ping which signifies failure.” Thompson deterred 39 New York shots — or maybe 34. The NHL didn’t keep official counts in those early years, and the Globe and the New York Times begged to differ in their accounting of Thompson’s work. To the latter’s eye, his hardest test came in the second period on a “ripping long shot” from New York’s Murray Murdoch.

For Thompson, who was 31 and playing in his eighth NHL season, the night marked a milestone of distinguished denial: this was the 50th regular-season shutout of his career. He was the seventh goaltender in league history to make it to that mark, following in the venerable skates of (not in order) George Hainsworth, Clint Benedict, Roy Worters, Lorne Chabot, Alec Connell, and John Ross Roach.

 

ching johnson and his highly educated hip

“With his balding head gleaming under the lights,” Deane McGowen wrote in a New York Times obituary in 1979, “the 6-foot, 210-pound Mr. Johnson would carry the puck down the rink like a runaway locomotive at full speed. There were few opponents who dared to impede his progress.”

Nobody called him Mr. Johnson: though first and officially labeled Ivan Wilfred, he was nicknamed early on and certainly as an NHL defenceman was only ever really known as ChingJohnson. Today’s his birthday: he born in Winnipeg on Tuesday, December 7, 1897.

Johnson served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War, as a driver for the 3rd Division’s ammunition column. The record of his military service testify that he acquired both a social disease and a Good Conduct Badge in France before he was demobilized in 1919.

He played some hockey in Belgium before he came home, after the Armistice, he was among a group of Canadian soldiers who “satisfied their hankering for the blades and sticks with games on a pond in front of a chateau outside Brussels.”

That’s according to Damon Runyon, the writer, of Guys and Dolls repute, who was also a hockey fan and sometime (what else could he be?) Runyonesque hockey columnist in the late 1920s

Johnson had signed on with the New York Rangers by then — was, in fact, one of the long-serving original Rangers, along with Frank Boucher, Bun and Bill Cook, and Murray Murdoch, whose numbers the team has somehow failed to retire. (Johnson’s was 3.)

He played 11 seasons in all with the Rangers, plus an extra one at the end of his career with the Americans across town. The Rangers won two Stanley Cups during Johnson’s tenure. He was named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team twice, in 1932 and ’33. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958.

Here’s Runyon’s perspective on Ching Johnson and his predilection for bodychecks from a 1927 column:

Weighing 211 pounds, splendidly distributed in bone, muscle, and skin of healthy glow, he believes firmly in the efficacy of a hip movement that combines the dexterity of Gilda Gray’s shimmy and the potency of a battering ram. In a game against the Chicago Black Hawks, he floored five men — all but the goalie, who cannot be charged on without fracturing a rule — through the medium of his highly educated hip and sheer driving power.

the goalkeeper is generally favoured (they keep a special ambulance for him)

Though it’s dated to 1933, I’m going to venture that this short and magnificent British Pathé newsreel of the antique New York Rangers is in fact a little older than that, and that the show of scurrying, leaping, and colliding that the players enact for the cameras goes back to either 1926-27, the team’s first season in the NHL, or its second, 1927-28.

Though it’s unusual to see them skating at full fling, many of the original Rangers who figure in the action here are unmistakable, whether it’s Frank Boucher steaming in on Ching Johnson, or Bill Cook going after the puck when Boucher goes flying in another sequence. Who’s the defender on the latter play? His sweater shows number 12, which in those initial Ranger seasons belonged to Leo Bourgault. It’s the goaltender who would seem to confirm that this is footage of earliest Rangers. While the camera gives us a good gaze at his gear, it doesn’t linger on his face. The cap you see in the long shots is familiar, and the stance, too, which is to say the crouch he assumes waiting for the play to approach. And yes, Lorne Chabot, who guarded the Ranger nets for most of their first two seasons in the NHL, did sport the number 2 on his sweater. It’s only towards the end of the clip that you get a good look at Chabot’s long, mournful mug. Crashing the net are wingers Murray Murdoch (#9) and Paul Thompson (#10).

Whether or not there was a special ambulance waiting for him, Chabot was famously unfavoured in April of 1928, during the second game of the Stanley Cup finals, when a shot by Nels Stewart of the Maroons caught him in his unprotected eye, and he was taken to Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital. That was the night the Rangers’ 44-year-old coach, Lester Patrick, took an emergency turn in the net — more on that here. With Joe Miller taking Chabot’s place for the remainder of the series, the Rangers won the Cup. Chabot never played another game for the Blueshirts. Convinced that his career was over, the Rangers sent him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for John Ross Roach. Far from finished, Chabot played another decade in the NHL before he retired in 1937. Only 11 other goaltenders in NHL history have recorded more career regular-season shutouts than Chabot’s 71.

buddy maracle, in 1931: swept through everybody to leave cude helpless with a wicked shot

Lestermen: The New York Rangers line up in 1931. Back row, from left they are: Bill Cook, Butch Keeling, Frank Peters, coach Lester Patrick, Ching Johnson, Buddy Maracle, Joe Jerwa, Bill Regan. Front, from left: Bun Cook, Paul Thompson, Murray Murdoch, Cecil Dillon, Frank Boucher, John Ross Roach.

Out now in The Hockey News online and at the newsstand, paywalled in both places — my profile of Buddy Maracle and the case for recognizing him as the NHL’s first Indigenous player. He was 27 and a minor-league veteran when the New York Rangers called him up from the Springfield Indians. “Those who used to boo the Noble Red Man in the Canadian-American League can now boo him in the National Hockey League,” a column in The Boston Globe advised, “though, of course, it will cost more.” Maracle played his first NHL game in Detroit on February 12, debuting in the Rangers’ 1-1 tie with the local (pre-Red Wings) Falcons. He didn’t figure on the scoresheet that night, and also failed to score in New York’s next two games. Hosting the lowly Philadelphia Quakers on February 22, the Rangers cruised to a 6-1 win. Maracle assisted when Cecil Dillon scored New York’s fifth goal in the second period; in the third, Dillon returned the favour when Maracle beat the Quakers’ Wilf Cude to score his lone major-league goal. One newspaper accounts rated it “clever;” getting the puck from Dillon, Maracle “swept through everybody to leave Cude helpless with a wicked shot.”

He would notch two more NHL assists. In a March 3 game against Boston, he abetted Bill Regan on a third-period goal, the only one the Rangers scored in a 4-1 loss. March 17, he helped on another Dillon goal in the Rangers’ 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators. In four playoff games that year, Maracle registered no points, took no penalties.

Not all of his achievements were logged for the statistical archives. In a March 7 game against the Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens, his penalty-killing caught the fancy of the local cognoscenti. By Bert Perry’s account in The Globe, Maracle “gave quite an exhibition of ragging the puck while [Ching] Johnson was off, displaying stick-handling of a high order that merited the applause of the fans.”

(Image: New York Rangers)

spillway

Homestretch: Defenceman Ching Johnson lies down on the job during a New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden in January of 1934. The home team beat Montreal’s Maroons on the night on the strength of Frank Boucher’s two goals. Still on their feet are Rangers (right) Ott Heller and (possibly) Murray Murdoch. Unless, maybe, is it Butch Keeling?

on the road to new york: the rangers’ first training camp, 1926

In the spring of 1928, the team that Conn Smythe built went to the Stanley Cup finals and won. Smythe, of course, wasn’t around to join in the triumphing as the New York Rangers, in just their second season in the NHL, defeated the Montreal Maroons to win the championship. Hired in the spring of 1926 to sign players and coach them for Rangers owner Tex Rickard and president Colonel John Hammond, Smythe could hardly have made a solider start before finding himself fired by fall — before the Rangers had played even a single game.

Stan Fischler tells the tale in the newish, season-preview edition of The Hockey News. To sum up: in the spring of ’26, Smythe had coached the University of Toronto’s varsity team to the Allan Cup final. “I knew every hockey player in the world right then,” Smythe wrote in his 1981 Scott Young-aided memoir. On the Ranger job he went out and signed some of the best of them who weren’t already in the NHL. By mid-October the squad he’d assembled in Toronto for pre-season readying included goaltender Lorne Chabot, defencemen Taffy Abel and Ching Johnson, and forwards Frank Boucher, Billy Boyd, Murray Murdoch, Paul Thompson, and brothers Bill and Bun Cook.

“An hour’s road work in the morning and two hours on the ice at Ravina Rink this afternoon constituted the first day’s programme of conditioning,” The Ottawa Journal reported. This was Smythe’s first go at organizing the formal training camp he’d impose later on his Toronto Maple Leafs. At his side he had Frank Carroll, who’d had a winning record in the single season he coached the Toronto St. Patricks in 1920-21. That’s him above, on the far right, leading a Ranger group through Toronto streets at the end of October. Ching Johnson is on the other extreme, with (sixth from left) Bill Cook in behind; Frank Boucher, just visible, third from the right; and Bun Cook upfront, fifth from the right.

Smythe was out of a job before the Rangers played their first exhibition games, a 6-0 win over London of the Canadian Professional League at Ravina Gardens followed by a 3-1 follow-up in London. The variety of factors that seem to have contributed to Smythe’s precipitous demise included his bluster and insistence that he knew best. Where hockey was concerned, that was probably true, but his refusal to take Colonel Hammond’s pointed direction to sign the veteran Babe Day was the last straw. There are several versions of just how the firing went down; what’s not in dispute is that the Rangers had already signed Lester Patrick and brought him to Toronto before they sent Smythe packing.

The story that the press heard was that the parting was amicable. Smythe went along with the fiction that it was all a big shame that he couldn’t continue with the Rangers, but the business of the sand and gravel company he owned would (so sadly) prevent him from fully committing to the team.

Frank Carroll lasted a little longer. At Smythe’s departure, Lou Marsh reported in The Toronto Daily Star that Colonel Hammond was “delighted with the spirit and morale of the new team.”

“In fact, he expressed astonishment that Smythe and Carroll had, in such a short time, produced such harmony among athletes drawn from so many different sources.”

But by the time the Rangers travelled to New York to play their opening game with the Maroons, Carroll had been reassigned to coach the Springfield Indians in the brand-new Canadian-American Hockey League, forerunner to the AHL.

“As time went on,” Smythe wrote in If You Can’t Beat ’Em In The Alley, “I came to see that losing the Ranger job was a blessing.” Lester Patrick, he said, did a better job than he ever could have. Also? “I’ve seen what happens to other men who go to New York and can’t handle all the wine, women, and song.” Colonel Hammond, Smythe said, had done him a favour in 1926.

babes

Bambino & Friends: Eddie Shore and his wife Kate chat with Babe Ruth himself, clad in Boston Braves colours, in April of 1935.

It wasn’t the hockey players they were trying to impress in 1925 when they called Bullet Joe Simpson the Babe Ruth of hockey. If they’d wanted to do that, they would have announced he was the Cyclone Taylor of hockey or maybe the Scotty Davidson. To some people who saw him play, Davidson was the best ever, barring none, which is intriguing to hear because, well — Scotty Davidson? But: Babe Ruth. 1925 was the year that bootlegger Big Bill Dwyer and his buddies bought the roster of the Hamilton Tigers and replanted it in Manhattan as the New York Americans. Tex Rickard needed a new attraction to fill his Madison Square Garden and hockey, he and Colonel John Hammond had decided, was it. To a New Yorker who’d never seen a game before, Cyclone Taylor wasn’t going to mean much. Everybody understood the dominance of Ruth, the swagger of the most famous Yankee of all — which still doesn’t explain how the team came to have two Babe Ruths playing for them that year. Continue reading