leo bourgault: it irked him to just defend

Newspaper accounts of Leo Bourgault from his days as an NHL defenceman sometimes — often, even — spelled his name Bourgeault, and called the town he came from Spurgeon Falls. Bourgault, who was born on this day in 1903 in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, near North Bay, died in 1978 at the age of 75.

He started his professional career with Newsy Lalonde’s Saskatoon Crescents in the old WHL in 1924-25 before leaping to the NHL, where he spent most of his eight-year career as a New York Ranger, he helping them win a Stanley Cup in 1928. He had stints, too, in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. As a Canadien, he was a close friend of Howie Morenz’s, and may well have been one of the Habs who wore a sweater numbered 99 during the 1934-35 season.

They said he had the heart of a forward. Harold Burr did, hockey correspondent for the old Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “He’s forever breaking loose from a tangle of players and streaking away on running runners,” he wrote in 1929. “It irks him to just defend.”

“The wide-spreading stocky little youth” is a string of epithets referring to Bourgault you might come cross, if you go searching: another is “stocky little blue-shirted meteor.” The damage he suffered as a hockey player included a 1929 lump on the face (courtesy of the Montreal Maroons) that Burr described as “the size of an Easter egg as vari-colored.” In 1927, a collision with Reg Noble of the Detroit Cougars broke his nose doubly, which is say two nose-bones fractured, and needed surgery.

In New York, he shared an apartment with goaltender John Ross Roach. Sometimes when he talked to a local reporter he said, “In the fall at home I go after moose — just another fellow and myself. We head in for a lumber camp in the heart of the wilderness, where they cut pulp wood, with just a blanket, paddle, and tent.”

“It’s a great way to keep in physical trim,” he told Burr — hunting, that is. The newspaperman lapped it up, filling a column with Bourgault’s off-season exploits “around his home in the far Canadian country,” where he enjoyed his “mother’s home cooking of juicy steaks, wild ducks, and big fat trout.”

Some other summers Bourgault spent at Jasper Park Lodge, in Alberta, where he had a job as manager of the transportation desk. I don’t know whether he did any hunting out west, but he was working out, certainly, and golfing. That’s him on the course here, negotiating a porcupine hazard in 1927. A year later, he met a black bear. Good to see that Bourgault was wearing his Rangers’ sweater.

 

cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.

Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”

Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.

Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:

No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’

That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”

Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.

That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.

Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.

Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.

We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.

Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.

this week in 1957, when hockey debuted on american television: show ’em everything, clarence campbell said

Clarence Campbell was in the house: he declared the game a “pretty good show.” If that sounds a little lukewarm, well, maybe we’ll presume that the NHL president was doing his best to spare the feelings of the Chicago Black Hawks, losers on the day to the hometown New York Rangers by a score of 4-1.

January 5, 1957, was the day, a Saturday. The game was a matinee, with a 2 p.m. face-off at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Five years after René Lecavalier narrated the NHL’s first televised game from the Montreal Forum on Radio-Canada, this marked the coast-to-coast broadcast debut for NHL hockey across the United States. Launching a 10-Saturday series of games that CBS cameras would beam across the nation in coming weeks, the Rangers and Black Hawks may not have been the thoroughbreds of the league at the time — New York was skulking only eight points up on basement-bound Chicago. Marshall Dann of The Detroit Free Press wondered in a preview whether these “chronic tailenders” were the best teams with which to try to lure the attention of those potential fans who’d never seen hockey before. “But who will know the difference,” he wrote, “in such way points as Atlanta, New Orleans, Amarillo, Las Vegas, or San Diego?”

CBS estimated that the broadcast could reach as many as 10-million viewers. Sixty-five U.S. stations carried it that day, with another 35 scheduled to join in for future feeds. All of the ’57 TV games, the NHL decided, would be played in the afternoon. League-leading Detroit was scheduled for five appearances in the succeeding weeks, as were Boston and New York, with Chicago showing up four times. (This first broadcast didn’t, notably, play on Chicago TVs.)

Montreal’s Canadiens were traditionally at home on Saturdays, but they would take one network turn south of the border in Boston. “Some one will have to tell the TV watchers that it is a six-team league,” Marshall Dann quipped — the Toronto Maple Leafs figured not at all in that season’s broadcast schedule.

Campbell, for his part, didn’t want anyone mistaking this venture into TV as a cash grab by the clubs. “The amount of money each club will receive,” he said, “is intended to compensate it for changing from night to afternoon. The real value from a hockey standpoint is that we can create an interest in hockey in areas where the game is practically unknown.”

A crowd of 9,853 watched the game live at the Garden. The New York Times’ Joseph Nichols wasn’t as generous as Campbell in his review: he remarked on its lack of speed, action, and heavy bodychecking.

Al Rollins was in goal for Chicago, Gump Worsley for the Rangers. Andy Bathgate opened the scoring for New York with a shorthanded goal. If the second period was dull, Nichols thought he knew the reason: maybe “the skaters were self-conscious because of the television cameras.” (Did they not know about them for the game’s first 20 minutes?) Larry Popein did increase the Rangers’ tally* before the final period came around and the teams relaxed: they were “a little more sprightly,” at least, in the third. The period opened with a goal by Chicago’s Glen Skov before Bruce Cline and Danny Lewicki added to New York’s count.

For the play-by-play, the NHL had angled for Foster Hewitt or (as Milt Dunnell said) a reasonable facsimile thereof. CBS went instead with Bud Palmer, the former New York Knicks’ star who’d moved over to microphones once his basketball career ended. Between periods, Campbell stopped by to chat. The entertainment also included introduction of hockey’s rules and a chalk talk from Rangers’ GM Muzz Patrick.

The following week, the Rangers starred again, beating Detroit 5-4 at the Olympia. That week’s intermission distractions for those watching at home featured a pre-recorded segment with Gordie Howe showing viewers how he shot the puck, and a visit to the Red Wings’ dressing room. George Puscas from the Free Press reported that at the end of the first period, the players, having trooped off the ice, were paused in the corridor for fully two minutes while CBS aired a commercial.

They had to wait, for the script called for the camera to catch them as they entered the locker room chanting how nice they were going out there.

Then, too, things had to be tidied up a bit. Some of the players had hung their underwear on hooks. So their dress slacks were hung on top of the underwear.

It was pretty tame — frankly, it was pretty dull — but that’s the way locker rooms are when you breeze away to a 2-0 lead.

While “the players sipped tea and munched oranges,” Detroit GM Jack Adams defended their docility. “Our locker room is always quiet,” he said. “This is a place for rest and relaxation and that’s what we do here.”

Showman: NHL President Clarence Campbell and friend, in 1957.

Another production note of interest from that first foray onto American airwaves: Campbell apparently instructed the production crew that if a fight broke out on the ice, the cameras shouldn’t shy away. This was “a healthy switch,” one commentator felt, from the pro football playbook. A few weeks earlier, NFL commissioner Bert Bell had explained why he mandated that broadcasters of games from his league should turn their cameras away from the unpleasantness of fights and on-field injuries.

“We are selling our game just as the sponsor is selling his product,” Bell argued, “and that’s the way I instruct the TV people. We are selling football, not fights.”

“Anyway, if there were only one wife or mother of a player viewing the game, I would not want her to suffer while her boy is on the ground. We don’t stress fights because we want to sell good sportsmanship, and not brawls.”

Back in New York in January, Milt Dunnell was on hand to see the spectacle. The reasoning behind Campbell’s laissez-faire approach to televising whatever mayhem might evolve, he said, was “that if the people in the Garden can see it, then there is no reason why it shouldn’t be shown on television screens.”

As it turned, referee Frank Udvari called only minor penalties that day. Dunnell:

There was no blood-letting to shock the millions of new shinny lookers who doubtless had been told that hockey is a tong war which takes place on the ice. The closest thing to head-whacking was a minor flare-up involving Harry Howell and Gerry Foley of the home side, and Glen Skov of the harried Hawks.

As often happened in games involving the Rangers’ goaltender Gump Worsley, the future Hall-of-Famer did go down hard, suffering a — possible? probable? — concussion. As is so much the case in what’s turned into an ongoing accounting of Worsley’s historical head injuries, I don’t have any clinical evidence to go on here, only the anecdotal. Could have been negligible, I guess, but one account had Worsley going down “head first on the pond.” In another he was “felled during the second period when struck on the right side of the head by a stick.”

I don’t know if Bud Palmer was thinking back to Bert Bell’s comments or not. “I’m sure,” he did say, as Worsley was down, “if his wife is watching, it’s nothing serious.”

Worsley did finish the game. To some of those uninitiated seeing the action across the wide open expanses of the continental U.S., he was the star of the show. “He reminded me,” Tom Fox wrote, “of Yogi Berra guarding home plate in Yankee Stadium. Nobody gets by unless he hits a home run.”

Fox was working as he watched, actually. A sports reporter for The New Orleans Item-Tribune, he was one of several correspondents across the nation whose assignment for the afternoon was to watch both TV hockey and those who were watching TV hockey and report on it for Sunday’s paper.

“Ice hockey is more exciting than any other sport I’ve ever witnessed,” was Fox’s verdict.

In Miami, Herald reporter Luther Evans stopped by at several local bars where the game was showing to poll the clientele.

“They talk about jai-alai being fast,” offered June Overpeck, a secretary, “why this hockey is much faster and very interesting.”

“My opinion,” a Miami Beach prosecutor named Wilson McGee testified, “is that TV doesn’t give you the true picture of the game. The camera is following the puck and you miss the most exciting action of the checking.”

LeRoy Henderson, porter: “I’d rather watch Sugar Ray Robinson fighting on TV, even as bad as he’s going.”

* Contemporary newspaper summaries of the game all put Larry Popein’s goal at 14.54 of the second period. In his New York Times account, Joseph Nichols’ note about how dull that middle frame continues: “The highlight of the session was the goal scored by Popein at 14.54, with the help of Bathgate and Harry Howell.” That’s not what the NHL says, though: at NHL.com, the summary has the goal in the first period. After several years of collating, checking, and inputting, official summaries of the league’s 100 years of regular-season games went online back in October. No game-sheets survive from the NHL’s inaugural season in 1917-18, but otherwise the league has the originals on file. A tiny discrepancy, of the minorest possible clerical importance if any at all? Sounds like it needs pursuing. Stay tuned.

(Top image: 1961-62 O-Pee-Chee #65, courtesy of HockeyMedia/The Want List; Clarence Campbell: Chris Lund, Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board fonds/e011176459)

 

mighty maracle

On NHL Ice: Fred Sasakamoose skates for Chicago, circa 1953-54.

Great to see Fred Sasakamoose honoured yesterday as one of 124 appointees to the Order of Canada. The pride of Saskatchewan’s Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation started the week with a birthday — he turned 84 on Christmas Day — and yesterday he joined 85 distinguished others in being named a Member of Canada’s highest civilian honour. Best known as a pioneering hockey player, Sasakamoose has also worked tirelessly over the years with youth in his community as well as counselling young people with addictions. It’s high time he was recognized. Hours after the Order of Canada was announced by Governor-General Julie Payette in Ottawa, Sasakamoose was on the ice at Edmonton’s Rogers Place to preside over a ceremonial face-off featuring Oilers’ captain Connor McDavid and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews. It was the Blackhawks for whom Sasakamoose played his 11 NHL games, debuting as a 19-year-old in November of 1953.

As we credit Fred Sasakamoose’s entirely deserving work and experience and achievement, today might also be the day to point out a historical oversight that yesterday’s news from Rideau Hall only served to solidify.

Sasakamoose’s Order of Canada citation goes like this:

For his trailblazing contributions as the first Indigenous player in the NHL and for his work in seeking the betterment of his community through sports.

Reports in the press yesterday and today have steered the same way. “First Indigenous NHL player,” reported the CBC, The Edmonton Sun, the NHL.com, et al. “The first Indian player for an NHL team,” Simona Choise wrote in this morning’s Globe and Mail, with a nod from Sasakamoose himself. “Your white man called me Indian 100 or 200 years ago,” he’s quoted as saying; “I don’t mind that, I like it the way it is.”

Here’s the thing: at least one Indigenous player made it to NHL ice ahead of Sasakamoose’s debut in 1953.

Twenty-two years earlier, in early 1931, 26-year-old Henry Maracle suited up for the New York Rangers. But while the Society for International Hockey Research recognizes him as the league’s first Indigenous player, word doesn’t seem to have filtered out into the wider world. It’s time he was recognized, for that and more. Like Sasakamoose, Maracle played 11 NHL games before he was returned to the minor-league career he’d been pursuing at the time of his call-up. For all his efforts, Sasakamoose’s NHL numbers include no goals or assists to go with his six minutes of penalty time. Maracle made a bit more of a statistical mark, serving four minutes in the penalty box while also aiding teammates with three assists. And he scored a goal of his own.

Details of Henry Maracle’s life and career are scanty at best. He was Mohawk, born (very probably) in 1904, in (pretty sure) the town of Ayr in southwestern Ontario. That makes it entirely possible that he skated and maybe even hockeyed on the ice of the Nith River, which is also where, many winters later, Wayne did some of his earliest Gretzkying, in Brantford, just to the south.

At some point he got to North Bay, Ontario, where he played his junior hockey for the local Trappers alongside future Leafs Gerry Lowrey and Shorty Horne. When Maracle got married in 1924 at the age of 19, he put his pen to an affidavit to get a license, giving his profession as “riveter.” (His wife, 20-year-old Irene Marshall, was a stenographer.) If on official paperwork he remained Henry, he was mostly called otherwise throughout his hockey career: Bud or more often Buddy was his nom-de-glace, though sometimes, inevitably, the papers tagged him Chief Maracle.

By 1926 he’d gone professional, graduating to the newborn Can-Am League, where he signed with the team in Springfield, Massachusetts. Maybe Maracle’s background was lost on some who saw him play in those years, but for many it provoked a cascade of cultural stereotyping. For some others, it triggered racist comment that’s no less searing for being so long-ago or casually or smirkingly cast. I’m only going on newspaper clippings; I can only imagine the grotesqueries that Maracle would have faced in person, on the ice and from the stands.

The fact that the Springfield franchise was nicknamed the Indians licensed all kinds of winking nastiness among the headline writers and beat reporters. The Indians won the Can-Am championship in 1927 and repeated in ’28, with Maracle playing a major scoring role, and so he featured as the “Giant Redskin” and “Springfield Injun.”

Here’s a newspaperman named Stan Baumgartner accounting for a dominant performance in early 1928 by “miracle Maracle,” “a mighty, marvellous Indian,” when “the Red poison” scored a pair of goals in a come-from-behind victory Springfield engineered over the Philadelphia Arrows:

Alone this great Indian had snatched the game from the ignominy of defeat to the glories of victory. And when he left the ice, a few seconds later, the entire throng arose and gave one mighty cheer for the original American, first in the forests, first on the trails, and first in the hockey ring tonight.

It was Conn Smythe, apparently, who first rated Maracle as potential NHL material. This was in 1926, when the future Leaf panjandrum was (briefly) in charge of assembling the expansion New York Rangers. When Lester Patrick replaced Smythe, he farmed Maracle to New York’s team in Springfield.

Five years passed before Patrick found a place for Maracle in his big-league line-up. This was February of 1931. Has 27 now, and “veteran” was a regular adjective attending his name in the papers along with the inescapable “Indian.” Bert Perry of Toronto’s Globe noted that Maracle had been playing as effectively “two and three years ago” as he was in ’31, “but it probably required five years for Lester Patrick to see possibilities in him.” Perry’s potted biography vaguely told of Maracle’s background as “an Indian reservation in northern Ontario near North Bay” before cruising, unfortunately, to this finish:

If nothing else, his presence on [sic] the Rangers’ line-up ought to inspire New York sport writers to write some curdling stories about him. He will probably make his first appearance at Madison Square Gardens all decked out in feathers and a tomahawk or two just to provide a little atmosphere.

Maracle joined the Rangers in Detroit, making his NHL debut in a 1-1 tie with the local (pre-Red Wings) Falcons. He made no impression on the scoresheet that night, nor in New York’s next two games, a 2-1 win in Chicago and a 5-4 loss at home to the Ottawa Senators. A headline from a dispatch detailing the former: “Apples Are Thrown At Referee By Fans.”

It was in New York next game, Maracle’s fourth, that he made the biggest impression he’d make in his short NHL career. Hosting the Philadelphia Quakers before a not-very crowded crowd of 8,000 at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers won handily, 6-1. When Cecil Dillon scored New York’s fifth goal in the second period, Maracle was the man who set him up to beat Quaker goaltender Wilf Cude. In the third, Dillon returned the favour, assisting on Maracle’s lone NHL goal. Low or high? Shovelled in from the crease or sizzled from afar? I’m afraid the papers don’t yield much in the way of further description of how it happened. To go with the scoring, Maracle did, on this night, take all the penalties he’d take in his NHL career, which is to say, both of them.

Buddy Maracle skated in all four of the Rangers’ playoff games in the spring of 1931 before they were eliminated by Chicago. He registered no points and took no penalties. the following fall, Lester Patrick did what he’d done back in ’26, cutting Maracle again, consigning him back to Springfield.

There’s not much more to add, at this point, to Maracle’s biography. He played another nine minor-league seasons after his NHL stint, skating on in the Can-Am League for Springfield before moving over the New Haven Eagles. He played for Tulsa’s Oilers in the American Hockey Association before ending up with a series of senior-league teams, including the Detroit Pontiac Chiefs and the San Diego Skyhawks. He died in Dallas in 1958 at the age of 53.

Five years had passed since Fred Sasakamoose had taken his turn with Chicago. By 1953, Buddy Maracle’s trailblazing time in the NHL was already all but forgotten, even as the stereotypes renewed themselves for the debut of the league’s second Indigenous player. Informing its readers that Sasakamoose was “the first full-blooded Indian ever to play” in the NHL, The Chicago Tribune added that he was known “to his tribesmen as Chief Running Deer.”

 

my first hockey game: stan fischler

No-one has talked and written more hockey in the past 50 years than Stan Fischler. Today in Puckstruck’s occasional series, the man they call “The Hockey Maven” recalls the first NHL game he saw in person.

Eighty-five now, Fischler got his start on the page in the mid-1950s with The Brooklyn Eagle and The New York Journal-American. Nowadays he’s on air for MSG’s broadcasts of games involving New York Rangers and Islanders and New Jersey’s Devils. Born in Brooklyn, he’s an authority on New York’s subways and American-Jewish humour as well as all things puckish. He’s bylined stories over the years for The New York Times and The Toronto Star, Sports Illustrated, and Hockey Digest. He’s a columnist for The Hockey News, and has been publishing his own weekly Fischler Report for more than 20 years.

Stan Fischler

Fischler has been publishing books since 1967, and his bibliography, which runs to more than 100 titles, includes biographies of Gordie Howe and Stan Mikita, memoirs by Brad Park and Maurice Richard, along with team and oral histories, and …. there’s not much in the game that hasn’t caught Fischler’s attention. Among the best, in my books: Those Were The Days: The Lore of Hockey by The Legends of the Game, his 1976 compendium of interviews with greats of the game going back to Cyclone Taylor and Newsy Lalonde; and Metro Ice: A Century of Hockey in Greater New York (1999).

 In 2007, Fischler won the Lester Patrick Trophy, which recognizes significant contributors to the cause of hockey in the United States, adding his name to an all-star roll that features the likes of Jack Adams, Eddie Shore, Scotty Bowman, and Art Ross.

 His first NHL game? Here’s his recent recollection of how that happened in 1942, followed by some further historical fleshing-out of the night in question.

I saw my first hockey game at Madison Square Garden in 1939. It was an “amateur” doubleheader: Met League game at 1:30 Sunday, followed by a Rovers Eastern League game at 3:30 p.m.

I was seven years old at the time and not allowed to go to Rangers or Americans games because they did not start until 8:30 p.m., and I had to get up early to go to P.S. 54 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in those days.

Of course, I yearned to see an NHL game and finally got my wish in November of 1942. World War II was on in its intensity and every NHL team had lost players to the armed forces, including the Rangers. Having begged my father to take me and a friend named Jerry, he finally agreed.

However, the rain was coming down in torrents that afternoon and Dad hesitated because of that. Finally he agreed and we took the subway to the old Garden on Eighth Avenue and 49th Street. Dad bought the cheapest seats — side balcony — and it was Rangers vs. Chicago Blackhawks.

Problem was the side balcony seats — except for first two rows — had obstructed views and we couldn’t see anything that happened along the side boards right below us. Nevertheless, we were thrilled beyond belief. Chicago still had the Bentley Brothers, Max and Doug, while the Blueshirts were reduced to lesser stars.

I was so dazzled by the mere viewing of my first major league game that I was more observer than fan. Besides, I was a Maple Leaf fan and could no summon any rooting interest.

As it happened, I continued going to every Sunday afternoon game and did not see another NHL game until the 1945-46 season when my Dad took me to see Toronto vs. Rangers. New York won by a goal and while I was very disappointed, I enjoyed seeing my Leafs in person.

A year later I started going to Leaf games at MSG on a regular basis and became a season ticket holder for the 1947-48 season.

Stan Fischler’s first obstructed-view experience of NHL hockey came on a Tuesday night, November 10, 1942, along with 8,558 other fans at Madison Square Garden. It was the Rangers’ fifth game of the season, the second they’d played on home ice. Neither New York nor Chicago would fare well that season — both teams missed the playoffs — but on the night, Rangers prevailed, 5-3, in overtime.

 One of the stories for the Rangers that nascent season was in goal. Sugar Jim Henry was gone to the war, and to replace his preventative measures, GM Lester Patrick had brought in a 25-year-old rookie, Steve Buzinski, from Saskatchewan’s senior-league Swift Current Indians. When he wasn’t watching for pucks, Buzinski worked as a wheat and cereal expert with Swift Current’s Dominion Experimental Station. As one newspaper wag, Harry Grayson, was writing in ’42, Patrick was considered “the smartest man in the dodge,” so when he plucked up Buzinski, “everyone expected he would have another ace to show them. Hadn’t the Rangers had such illustrious netkeepers as Lorne Chabot, John Ross Roach, and Davey Kerr?”

 It didn’t go so swimmingly. The Rangers lost three of their four first games, including a 12-5 loss to Detroit and a 10-4 Montreal drubbing, with Buzinski surrendering 32 goals as they did so. “By now,” Harry Grayson cruelly reported, “the boys were calling Steve ‘Sieve.’”

 He rallied under Fischler’s young gaze. Joseph Nichols wrote it up for The New York Times. “Aided not at all by the Rangers defence, which had trouble with the fleet Black Hawk wings, Buzinski nevertheless had the creditable total of thirty-nine saves.” Tied 3-3, the teams headed for (non-lethal) overtime, which saw Bryan Hextall and Lynn Patrick score to secure the Ranger win. Wartime cutbacks would shelve regular-season overtime, so this, as it happens, was the last one the NHL would see for 40 years.

 True to Fischler’s memory, the Bentleys were on show that night, with Doug counting two of the Chicago goals and Max adding an assist. Brother Reg was with Chicago that year, too, his only season in the NHL, though he wasn’t in the line-up for this Ranger game.

 And Buzinski? He didn’t last the month of November. Stan Fischler’s first game was the last one Buzinski won in the NHL. He guarded the Ranger net for four more games after that, losses all, whereupon the Rangers brought in a Detroit farmhand, Jimmy Franks, and Buzinski’s NHL career was over. While the Rangers sent him down to the AHL New Haven Eagles, he didn’t last there, preferring to head back to Saskatchewan, where he was reinstated as an amateur. He enlisted not long after that. He did get back into the nets, post-war, with the Swift Current seniors.

 Around the time he was shipping out of New York in 1942, he wrote a letter home to the editor of The Swift Current Sun. “These New York sportswriters are really something to fear,” it read, in part.

Brothers In Arms: Chicago’s own Saskatchewaners coming at you, in 1942, Reg Bentley on the left alongside Max and Doug.

 

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?

prêt-à-entraîner

Going into the NHL’s 1959-60 season, Phil Watson stitched his confidence to his sleeve. “I predict that we will finish in the play-offs for the fourth time in the five years that I have been coach of the club,” he said. At 45, he had charge of the New York Rangers, the team for whom he’d made his mark through the 1930s and ’40s as a feisty forward. But Watson’s September optimism didn’t translate into October wins in ’59. “I’m worried,” Watson was saying a month later,” but I can’t put my finger on the reason for four losses. This is one of the best clubs I’ve ever had.”

By November, with the Rangers having won just two of 14 games, Watson headed to New York’s Polyclinic Hospital for treatment of a peptic duodenal ulcer. The surgery was a success, but he was out of a job: Rangers GM Muzz Patrick stood in for a game before appointing one of Watson’s old Ranger teammates to succeed him on a full-time basis, Alf Pike.

At 34, Doug Harvey, meanwhile, was doing what he’d done for years: anchoring the Montreal Canadiens’ blueline, winning Norris trophies as the league’s primo defenceman. He won his fifth the following spring, and another one the year after that, in 1961. But that was it for Harvey in Montreal: at the end of May, Muzz Patrick lured him to New York to play for and coach the Rangers. Alf Pike had lasted just a single (losing) season.

Harvey wasn’t sure, initially, that he wanted to move — until he was. He’d been making $20,000 or so a year in Montreal; his Rangers’ contract was reported to be worth $27,000. Patrick was convinced he’d lead New York out of the wilderness. “Each time I have talked to Harvey,” he said, “I’ve become more and more impressed with the fact that he is an ideal choice to become coach of the Rangers. He knows hockey, commands attention, is intelligent, and doesn’t jump to rash decisions.”

Phil Watson had been coaching Providence in the American Hockey League, but in June he got a new job, too, coaching the Boston Bruins. Under Milt Schmidt, the Bruins were worse than the Rangers in ’60-61, and both teams missed the playoffs. Watson got a three-year contract that would pay him (so it was said) $15,000, $17,500, and $20,000 in successive years. This time around, Watson tempered his optimism. “We may not win too many games at first,” he said. “I’m no miracle man.”

And so to this encounter, above, which dates to July of 1961, when the new coaches met and dressed up in Montreal during the NHL’s annual meetings.

Come October, it so happened that Boston and New York would open the new campaign with a home-and-home series. On a Wednesday night in Massachusetts, the Rangers won 6-2. They did it again the next night, too, in New York. This time the score was 6-3.

“I’ve been around too long in hockey to know you can’t win ’em all,” a wary Harvey said after that second win. “I just hope the New York fans treat us well when we have a bad night.”

Though he played on, Harvey would coach just a single season in New York before Muzz Patrick replaced him behind the bench. Harvey did get the Rangers to the playoffs, to his credit, where they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions from Toronto. Phil Watson? His Bruins couldn’t climb out of the basement. Watson started the ’62-63 season as coach again, but he didn’t finish it: after a 1-8-5 start, he was out, and Boston got a new coach, which is to say an old one, in Milt Schmidt.

(Image: Weekend Magazine/Library and Archives Canada)