• Brian McFarlane

New York Rangers - Opening Night

On November 16, 1926, the New York Rangers made their Madison Square Garden debut against the swashbuckling Montreal Maroons, a big, bruising club and the defending Stanley Cup champions. Lester Patrick’s hastily assembled team, initially called Tex’s Rangers, was the underdog. Someone had designed a crest for the Rangers jersey — a depiction of a cowboy on a bucking bronco with the rider holding a hockey stick aloft. But the cowboy and his mount were sent out to pasture when owner Tex Rickard rejected the artwork. They were replaced by the word Rangers splashed diagonally across the front of the royal blue jersey.

The Rangers were a near-unanimous choice to finish last in the American Division of the 10-team NHL. They had been a sorry-looking club during training camp scrimmages held in Toronto, and manager Conn Smythe, a newcomer to professional hockey, bore the brunt of the blame for their apparent ineptitude. Smythe had been hired to assemble a competitive team, and he got off to a fine start when he signed the Cook brothers, Bill and Bun, and Frank Boucher, stars of the defunct Western Hockey League. From Minnesota, he recruited a pair of strong defensemen, Ivan “Ching” Johnson and Clarence “Taffy” Abel (the first U.S.–born player to become a regular in the National Hockey League). Both were balding belters who could heave opponents over the boards or lay them flat out on the ice. He added goaltenders Lorne Chabot and Hal Winkler, the latter of whom drew the opening game assignment even though Chabot would ultimately prove to be the better performer. Finally, Smythe added Murray Murdoch, who played the next 11 seasons without missing a game, and the smooth-skating Paul Thompson.

When hockey people were asked what they thought of Smythe’s lineup, they replied, “Not much” — words that so unnerved Rangers president John Hammond that he fired Smythe during training camp and replaced him with Lester Patrick, a more experienced coach and manager. The articulate Patrick, then 42, would guide the Rangers from behind the bench for the next 13 years. When the NHL introduced All-Star Teams in 1930–31, Patrick was named top coach in seven of the first eight seasons.

In addition to Smythe’s relative inexperience, his demise was speeded by a stubborn streak that infuriated Hammond. Cecil “Babe” Dye, the high-scoring winger for the Toronto St. Patricks, was on the market, and Hammond had been told that Dye would be a superstar if he played for the Rangers.

Hammond ordered Smythe to acquire him.

“I will not,” barked Smythe. “Dye’s a goal scorer, but he’s not a good team man. I know him well and I won’t have any part of him.”

“I’ve heard that Dye’s a great player and we should get him,” Hammond insisted.

“You heard wrong,” Smythe snorted.

Hammond sighed. “Connie,” he said, “maybe you’re too young and inexperienced for this job. Lester Patrick would jump at a chance to come to New York.”

“Then hire Patrick,” said Smythe, with a fire in his eyes. “I’ve put a good team together for you and there’s no room on it for Babe Dye.”

Hammond promptly bought Smythe out and hired Patrick. As for Dye, he never became a Ranger. He enjoyed one good season with Chicago, and then broke his leg in training camp and was never the same player again, scoring only one goal in his final 58 NHL games (compared with 200 in his first 213).

Jimmy Walker, New York’s popular mayor, accepted an invitation to drop the puck for the ceremonial face-off in the opening game against the Maroons. But the mayor was still en route to Madison Square Garden when the big moment arrived. Fortunately, Lois Moran, a beautiful movie star, was introduced to the crowd that filled the Garden. Most of the gentleman fans, accustomed to Broadway openings, were attired in tuxedos, while the ladies wore fashionable evening gowns.

The applause was generous as Miss Moran minced across the ice, waving to her fans with one hand and holding a puck in the other. She dropped the disc carefully between the sticks of Nels Stewart, the hardrock centerman of the Maroons, and spindly Frank Boucher, who was about to begin a playing and coaching career with the Rangers that would last for the next 29 years.

Boucher would later recall that the opening game was “as rough as any ever played.” Blood poured from cuts when high sticks connected, and the grunts from players bodied into the ice or boards could be heard 10 rows up. Referee Lou Marsh couldn’t possibly see all the fouls — crosschecking, slashing, hooking and holding. Even the mild-mannered Boucher, who accumulated only 119 penalty minutes in 557 regular-season games, got into it. When challenged by Montreal tough guy Bill Phillips, Boucher threw off his gloves and laced into his opponent. Phillips knocked him flat with a punch. Boucher bounced up and knocked Phillips to the ice. Each drew a five-minute penalty; Boucher’s major was one of only three he would incur in 14 seasons of NHL hockey.

Only one goal was scored, and it came late in the second period. The Cooks teamed up to beat Maroons goalie Clint Benedict, who, years later, would introduce the first facemask to the NHL. Bill Cook flipped the puck over Benedict, who, in attempting the save, struck the goalpost with his head. There was a lengthy delay while the semiconscious netminder received medical attention before propping himself back in the net.

The Garden ice, soft to begin with, was in terrible condition by the third period. There were no Zambonis in those days, so ice was not resurfaced between periods. Workmen simply used heavy scrapers to remove the snow and slush that accumulated.

The Rangers withstood every Maroons attack and emerged from the contest bruised, battered and, most importantly, triumphant. They received a prolonged ovation at the game’s end, the applause from the vast audience lingering long after the players were back in their dressing room, where they pounded each other on the back, as thrilled as the spectators with the outcome.

“We beat the world champions!” someone shouted.

“Did you hear that crowd?” a player shrieked. “They love us here.”

Lester Patrick shook hands all around. “Boys, you play some more games like that and this franchise will be a huge success here in New York. It’s really exciting to think of what’s ahead for all of us. This is just the beginning.