Stan Fischler is an award-winning writer and broadcaster who's covered the game since 1954. He been a contributor to The Hockey News since 1955 and you can continue to find his Strange But True features in almost every issue. He's also produced the hockey newsletter, The Fischler Report, for the past 20 years. Order Fischler's latest book, "Behind the Net: 101 Incredible Hockey Stories," on amazon.com.
Everything about the New York Americans was bizarre, from the club’s oddly illegitimate birth to its remarkable involvement in the longest hockey game ever played in the Big Apple.
Let’s start with the fact that the Star-Spangled skaters arrived on Broadway in the fall of 1925 because of an illegal players strike in Canada the previous spring. Angry because they were denied a post-season bonus, the Hamilton Tigers refused to show up for the playoffs. NHL president Frank Calder suspended the strikers and then helped move the Tigers into just-completed Madison Square Garden. Just like that, the Tigers became the New York Americans. Meanwhile, the shadowy, behind-the-scenes enabler happened to be one of the most notorious gangsters of the Roarin’ 20s.
Only one team in NHL history ever had the sobriquet “Gashouse Gang” attached to it, and that was the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1930 through 1937. They earned the label by pulling off some of the most mirthful, colorful off-ice antics imaginable. “As their coach, they were my dream team type of players,” said Dick Irvin. “But they were certainly my nightmare types in hotels and on trains.”
No prank was too outlandish and no hostelry was too swank, not even Boston’s high-brow University Club, where one Maple Leaf, Charlie Conacher, once barricaded his buddy, Harold ‘Baldy’ Cotton, in their room just for the fun of it. Only Cotton’s screams brought an unsuspecting Irvin to the rescue. “It was during an era that lasted all too briefly,” said Ed Fitkin, an erstwhile Maple Leafs press agent. Read more
By 1944-45, most NHL rosters had been decimated by enlistments in the Second World War. The Maple Leafs were Exhibit A, led by GM Conn Smythe, already a First World War hero, who organized a Toronto Sportsmen’s Battalion of athletes and sports media during the Second World War. The Leafs’ 1942 Cup-winning goalie, Turk Broda, followed Smythe’s patriotic lead in 1943, joining the Canadian armed forces.
That left Toronto’s interim GM, Frank Selke, Sr., in a bit of a jam. He didn’t have a single solid goalie in his lineup – not that Selke didn’t try to find a decent replacement. During 1943-44, Selke filled the Broda gap with an assortment of stopgaps including Benny Grant, Paul Bibeault and Jean Marois. The result was a third-place finish and a speedy first-round exit at the hands of the Habs, who disintegrated Bibeault and his mates in the final game, 11-0, to clinch the round.
The frustrated acting GM was ready to try anything in the autumn of 1944 and ultimately did just that. Against Smythe’s wishes, he hired a skinny netminder afflicted with a bad case of ulcers. What was worse, Frank McCool happened to be a 26-year-old goaltender with no pro experience and no serious action since his university years at Gonzaga five years earlier. But that was better than no goalie at all.
For almost a decade in the 1940s, unobtrusive career-minor-leaguer Don Metz strived to become a full-time NHLer with the Toronto Maple Leafs alongside his starry big brother, Nick. But poor, beleaguered Don endlessly failed.
That’s the bad news. The good news is, over a nine-year span, Don, a Saskatchewan wheat farmer, became only one of three Toronto skaters to play for five Stanley Cup winners. (Hall of Famers Turk Broda and Ted Kennedy were the others.) “I was lucky that way,” Metz told me during a telephone interview I conducted with him more than 10 years ago.
Don was more than lucky. He was the right Metz at the right time with the right team. His older brother excelled for the Maple Leafs over 518 games compared with Don’s paltry 172 contests, but Nick never could top Kid Metz’s feat. Read more
The 1950 semifinal between Toronto and Detroit ranks among the most intense post-season series in NHL history. This was due to Gordie Howe’s near death after an alleged butt-end. “L’Affaire Howe” ignited one of the longest-running hates in the game: Detroit GM Jack Adams vs. Toronto captain Ted ‘Teeder’ Kennedy. The primary witness was Toronto defenseman Gus Mortson who was there when the blood feud started and there again eight years later when Adams bitterly reaffirmed it to Mortson who had by then become a Red Wing.
Adams’ hatred for the Maple Leafs was already deep rooted and understandable by the time the 1950 playoffs began. After all, Toronto had won the previous three Cups, including a sweep of Detroit in the 1949 final. But now it was a year after that debacle and, led by Howe, the Wings were stronger than ever. “We can do it this year,” Adams boasted prior to the opening game. “We’ve got the team this year.”
And so they did, primarily because Howe had blossomed into a star, patrolling right wing on Detroit’s Production Line with captain Sid Abel at center and Ted Lindsay on the left side. But when the Leafs went up 4-0 in the opener at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium few expected what Toronto author Jack Batten described as “one of the most infamous and controversial events” in NHL history. Read more
Big-time senior-level hockey was popular in the early 1940s and never more mean-spirited than in the Cape Breton League of Nova Scotia. By far the biggest rivalry was between Glace Bay and Sydney. Tough, poor and grimy, Glace Bay specialized in coal mining, while just 13 miles away sat the more sophisticated, patrician Sydney, a steel city. And in late March 1941, as the two towns girded for the playoffs, a warlike atmosphere enveloped the province. Read more
Alec Connell was exceptionally good at stopping pucks for the Detroit Falcons (later Red Wings) in 1931-32. Whether he could blunt lead bullets was another story.
Connell, who once had six straight shutouts in 1927-28, is less, but still notably, remembered as the only hockey player to cause Manhattan’s police riot squad to be called out. That was because the mob nearly took over Madison Square Garden one night in 1932, all because of a disputed overtime goal that had big-time playoff implications for the New York Americans.
This was when the Amerks shared MSG with Gotham’s other NHL team, the Rangers. Unlike Lester Patrick’s well-behaved Blueshirts, the Star-Spangled Skaters proved to be the Gashouse Gang of hockey. Their owner, and Mob boss, William ‘Big Bill’ Dwyer, was a convicted felon who’d been the state’s most notorious bootlegger during Prohibition. He surrounded himself with a scary gang to protect him and his liquid interests. These gangsters included such notorious figures as Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz, Legs Diamond and Frank Costello, who would people the Garden on hockey nights as Dwyer’s guests. Read more
Those who knew him have said only Eddie Shore could pull off such an impossible feat – in this case, enduring a harrowing, death-defying, 22-hour trek from Boston to Montreal just so he could suit up for a game that his slumping Bruins desperately needed to win. The ordeal featured a traumatized Boston taxi driver, a challenging blizzard, a twice-ditched cab, frostbite and the likelihood of a $200 fine.
The saga began on the night of Jan. 2, 1929 when Shore’s friend drove him to Boston’s North Station where the train to Canada was taking on coal. When his pal’s car broke down en route, Shore tried to fix the engine, but was unsuccessful. After a few minutes, he glanced at his watch and realized that time was running out.
He’d be fined if he missed the train so he hustled off to the terminal, but it was too late. As the locomotive lurched out of the station, Bruins GM Art Ross suddenly and disturbingly realized Shore was missing. “I ran down the platform trying to jump on the last car of the train and just missed,” Shore said. “I knew I’d be in a jam if I blew that game.”
Aware his Bruins (6-7-2) were shorthanded because of injuries and not wanting to pay a missed-train fine, Shore was determined to reach Montreal in time for the Maroons game. Read more