When the legendary Marx Brothers comedy team was drawing laughs on Broadway in 1926, the New York Rangers were about to launch their first NHL season. And, strangely enough, there was a connection.
In their musical Cocoanuts, Chico Marx, while checking Florida real estate, turns to his brother Groucho and says, “Maybe it’s the house next door.” To which Groucho replies, “There is no house next door.” Chico: “That’s OK, boss, we’ll build one.”
When Johnny Bruno walked out of the theater showing Cocoanuts, the skit gave him an idea. Bruno happened to be press agent for the just-minted Rangers and he was worried about putting people in seats. The Blueshirts debut was coming exactly one year after the New York Americans had become Gotham’s first big-league hockey club. What’s more, the Amerks had already become a hit. Bruno needed something to grab attention away from the star-spangled rivals. But how?
Bruno estimated the combined population of Jews and Italians in New York at more than a million. If the Rangers could tap into that potential fan base, their attendance worries would be over and maybe the Americans would be forgotten.
“We need a good Jewish player,” Bruno told one of his Madison Square Garden cronies, “and an Italian, too. Then we’ll pack the joint!”
There were two problems: the Rangers had neither a Jew nor an Italian on their roster, nor was there any expectation that they would. What would they do? Scratching his head, Bruno recalled Chico Marx’s deathless squelch: “That’s OK, boss, we’ll build one.” Except that Bruno would create an Italian and Jewish stickhandler for New York’s newest sextet out of thin air.
Scanning the lineup, Bruno zeroed in on forward Oliver Reinikka and goaltender Lorne Chabot, both Canadians, neither of whom was Jewish or Italian. His family roots in Finland, Reinikka grew up in Shuswap, B.C., and the very French-Canadian Chabot came from Montreal, a very Catholic city.
No sweat. Bruno had the names. He settled on “Ollie Rocco” for Reinikka. And then he transformed Chabot into “Chabotsky.” Poof! Just like that, you’re Jewish!
This seemed a doable jape to pull on unknowing New York fans that were just learning about the ice game, but what happened when the Blueshirts took to the road, especially Canada, where fans were well aware of Ollie as Reinikka and Lorne as Chabot?
“The way they worked it,” said Stan Saplin, who handled Rangers PR from 1946 through 1950, “was that ‘Chabotsky’ played only at home in Madison Square Garden. Chabot played only on the road. Ditto: ‘Ollie Rocco’ played only in the Garden, Oliver Reinikka only on the road. Bruno even gave Ollie a new hometown: Yonkers, New York.”
Nutty as the scheme was, the staid, conservative Rangers patriarch of the era, Lester Patrick, not only never put the kibosh on it, he actually saw the phony names in print, night after every game night at MSG. So, by the way, did Saplin a decade later.
When he moved into the Blueshirts publicist’s chair, Saplin began researching what was to be the NHL’s first team guide, The Blue Book, at the New York Public Library. It didn’t take long for him to do a double-take.
“I discovered that the first Rangers team had a goalie named Hal Winkler, another named Lorne Chabot and another named Lorne Chabotsky,” he said. “I was struck by a perplexing anomaly: Chabotsky and Chabot had the same first name.”
Nobody on the Canadian or American side of the border seemed to mind and through the 1926-27 season the Rocco-Chabotsky ploy rolled along unpenalized.
“And that is the way they were listed in Garden programs and referred to in New York newspapers,” Saplin said. “In Canadian rinks, where both were known, they had to remain Chabot and Reinikka. But eventually Chabotsky and Rocco were farmed out, never to be heard from again.”
Stan Fischler is an award-winning writer and broadcaster who’s covered the game since 1954. He’s 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. Fischler’s latest book is Behind the Net: 101 Incredible Hockey Stories.