Lighting the Lamp, with Rick Ackerman
The NHL schedule maker did not do coach Alain Vigneault any favors when it assigned his New York Rangers the first nine games of the season on the road. The former Blues defenseman will have plenty of opportunities for instructional practices, personal bonding and team unity on the road as the Rangers do not play at Madison Square Garden until October 28. The Rangers will have traveled coast to coast, visiting nine different cities in seven different states in just over three weeks. Whew!
The New York Rangers franchise joined the NHL in 1926 as an expansion team, yet they were not the first NHL hockey club to play in the Big Apple. That honor goes to the now defunct New York Americans, better known as the Amerks. In 1923, prominent Manhattan sports promoter Thomas Duggan received options from the NHL on three American franchises. Duggan had great success earlier in Montreal in real estate and advertising ventures, then turned his attention to horse racing, building the Mount Royal track, as well as the Mount Royal hockey Arena, the new home of the Montreal Canadiens in 1919. Well connected through his various business enterprises, Duggan sold one franchise to grocery magnate Charles Adams of Boston and the Bruins joined the NHL in 1924. Duggan kept a franchise for himself and backed financially by Bill Dwyer, Manhattan's most celebrated prohibition bootlegger, the New York Americans were born in April, 1925 and began play later that year at famed Madison Square Garden. Duggan sold the third franchise to business interests in Pittsburgh, who named that team the Pirates and joined the NHL with the Amerks. Due to poor play and a terrible record, attendance lagged and as financial difficulties arose, the team was moved to Philadelphia and dubbed the Quakers in 1930. The Quakers only lasted one year and folded at the end of the 1931 season.
The Americans weren't that good, yet they managed to attract huge crowds and were such a financial success that the management of Madison Square Garden, presided over by George "Tex" Rickard, obtained another hockey franchise from the NHL to play at the Garden. Rickard was a colorful character indeed. Born in Missouri, he grew up in Texas and then left to seek his fortune in the Alaskan gold-rush of 1895. He did indeed make a fortune, but lost it all gambling. Rickard then began promoting boxing matches in Alaska, eventually ending up in New York City with long-time partner Jess McMahon, grandfather of current WWE wrestling promoter Vince McMahon. Rickard's connections as a sports promoter and arena manager made it easy to obtain an NHL franchise with Duggan's approval as a rivalry with the Americans would benefit both hockey clubs. So, Madison Square Garden hosted two NHL teams in 1926, the Americans and the new club, cleverly promoted as Tex's Rangers. The original team crest on a dark blue jersey was a horse carrying a cowboy waving a hockey stick.
Rickard wisely hired Canadian businessman Conn Smythe (HHOF 1958) to assemble his club, yet Smythe had a falling-out with Ranger management and was paid to leave town. Rickard then wisely hired Pacific Coach Hockey Association co-founder Lester Patrick (HHOF 1947) as general manager and coach and the fledgling team took off the first season of operation, winning 25 of 44 games and the American Division title. The Rangers became the talk of the town and players became instant celebrities in the Roaring 20s nightclub scene. As the Garden was only several blocks from Times Square, it wasn't unusual to see any of the "Broadway Blueshirts" cavorting with Manhattan's rich and famous. And then Patrick led the Rangers to a Stanley Cup championship the following season, actually playing goal during one game of the finals. The 44 year old GM and coach allowed one goal in two periods of play (1.5 goals against average) after an eye injury to starter Lorne Chabot. (Back-up goaltenders were unheard of in the early days of the NHL and there was no one else in attendance agreeable to the coach of the losing team, the Montreal Maroons.)
Patrick's Rangers would win another Cup in 1933 and again in 1940. Yet, a long decline in quality play would ensue, and the Broadway Blueshirts would not enjoy another championship until 1994 when coach Mike Keenan's club ended the lengthy drought at 54 years. The Rangers also won the President's Trophy as the best regular season team. Led by ex-Oilers Mark Messier, Adam Graves, Kevin Lowe, Glenn Anderson and Craig McTavish, New York defeated Vancouver behind goaltender Mike Richter. Messier scored the Cup-winning goal in game seven and defenseman Brian Leetch won the Conn Smythe Trophy as series MVP.
St. Louis is the fifth stop on the road-weary Rangers' travels and they are reeling after being blown out 2-9 in San Jose (losing star scorer Rick Nash in the process) and 0-6 in Anaheim. New York played well in Los Angeles winning 3-1 after losing the season opener in Phoenix. However, that's 20 goals against in only four games, quite surprising for a team with Henrik Lundqvist manning the nets. The Blues, energized by their thrilling victory Wednesday over arch-rival Chicago, will be well rested and ready to extend their season opening winning streak to four straight games, a feat not yet accomplished in franchise history. If the Blues put forth the same effort they did against Chicago, history will be made tonight.