Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The New York Rangers: Hockey's Golden Parachute since 1926

Every NHL franchise has an indelible image that summarizes the "spirit" of the team. For Montreal, it's the steely eyes of Maurice Richard on the attack. For Philadelphia, it's a gap-toothed Bobby Clarke breaking some Russian ankle. For Boston, it's Bobby Orr's famous leap... or perhaps a lunchpail guy like Espo or Neely driving to the net.

For the New York Rangers, it's a geriatric Lester Patrick standing in net, looking curiously akin to Reggie Dunlop and giving us an idea what it would be like if there was a Seniors Tour in the NHL.

For over 80 years, the Rangers have provided late-career opportunties to declining stars. For most of that time, they've been hoplessly inept on the ice yet have remained one of the league leaders in merchandise sales. Coincidence? You be the judge. Today we begin a rundown of the Rangers' long and colorful history of reclamation projects -- whose Rangers experiences are typically overlooked in their biographies, out of a sense of decorum. Even a seasoned hockey fan might be surprised at a few names on the list.

Due to the overwhelming amount of material I discovered in the course of this project, we'll focus on pre-expansion players today and move to the post-expansion era later this week.

Howie Morenz - The "Babe Ruth of Hockey", Morenz was instrumental in defining our concept of a star hockey player. Often given credit for inspiring the formation formation of the Bruins and Rangers franchises, he spent 11 brilliant seasons in Montreal before age and injuries soured his reputation with the fans. Shipped to Chicago in the league's first mega-trade, he was eventually benched and finally sent to New York, where he scored only twice for the Rangers in 1935-36. Thankfully, the Habs had the grace to re-sign Morenz before a leg injury cut his life short the next season.

Doug and Max Bentley - Long before the Sutter Brothers owned the NHL, the Bentleys were a Chicago hockey institution. Both Doug and Max are Hall of Famers, and between the two of them earned three scoring titles, 6 All-Star Team appearances, a Hart Trophy, a Lady Byng, nearly 500 goals and the title of "Top Hockey Player in Chicago for the First Half of the 20th Century". Late in their career, after Max had won a Cup in Toronto, the Bentleys reunited for a final tour in New York -- scoring only 16 goals combined and finally exiling themselves to the WHL for the rest of their careers.

Doug Harvey - Ask a real hockey old-schooler who was the best defenseman of all time, and you'll likely hear Harvey's name enter the conversation. After winning 6 Norris Trophies and being elected to the All-Star team 11 seasons straight, Harvey became one of the early casualties in the movement for a Players' Union. Canadiens management were so upset by Harvey's attempt at organized labor that they dealt him to the lowly Rangers. Though he won another Norris in New York, Harvey's career went into a pitiful decline as he had no other career prospects but to continue playing hockey -- New York was the first of 6 NHL and AHL teams Harvey would sample before retiring in obscurity with the Blues.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Harvey's 7th Norris stood as a record until Bobby Orr won his 8th.

Bernie Geoffrion
- Few hockey fans realize that Geoffrion, one of the pioneers of the slapshot, finished his career in New York after a spat with the Canadiens organization. After being passed over for the Habs captainship, Geoffrion retired for two seasons. In Foreman mode, he joined the Rangers and posted two respectable but obscure seasons before taking over as coach -- an experiment that lasted less than a season.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Geoffrion's 393rd goal as a right wing was second only to Maurice Richard at the time.

Terry Sawchuk - Sawchuk, whose life seemed consumed by problems with quitting, was by far the most decorated goaltender of the pre-expansion era. Having already achieved nearly every conceivable honor available to his position, Sawchuk played an embarrassing season with the Kings before returning for a last hurrah with the Red Wings. That should have been the end of the story, but Sawchuk signed on with the Rangers the next year. As fate would have it, this decision would lead to his death as the result of a drunken brawl with Ranger teammate Ron Stewart.
Milestones Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Sawchuk's 447th win set a mark not equaled for 30 years; his single shutout as a Ranger set a career record that still stands.

Tim Horton - This one seems to really piss off Leafs fans, in much the same manner as Orr's trade to the Hawks is a painful memory for the Bruins faithful. In an unsurprising sign of things to come, the Leafs dumped their greatest defenseman on the Rangers in a pure salary-clearing move after 18 years and 4 Cups. Horton scored only three goals in two seasons with the Rangers, then made pit stops in Pittsburgh and Buffalo on the way to becoming better known for his great culinary contributions to Western culture.

Later this week: Players of the post-expansion era.

Tonight: At long last, the puck drops on the 2008-09 season. Bruins vs. Avs on Versus.

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