December 15, 1925 game between the New York Americans and the Montreal Canadiens

By Mark Weisenmiller

This month's Great Games in Hockey History story focuses not particularly on a game but on a historic venue — Madison Square Garden in New York. "Da Gah-den," as native New Yokers call it, has an aura about it that makes the place unique in hockey history. As Associated Press writer Larry McShane noted in a story "The Garden is now in its fourth incarnation and its third location but nothing can alter its history." The current MSG (as its known, to save newsprint) is located at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 33rd Street . To go to a hockey game there, it’s best to take the entrance through Penn Station.

On December 15, 1925 , Madison Square Garden III, so to speak, opened by featuring a hockey game between the New York Americans and the Montreal Canadiens. The Boston Bruins were the first major hockey team in America , playing their first game in 1924. Yet for the then-embryonic National Hockey League (NHL) to really catch on with the populace of the United States , the NHL needed a club in New York . You know, Gotham City , Da Big Apple Baby! Writing about New York , a reporter has a tendency to slip into the natives slang.

Fans of the New York Rangers who are enjoying the team's current success probably don't know that they have a liquor bootlegger from the past to thank for now having a hockey team. The story: Tex Rickard was a boxing promoter, and financial wheeler-dealer, in New York in the 1920's. When he read a story in a local newspaper that an insurance company was going to foreclose the mortgage on Madison Square Garden II, Tex 's business-bent acumen mind went to work.

He quickly came up with the idea of promoting a new Madison Square Garden and Rickard organized a consortium of millionaires to give him the money to build MSG III. Rickard knew that he could not promote boxing events every night of year in the place. One of his financial advisors told him that the NHL had two teams that were up for sale and that, by finding a comrade to purchase one of the teams, that hockey could be promoted and played in "da Gah-den."

Rickard then talked to one of his friends who connections to the criminal underworld — "Bootlegger Bill" Dwyer, who made his fortune from having a covert liquor business. The reader must remember that at this time in American history that Prohibition (the illegality of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages) was in effect. This led to a massive up-surge in crime and also occurred during the "Jazz Age," that time period when much of America partied without social responsibility. For a good description of those days, the reader should look at the drawings of John Held Jr. or read the novel of John O' Hara.

"Bootlegger Bill" decided to buy one of the NHL teams for sale, the Hamilton ( Ontario , Canada ) Tigers. He quickly changed the team's name to the Americans and put them in red, white, and blue uniforms. As noted in Part Two of the five-part series "Legends of Hockey" (which was produced by the all-sports Canadian-based The Sports Network), "'Bootlegger Bill' put up $80,000 from his illegal liquor business to start the New York Americans after his friend Tex Rickard asked for help." From the ESPN.com Internet web site about famous sports date in history, we find the following: " Before an enthusiastic and capacity crowd of 17,000 fans, which includes many society matrons of New York and Canada , the New York Americans drop a 3-1 decision to the Montreal Canadiens. Before the game, the spacious lobby looks like the foyer at the opera as fashionably-gowned women are there in furs and jewels. However, there is none of the reserve and aloofness usually associated with the typical society gathering. Society catches the spirit of the hockey fans, and the crowd enjoys Canada 's national game."

There was much hullyaballo before the game. As is reported in the book "Hockey! The Story of the World's Fastest Sport" (1969), "The Governor-General's band of Canada , the West Point band and the cream of society attended the event that won the hearts of the spectators. Two goals by Billy Boucher helpd Montreal to a 3-1 victory over the Americans, but the fans were more intrigued by the speedy game, the collisions and the general excitement. It was obvious that NHL hockey was to stay in New York ."

So the opening game of MSG III was not really exciting itself, but it started a trend of the venue hosting some of the greatest hockey moments of the past 81 years. Below are but a few:

• The 1928 Stanley Cup Finals between the now-extinct Montreal Maroons and the winning Rangers (the Americans hockey club went out of business in 1942). This was the series when 45-year-old Ranger Head Coach and General Manager Lester Patrick replaced injured goalie Lorne Chabot in the nets during Game 2. Incidentally, an old fable that still exists is that the Rangers allegedly tried to change Chabot's name to Chabotsky, to try to attract fans from New York 's large percentage of Jews.

• The 1940 Stanley Cup Finals between the victorious Rangers and the Toronto Maple Leafs. This was the Rangers third Stanley Cup in their history.

• Game 3 of the 1975 Super Series between the Montreal Canadiens and the Soviet Red Army team. This New Year's Eve game, which ended in a 3-3 tie, is considered by some hockey historians to have been the most thrilling game ever played.

• Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals between the Vancouver Canucks and the Rangers. Winner: Rangers, by a score of 3-2. This was the Rangers first Stanley Cup championship in 54 years.

• April 18, 1999 : Wayne Gretzky (then a Ranger), generally referred to as the most talented player on the offense in hockey history, retires. In a pre-game ceremony, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman tells the audience (and Gretzky) "When you take off that sweater, your jersey, after today's game, you will be the last player in the NHL to ever wear 99."

The crowd applauds for many minutes and this NHL-wide retirement of Number 99 ( the number that Gretzky wore as a player) is a first in NHL history.


Mark Weisenmiller is a Florida-based reporter for Agence France Presse and The Economist


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