The fans have spoken.
The Maven listened.
“How come Nick Fotiu was not on the list?” harped more than a few of The Faithful.
— Mike Glennon (@mikeyglenn4) January 7, 2017
Good question; and I answered that in the original “Nine Toughest,” pointing out that there were so many worthies to include that a few good, rough men and true had to be omitted.
Because of the vigorous response to Part One of Rangers Toughies on social media, The Maven is hereby acknowledging popular demand with the following Part Two of Toughest Blueshirts — in alphabetical order.
JACK (TEX) EVANS (1948-1958): Only two players that I know of ever fought Gordie Howe to a draw. Fred (Ferocious) Shero in 1946-47 and Evans a decade later. Tex makes the list because he lasted 10 years as a Blueshirt and was as tough as they come. Which explains why few enemy players would dare antagonize him.
Throughout his career, Jack played a quiet, tough defense, often teamed with Harry Howell. One of the few players unafraid to take Tex on in a bout was Howe, and they slugged away for a couple of minutes in the left corner of old Madison Square Garden — resulting in a perfect draw. I watched the bout from Section 333, Row E, Seat 5 of The Garden’s End Balcony.
REG FLEMING (1965-1969): Once a tormentor of the Blueshirts, Reggie became a Garden hero as a policeman for the smaller skaters. Fleming’s most courageous move was to take on then National Hockey League Heavyweight Champion John Ferguson of the Montreal Canadiens.
The Habs’ wing remains one of the all-time top fighters to this day, but on this night — almost miraculously — Reggie not only outfought Fergie but actually bloodied the Badman. It was one of the most enjoyable fights any Blueshirt fan ever witnessed.
Because of that bout and the fact that Fleming played with a boisterous flair, he long will be remembered as a lovable hombre, ergo the Rangers answer to The Toughest Gun In The West.
NICK FOTIU (1977-1979 / 1981-1986): Ever since the formation of the Rangers Fan Club in the 1950-51 season, Followers Of The Blue hoped and prayed that a native New Yorker would become an ice cop for the home club. That wish was rewarded when Staten Island-born Nickie signed on with the Seventh Avenue Skaters in 1977.
Big, brawny and eager to take on the toughest foe, Fotiu became a favorite from the Blue Seaters right down to the folks in Luxury Land. By no means did Nickie win all his bouts but he showed up for all and won at least 80 percent of them.
The roots of Fotiu’s toughness date back to his odds-against challenge to merely make it to the pros. He would take the Staten Island Ferry to Brooklyn and then the Long Island Rail Road to learn his hockey at the Skateland Rink in New Hyde Park. From there, he climbed the ladder to the dog-eat-dog World Hockey Association and, eventually, the Rangers.
Nicky further endeared himself to fans by tossing pucks as high as he could into the stands after every pre-game skating session at The Garden.
ED HOSPODAR (1979-1982): They called him “Boxcar” because Eddie looked like one and, besides, it rhymed with his last name. Hospodar was called many less-pleasant names because he was one of those players that opponents keenly disliked for two reasons: 1. He was an effective fighter; 2. He was constantly “chirping” on the ice trying to get the enemy off his game; usually successfully.
Since The Boxcar’s brother was a priest, many observers wondered how Ed could embrace fighting with such a high degree of enthusiasm, but he did. Not surprisingly, his belligerent attitude turned him into a Gotham ice hero even though on one occasion, The Garden fans viewed a Boxcar bout with disappointment.
Of course, Ed would admit that he was as much at fault for his defeat since he spent too much time during games with the Islanders goading Clark Gillies, one of the best fighters among the Nassaumen. Finally, in a playoff game, Hospodar went one adjective too far whereupon Gillies dropped his gloves.
What ensued was a terribly one-sided fight that not only left Boxcar destroyed but also en route to the hospital for repairs. After Daily News reporter Frank Brown visited Eddie in the hospital the next day, Brown got a call from his editor wondering where Frank was at the time. “I just came from the hospital,” Brown replied, “where I saw someone who once looked like Eddie Hospodar.”
P.S. The battling Boxcar continued his hockey-fighting career and eventually wound up with the Buffalo Sabres. His teammate — and new best friend — was none other than Clark Gillies!
IVAN (THE TERRIBLE) IRWIN (1953-1956 / 1957-1958): At a time when the Rangers featured smaller stars such as Wally Hergesheimer, Camille (The Eel) Henry and Larry Popein, the lighter players needed someone to watch over them. And that’s when Chicago-born Ivan Irwin took over their muscular needs.
Tall, wiry and noticeably going bald, Irwin was a somewhat awkward skater but that never dulled his lust for rugged play, which included the likes of heavy body checks and good fights. As it happened, Ivan’s most compelling battles were against Montreal Canadiens super-scorer Maurice (Rocket) Richard.
Richard-Irwin duels caught the fancy of The Garden crowds. Those who were there one night will remember the pair facing each other — eyes burning with fighting passion — with their sticks fixed bayonet style; ready to battle. In this particular case, it was fortunate that the officials intervened.
JOE KOCUR (1991-1996): Give or take Bob Probert and Tie Domi, Kocur is remembered as one of the most accomplished, vicious and unrelenting fighters of his time. He not only stuck up for his teammates, but he would go out of his way to attack any enemy who he felt got away with a high stick or otherwise illegal play.
Nor did it matter to Kocur whether his foe really wasn’t a battler. In one hard to watch, Joey battered an opponent just about out of a hockey career.
The victim in this case was Brad Dalgarno, an Islanders second-line forward who had cleanly dispatched one of Kocur’s buddies when Joey played for the Red Wings.
Kocur went after the unsuspecting Dalgarno at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and just about busted the Islander’s face. Although Brad eventually returned to NHL action, he never seemed to be the same effective player he had been before Kocur dispatched him that fateful night in Uniondale.
ORLAND KURTENBACH (1966-1970): In the early 1950s, when Kurtenbach starred in Saskatchewan Junior games, he was billed as “The Million-Dollar Prospect.” The label was more meant for his scoring potential as a future big-leaguer than anything else.
Tall and rangy in the manner of Montreal’s then young ace Jean Beliveau, Kurt seemed to have all the goods to be a future Hall of Famer. Sadly, it didn’t quite work out that way, but Orland did enjoy a laudable NHL career as — ironically, when you think about it — a defensive forward.
His other assets were his dukes. Kurtenbach could throw clean, accurate punches as well as any other player of his time. And while most enemy skaters were careful not to antagonize Kurt, there were some who didn’t get it; although they did get a few right crosses and uppercuts to the chin.
What made Orland, the fighter, so commendable is that he fought clean and hard and never indulged in any extraneous sweater-pulling. His classic fights were with defenseman Ted Harris, built almost exactly like Kurt and who also fought fair. If you counted their fights over the years, the win total would come out even.
TONY LESWICK (1945-1951): Nicknamed “Tough Tony” for good reason, Leswick starred on the 1949-50 edition of the Rangers. That club came within an inch — a hit goal post in overtime — of winning the 1950 Stanley Cup for the Blueshirts in Game 7 at Olympia Stadium in Detroit. Versatile Tony was an accomplished scorer and playmaker along with his fistic prowess.
Small by NHL standards, Leswick fought some of the biggest opponents and was — like Ivan Irwin after him — a constant tormentor of Montreal’s legendary Maurice Richard. One of Leswick’s classic fights took place on New Year’s Eve in 1946, with Toronto’s equally tough Howie Meeker. The pair slugged away and then simultaneously hit the ice. The crowd roared its approval for a job well done by Tough Tony, but Ezzie — later a Ranger in 1954-55 — as well.
CHRIS NILAN (1988-1990): This brawling New Englander was dealt by the Montreal Canadiens to New York on January 27, 1988. His impact was immediate and positive. The Garden fans enthused over Nilan’s turbulent play and Chris responded by being an effective offensive threat as well as a ruffian. For player and audience, it proved to be a perfect storm. “I will always come to help a teammate,” he warned the Gotham media corps and they took to Chris as much as The Garden crowd. “If it means to have a fight, I will.”
And that he did. He made clear his motto: “I believe in ‘Do unto others before they do it to you.'” Despite his brief career in Manhattan, Nilan became especially popular with Rangers fans because he was able to intimidate the Islanders. Both Chris and defenseman James Patrick proved the one-two punch, figuratively, in sending the Isles’ Pat LaFontaine to the hospital in an infamous playoff game.
As LaFontaine sped down the ice, Patrick nailed him with a sturdy check whereupon the Islanders ace caromed like a pinball into Nilan who completed the destruction. That was only Exhibit ‘A’ of Chris’ aggressiveness as a Ranger. If any enforcer on the opposition attacked a Ranger and Nilan was around, retribution would be hard and swift. “I never really had any regrets about a fight because I’ve never hurt anybody that bad,” Nilan insisted although the victims at the other end might have protested otherwise. “I’ve cut guys, broke a nose or two. When it happens, it’s you or the other guy.”
He admitted to me that he once had worries after a menacing check against Islanders defenseman Tomas Jonsson. “I hit him hard,” Nilan recalled, “and it was the only time in my career that I worried about someone who I hit hard. I was so happy when he got up and I found out Tomas was all right.”
Unfortunately, Nilan’s effectiveness as a Ranger was severely curtailed by injury and on June 28, 1990, he was sent to Boston in a trade. But to New Yorkers who saw him wear the Blueshirt, he’ll be remembered as a quintessential tough guy, through and through.
HONORABLE MENTION: LARRY CAHAN, WILD BILL EZINICKI, TANNER GLASS, VIC HADFIELD, JOHN HANNA, BILL JUZDA, BILL MOE, GUS KYLE, MUZZ PATRICK AND COLTON ORR