For 16 years, the two most intense New York City sporting rivalries involved a pair of baseball teams and two hockey clubs.
On the diamond it was the New York Giants, playing out of the Polo Grounds in Harlem, and the Brooklyn Dodgers whose home was Ebbets Field in Crown Heights.
The hockey version was more unique, much meaner and infinitely more colorful.
Starting in 1926 — and for 16 years thereafter — not one, but two National Hockey League teams shared the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets.
You all know one of the clubs — the Rangers, of course. But the other big-league hockey team is virtually a distant memory to all but a precious few octogenarians who actually saw the New York Americans skate.
Known to the sporting set as “The Amerks,” the Americans preceded the Rangers into the NHL by a year in a most curious way. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to believe how the scenario unfolded in that wild, Prohibition Era.
But this much is certain; had it not been for the Amerks, the Blueshirts may never have been born. This incredible but true story began in Hamilton, Ontario, of all places.
During the 1924-25 season, the NHL’s best team happened to be the Hamilton Tigers who were heavily-favored to win the Stanley Cup.
Suddenly, on playoff-eve, the Tigers players went on strike. The players wanted more money for skating in the post-season, while the Tigers owner nixed that — to him — crazy idea. When the players refused to budge, NHL President Frank Calder suspended them and the franchise, while two other clubs replaced them challenging for the Cup.
While all this was going on, the then-spanking new, Eighth Avenue Madison Square Garden was being completed and MSG impresario Tex Rickard was looking for a hockey team as The Garden’s permanent big-league tenant.
Alas, the perfect storm unfolded. First, the Tigers were put up for sale.
Second, New York’s most notorious bootlegger, William (Big Bill) Dwyer, was seeking a legitimate enterprise; so why not a major league hockey team?
Third, and most important, a hockey writer named Bill MacBeth tipped off Rickard that his sought-after tenant now was available.
Dwyer satisfied the Tigers owner with a $75,000 check, got himself a hockey team — and some respect — while Rickard got what he wanted for the new sporting palace off Times Square: A steady tenant who pays rent.
The Americans opened The Garden in the Fall of 1925 and while they didn’t win the Stanley Cup, they wowed the New York sporting crowd to such a frenzied extent that Rickard said, “Why not us?”
Poof! Just like that, for the 1926-27 season, The Garden organized its own team, the Rangers.
On the one hand, they didn’t have to pay a cent worth of rent since The Garden owned them. Which was fine with Blueshirts manager Lester Patrick.
On the other hand, it was but not so ginger-peachy for Dwyer, who now had a competitor with an arena freebie while the booze baron paid a pretty fortune in rent.
And so a rivalry was born. What made it so keen was the fact that the Rangers, under the direction of Lester Patrick, had proven artistically superior to the Americans from the very start.
Dwyer’s years running the Americans ended when Prohibition was repealed in the early 1930s and Big Bill’s unpaid bills eventually put him out of the hockey business.
Fortunately, he had a player who would take over the team and maintain the Rangers-Amerks perennial feud.
Mervyn (Red) Dutton, a Hall of Fame defenseman, arrived in New York during the late-20s and was as tough as his Rangers blueline counterpart, Ching Johnson.
Their battles were legendary; two heavyweights going at it hammer and tongs with the verdict usually a draw. Dutton, whose family had built a lucrative construction business in Western Canada, finally retired, but didn’t leave the Amerks.
When Dwyer went broke, the NHL assumed control of the team and placed Dutton in charge as manager and coach, a job he relished despite the necessity to pay Dwyer’s bills.
“We had a lot of headaches then,” Dutton remembered, “because we always were short of money and had that tough contract with The Garden.
“Many’s the day I’d look up at the sky and pray it wouldn’t rain so we’d have a good crowd and could pay the salaries. Of course, the league would stand behind us, but I wanted the club to be able to pay the bills on its own.”
Without the resources available to the Rangers, Dutton came up with a Plan B. He scanned the rosters of every team and plucked retired — or about to be retired — future Hall of Famers and signed them to Americans contracts.
Nels (Old Poison) Stewart, one of the most feared forwards in the NHL annals when he skated for the Montreal Maroons, joined the Amerks along with erstwhile Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman and captain Clarence (Hap) Day as well as — you guessed it — none other than ex-Ranger Ching Johnson.
In that wonderful 1937-38 season, it was as if the Hockey Gods had arranged for the two New York rivals to meet in the first playoff round and so they did. It was a best-of-three series with all “home” games played at The Garden.
Pushing baseball to the back of the sports pages, these skating enemies became the talk of the town while the series was every bit as heart-throbbing as the ballyhoo that surrounded it.
Since both teams shared the same arena, newsmen dubbed the upcoming tourney ‘The Tenants Championship of Madison Square Garden.’ Historians, such as author Eric Whitehead, regarded this as one of the premier playoffs of the half-century.
“It was the dead-end kids of bootlegger Bill Dwyer versus the glamorous Broadway Blues of that colorful and beloved archetype of style and integrity, Lester Patrick. At last, before a howling sellout mob of mixed supporters, here was the classic house confrontation.”
Having rebuilt his roster, from a vast, new farm system, Rangers’ boss Lester Patrick presented several promising new stars
The youth brigade included: Alex Shibicky, Clint Smith, Bryan Hextall, Lynn Patrick — Lester’s older son — and the brothers Neil and Mac Colville.
Whitehead said, “The Rangers had to fight for their lives to earn a split in the first two games before roaring, jam-packed houses, and then thought they had it all wrapped up when they took a fast 2-0 lead in the decisive third contest. Shibicky and Hextall had scored the Rangers goals.”
But the Americans were not finished, late shots by Lorne Carr and Nels Stewart beat Davey Kerr.
After regulation time, the score was tied at two.
What nobody realized then was that the teams would play what was to be, “the longest and most punishing game in Garden history,” according to Whitehead.
The game ended at 1:12 AM in the fourth overtime period. Carr beat Kerr and the Americans celebrated the most glorious moment of the franchise’s turbulent history.
Looking backward years later, Carr would put the rivalry in better perspective than anyone.
“New York may have been the biggest city in the world at that time,” Carr concluded, “but it wasn’t big enough for both the Rangers and our Americans.
“The two teams were too close for comfort. We shared Madison Square Garden for years, and it created a real friction between the teams. It made us natural rivals — bitter rivals.”
The rivalry lasted four more years after which enlistment in World War II decimated the Amerks lineup and the team was indefinitely “suspended” by the league.
There had been hopes for a revival of the rivalry at the end of the conflict, but the Americans were never to return, nor would this compelling Manhattan melodrama.
In a sense, Carr was right: when all was said and done, New York City wasn’t big enough for the Rangers and his Americans!