Many in the sporting world seem unaware that the current Madison Square Garden actually is — not the first, second or third — but actually the fourth edition of The World’s Most Famous Arena.
The first was a converted railroad station at the corner of East 26th Street and Madison Avenue. It opened on May 31, 1879, and eventually was deemed too small and unfit for the big events planned. It closed 11 years later.
The second Garden was an impressive structure designed by famed architect Stanford White and was built on the same site as the Original. Opening day was June 16, 1890. Renowned as “The Taj Mahal of Arenas,” it resembled a Moorish Castle and was dominated by a 320-foot tower, topped by an 18-foot statue of Diana, the Greek goddess of chastity.
When MSG II became obsolete in the early 1920s — it was shuttered on May 5, 1925 — ownership decided to build a new Garden at a new location, Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets, near Times Square.
When MSG III opened, it was hailed as the world’s biggest and most impressive sports palace and — unlike the previous Gardens — would headline hockey as a prime attraction.
Opening night — Dec. 15, 1925 — appropriately featured a hockey game, but not involving the Rangers. The New York Americans then represented Gotham in the NHL and faced off against the Montreal Canadiens, who were winners by a 3-1 score.
A year later, the Rangers were admitted to the NHL and became the City’s favorite sextet. The Blueshirts played their first game at Garden III on November 16, 1926. They beat the Montreal Maroons 1-0 on a goal by captain right-wing Bill Cook.
I wasn’t at opening night in 1926. The Maven saw his first hockey game at The Garden in 1939 and I was there for the closing evening 43 years after MSG III opened.
It would be hard to imagine a more nostalgic moment in New York’s hockey annals than Sunday, Feb. 11, 1968, when the Rangers played their final game at what we now call “The Old Garden.”
To hail the event, the Blueshirts’ brass pulled out all stops but clearly, the most poignant and stirring was the heart-throbbing reunion of virtually every living NHL player of note. Their appearance graced the venerable arena beyond words.
The invitees included:
Canadiens: Aurele Joliat, Bill Durnan, Emile “Butch” Bouchard, Elmer Lach, Maurice Richard, Ken Reardon, Ken Mosdell, Tom Johnson, Jean Joseph “Black Cat” Gagnon, Jacques Plante and Albert “Battleship” Leduc.
Maple Leafs: Gordie Drillon, Syl Apps, Turk Broda, Wally Stanowski, Babe Pratt, Gaye Stewart, Gus Mortson, Harry Lumley and Sid Smith.
Red Wings: Jack Adams, Gordie Howe, Marty Barry, Ebbie Goodfellow, Norm Smith, Johnny Mowers, Jack “Black Jack” Stewart, Flash Hollett, Bill Quackenbush, Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel.
Bruins: Eddie Shore, Bill Cowley, Dit Clapper, Milt Schmidt, Cooney Weiland, Johnny Crawford and Fleming Mackell.
Blackhawks: Doug Bentley and Roy Conacher.
New York Americans: Lorne Carr.
Montreal Maroons: Lawrence “Baldy” Northcott.
Referees: Cooper Smeaton, Bill Chadwick, and Frank Udvari.
Why did The Garden decide to stage this massive reunion?
“We felt that it was just as important to commemorate the closing of one building as it was the opening of another,” said Muzz Patrick, then-vice president of the new Garden Center. “It was our plan to introduce the great old players before the game, many in their original uniforms.”
A night before the event, I sat at the Loews Midtown Motor Inn, across from the Old Garden with many of the old-time aces and listened to them regale each other with the stories from yesteryear.
Rocket Richard remembered some heated battles with the Blueshirts from the mid-40s. “We were fighting the Rangers a lot in those days too. One night in 1947, we were at Madison Square Garden and there was what you’d call a first-class brawl; everybody was in on it.
“I must’ve fought with three different Rangers over the span of 15 minutes since the referees couldn’t break anything up in time. There was a lot of stick swinging; this happened because we were close to the Rangers’ bench and the fans were also giving us trouble.
“I remember one of the Rangers swung his stick at me and I came back, hit him a couple of times, and knocked him down to the ice. Then, I lifted up my stick and had the intention of hitting him again with it. But he was on the ice and so when I brought my stick down, I hit the ice instead of him. You know I was mad, I really wanted to hit him, but when the time came I changed my mind.”
The Rocket’s teammate, Hall of Fame goalie Bill Durnan, was there as well. He explained how his career came to a close because of losing the first round of the 1950 playoffs to the Blueshirts.
Then, there was Bourgault, another Original Ranger, as well as Johnson, the Cook Brothers, and Murdoch, the NHL’s first Iron Man.
The pre-game ceremonies before a capacity (15,925) crowd were stirring, to say the least.
The house lights dimmed, the legendary players lined up in the corner of the rink, each wearing his original uniform. One by one their names were called. They stepped onto the ice and, in some cases, dazzled with their skate work.
Rocket Richard, who had retired eight years earlier, put on an inimitable burst of speed and smashed the puck into the net as only hockey’s Babe Ruth could.
Wally Stanowski, renowned for his end-to-end rushes as a Maple Leaf and Ranger, also produced a Richardian-like roar on the final night of The Garden with his dipsy-doodle skating routine.
“The Cook-Boucher-Cook line made a rush down the ice to bring back memories and make a new one for the fans that never saw them. And it was Bill who put the puck in the net just as he had that November night back in 1926,” wrote Art Cole of the Toronto Telegram.
“There was another line that was reunited briefly — the famed Detroit ‘Production Line’ of Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe and they showed how they used to do it, except, to much chagrin, Howe missed Lindsey’s final pass at the goal-mouth.”
The six Original Rangers gathered in a group at center ice and raised their sticks to acknowledge the fans roar of appreciation.
Writing for the Newark Evening News, Mel Woody observed:
“Remember Turk Broda, the big goalie for the Leafs? And there was defenseman Jack Crawford, wearing a helmet and old enough padding to prevent all harm. Out came immortal defenseman Eddie Shore, who ignores heart attacks and critics with equal enthusiasm.
“There was Johnny Gagnon, now a Ranger scout and once a wing with Aurele Joliat on a Montreal line with the immortal Howie Morenz. Joliat drew all the photographers with his fancy-dan skating, even yesterday.”
Many of the fans had trouble identifying the less-known Blueshirts such as Dillon, who scored 160 goals in 409 games as a Ranger.
A center of attention, the amiable Boucher had an endless collection of interesting anecdotes which would later be included in his superb autobiography, “When The Rangers Were Young,” co-authored with Trent Frayne.
The story-telling around the bar was as entertaining as the on-ice event itself, and when the festivities concluded, the Rangers closed the Old Garden, playing a 3-3 tie with the Red Wings. Jean Ratelle had the designation of scoring the last Blueshirts’ goal at the Old Garden at 48 seconds of the third period.
Sadly, before the game ended, fans had begun demolishing the 43-year-old arena.
The Daily News reported:
“Hockey fans couldn’t wait for the demolition teams to get at the old Madison Square Garden building. As the final buzzer sounded in yesterday afternoon’s NHL game between the Rangers and Red Wings, the last sporting event to be held in the Old Garden, souvenir hunters began ripping down anything they could get their hands on.
“Garden police had their hands full contending with the fans, who ripped out seat backs, pulled down exit signs and window markings, and tried to walk out with anything they could carry.
“Extra police were assigned to exits to attempt to prevent looting, but with a capacity crowd of 15,925 fans on hand, control was almost impossible.”
And so the first home of the Rangers passed into history.
I don’t mind telling you that, as The Maven exited onto Eighth Avenue a tear or two came to my eyes. After all, I practically grew up at the old barn and my first job out of college in 1954 was working for then manager Boucher and the Rangers.
P.S. — Whenever I walk north on Eighth Avenue and pass 49th Street, I still envision myself, as a kid, getting goose-pimples in excitement going in to see another Rangers game.