Following the end of World War II, an ex-Navy man, Stan Saplin, became press agent for the Rangers (nowadays they’re known as public relations people).
One of his first challenges was putting together the first National Hockey League team guide which he titled, “INSIDE THE BLUE SHIRT.”
To do so, he headed to the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. After perusing the newspapers, he became startled about certain names on the New York roster.
“I discovered that the first Rangers team had a goalie named Hal Winkler, another named Lorne Chabot and another named Lorne Chabotsky,” he says. “I was struck by a perplexing anomaly: Chabotsky and Chabot had the same first name.”
After more investigation, Saplin realized that Chabot and Chabotsky were one and the same. This so puzzled the P.R. guy, he decided to dig deep into the library’s archives and also talk to people associated with the original Blueshirts.
Upon further investigation, it became clear that Chabot and Chabotsky were not twins but rather the same person. Furthermore, Saplin found out that this all was the product of his Blueshirts’ predecessor, the Rangers very first publicist, Johnny Bruno. Saplin’s further research unearthed an even more bizarre revelation.
Prior to the Rangers opening season, 1926-27, Bruno was worried about putting people in seats at the then one-year-old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets.
The Blueshirts debut was coming exactly one year after the New York Americans had become Gotham’s first big-league hockey club. What’s more, the Amerks had already become a hit. Bruno needed something to grab the attention away from his star-spangled rivals. But how?
Bruno estimated the combined population of Jewish people and Italians in New York at more than a million. If the Rangers could tap into that potential fan base, their attendance worries would be over and maybe the Americans would be forgotten.
“We need a good Jewish player,” Bruno told one of his Madison Square Garden cronies, “and an Italian, too. Then we’ll pack the joint!”
There were two problems: the Rangers had neither on their roster, nor was there any expectation that they would. What would they do? It was then that Bruno remembered a comedic scene from the Marx Brothers musical “The Cocoanuts,” which he had seen on Broadway.
The farce was all about the Florida real estate boom and in one scene Chico Marx, while checking Sunshine State real estate, turns to his brother Groucho and says, “Maybe it’s the house next door.”
To which Groucho replies, “There is no house next door.” Chico: “That’s OK, boss, we’ll build one.”
Scratching his head, Bruno recalled Chico’s squelch: “That’s OK, boss, we’ll build one.” Except that Bruno would create an Italian and Jewish stickhandler for New York’s newest sextet out of thin air.
Scanning the lineup, Bruno zeroed in on forward Oliver Reinikka and goaltender Lorne Chabot, both Canadians, neither of whom was Jewish nor Italian. His family roots in Finland, Reinikka grew up in Shuswap, B.C., and the very French-Canadian Chabot came from Montreal, a very Catholic city.
No sweat. Bruno had the names. He converted Reinikka into an Italian — “Ollie Rocco.” And then he transformed Chabot into “Chabotsky.” Poof! Just like that!
This seemed like a doable jape to pull on unknowing New York fans who were just learning about the ice game, but what happened when the Blueshirts took to the road, especially in Canada, where fans were well aware of Ollie as Reinikka and Lorne as Chabot?
“The way they worked it,” said Saplin, “was that ‘Chabotsky’ played only at home in Madison Square Garden. Chabot played only on the road. Ditto: ‘Ollie Rocco’ played only in The Garden, Oliver Reinikka only on the road. Bruno even gave Ollie a new hometown: Yonkers, New York.”
Nutty as the scheme was, the staid, conservative Rangers patriarch of the era, Lester Patrick, not only never put the kibosh on it, he actually saw the phony names in print, night after every game night at The Garden.
The scheme only lasted through the Rangers debut season because there was no further need for a Chabotsky, nor Rocco in 1927-28 when they won their first Stanley Cup.
Patrick’s Blueshirts became an instant hit at The Garden, quickly overshadowing the Americans — and leaving Johnny Bruno with more legitimate publicity ploys than creating Jewish and Italian players.
P.S. The Rangers eventually signed excellent Jewish players, among them Alex Levinsky and Hy Buller. Not to mention numerous Italian-Canadians including one of the most popular Blueshirts of them all, Lou (Leapin’ Louie) Fontinato.