Imagine a team having to play all seven Stanley Cup Final games on the road and none at home.
Imagine goalie Chuck (Bonnie Prince Charlie) Rayner winning the Hart Trophy with a goals against average of 2.62 against such competitors as Hall of Famers Harry Lumley (2.35), Turk Broda (2.48), and Bill Durnan (2.20).
Imagine all of this happening to a Rangers team that finished the 1949-50 season three games under the .500 mark and yet came within a goal of winning the Stanley Cup.
Yes, it all happened and the New York hero of hockey heroes was a thin-as-a-rail center with the unlikely nickname, “Bag of Bones.”
Why didn’t the Broadway Blueshirts complete the unlikely dream and actually capture their first title since the 1940 Cup champs had turned the trick?
“Blame it on the elephants!” was the lament of The Garden Faithful that momentous season. “Blame it on the elephants!”
Well, the poor pachyderms couldn’t help it. After all, they belonged to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus which then was the biggest money-maker at the old (third) Madison Square Garden.
Located on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets, Garden III was home to the Rangers until the circus made its annual spring visit to New York.
Once the menagerie of clowns, trapeze artists and animals took over the arena, it could not, physically, be converted overnight to a hockey rink as is the case with the current Garden. As a result, the stickhandlers had to go on the road.
Then again, nobody but coach Lynn Patrick and his skaters thought that New York would make the playoffs in the first place. They had missed the postseason in 1948-49 and just about squeezed in the following spring.
Skating against Montreal in the first round, New York didn’t seem to have a chance. Canadiens icon Maurice (The Rocket) Richard — considered the Babe Ruth of Hockey — was in his prime and goalie Bill Durnan already had won six Vezina Trophies.
But they beat the mighty Habs in five games, which was so monumental an upset, that Durnan retired from hockey at the end of the tourney.
Having hoisted themselves into the Cup Final, Patrick’s skaters faced an even more formidable foe. The Red Wings not only finished in first place, but had amassed 37 wins, only 19 losses and 14 ties.
What’s more, the mighty Motor City sextet had just beaten Toronto in the opening playoff round after the Maple Leafs had won three consecutive Stanley Cups; a feat never before accomplished in the NHL’s history.
Since they had been booted out of The Garden by the elephants, the Rangers sought some sort of “home” ice gift from NHL President Clarence Campbell.
No way. All the Blueshirts could wangle from the league were two “home” games at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. The five other games would be played at Olympia Stadium in Detroit … whether the Rangers liked it or not.
Confronted with such seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the New Yorkers did the best they could — and that was very good.
In a sense, they felt right at home since Rangers press agent, Stan Saplin, was shepherding a contingent of Gotham hockey writers throughout the series. While he was at it, Saplin also launched a seemingly hopeless challenge; lobbying for Rayner to win the Hart Trophy.
When the Rangers moved to Toronto for Games 2 and 3, Saplin schmoozed a bunch of writers covering the series. Somehow, he convinced them that the goalie with a modest average, fronting an under-.500 team rated the Hart.
“There were six voters,” Saplin recalled, “and I knew I had to do some serious lobbying; which I did because Charlie was such a lovable goalie. After a few days, I realized I actually had three Rayner votes in the bag.
“When we convened in Toronto, I managed to talk one more of the voters into going with Rayner and, right then and there, I had clinched the deal.”
But moments later, Stan experienced a classic build-up-to-a-letdown. Tickled by his accomplishment and filled with excitement, Saplin sought out Rayner to give him the wonderful news.
Saplin: “I found Charlie with a bunch of his teammates in a very intense card game. Running over to him, I said, ‘Chuck, you won’t believe this, but I got enough writers to vote you the Hart Trophy.’
“I expected Charlie to leap out of his seat and give me a hug, but Chuck just looked up, said, ‘Thanks, Stan, I appreciate that,’ and then went right back to his card game as if it was the most important thing in the world at the time.”
Neither the writers who voted for Rayner nor any of the other scribes from other NHL cities expected the lowly Rangers to win more than a single game — if that — against powerful Detroit.
When the Red Wings opened the series on April 11, 1950 at Olympia Stadium in the Motor City, form held. Detroit scored four straight goals in the second period, routing the Blueshirts 4-1.
However, Game 2 was one of the Ranger’s so-called “home” games at Maple Leaf Gardens and Toronto fans rooted for the New Yorkers as if they were the real home team. The Rangers obliged with a 3-1 win.
Unfortunately, the second “home” game two nights later proved a disaster. Detroit’s 4-0 trouncing of New York seemed to open the floodgates for a Red Wing’s Stanley Cup victory.
It was at this point that nobody expected the heroics of Ranger’s center Don Raleigh, rail-thin and with a nickname to go with his physique.
New York Journal-American hockey writer Barney Kremenko gave Raleigh the sobriquet of “Bag of Bones” because Barney had won a lot of money betting on a long-shot horse named “Bag of Bones” at Belmont Race Track earlier that season.
Up until this point in time, Raleigh was best known to Rangers fans as the only player who lived on Staten Island and who wrote poetry on the ferry as he went to and from Manhattan Island.
But all that would change in Game 4 on April 18 in Detroit which was deadlocked 3-3 at the end of regulation.
Blueshirt coach Lynn Patrick had a choice of lines to get the clinching score and put Pentti Lund on the left side with Ed Slowinski on the right and good old “Bag of Bones” Raleigh in between the pair.
The teams battled fiercely for more than eight sudden-death minutes and then it happened with “Bag of Bones” at the forefront. First, the hulking Slowinski corralled the puck behind the Red Wings net before dishing a pass to Raleigh.
Bones wasted no time unleashing a backhander, and then spectacularly slid across the ice with his eyes riveted on the rubber that hit the twine for the Ranger’s winning goal. The time was 8:34.
Now the Red Wings were reeling while “Bones” was rolling sevens, which just happened to be his jersey number. Lady Luck could have been wearing it for him in Game 5 as well after the 1-1 tie went into another sudden-death period.
This time there was no fooling around. The Rangers moved into the enemy ice with Lund skimming the biscuit to Slowinski again camped behind the net. Spotting “Bones” in scoring position, Ed ladled the puck to his mate, and, poof, just like that the red light flashed behind Harry Lumley at 1:38.
“Eddie (Slowinski) did all the work,” Raleigh explained. “It was the best pass I ever got.”
Alas, Detroit won the next two games with a climactic seventh game, held on April 23, 1950. This time the match was tied 3-3 at the end of three.
Could “Bones” come to the rescue again? Not quite; although — for a brief first overtime moment — it seemed that the Gotham skaters had won their first Stanley Cup in 10 years.
In an interview that I did with defensemen Pat Egan at his New Jersey home some 15 years ago, Egan described his two-on-one rush with Raleigh.
“I took the shot,” said Egan, “and had Lumley beaten, but the puck hit the left post and then caromed to ‘Bones.’ I thought he would cash in the rebound but in an instant, Lumley waved his big fat goalie stick and knocked the puck out of danger.”
And there went the Ranger’s last meaningful opportunity. “By the time we went into the second sudden-death period,” coach Patrick remembered, “I could see the end coming, I figured we were through — just worn out.”
So they were. Detroit’s George Gee eventually won a face-off deep in the Rangers zone and sent a pass to Pete Babando who beat Rayner with his screened shot at 8:31 of the second sudden-death period.
Yes, the Red Wings had won the Stanley Cup but the vagabond Rangers were heroes in defeat and they knew it: Every one of them from the coach to Madison Square Garden’s president.
“For a team that wasn’t even rated a chance of getting into the playoffs, we did ourselves proud,” concluded coach Patrick.
Madison Square Garden President General John Reed Kilpatrick put his arm around Patrick and offered some soothing sentiments.
“Cheer up, son,” said The Boss. “We couldn’t equal their manpower, but you did amazing things with the talent at your command.”
And no player was more amazing than “Bag of Bones,” New York’s Sudden Death hero.