No team was more devastated by World War II armed forces enlistments than the New York Rangers.
After finishing first in 1941-42, the Blueshirts missed the postseason for five straight years.
Ever worse, many of the pre-war stars had lost their speed and were mere shades of their former selves. As a result, the Rangers required a massive rebuild via many rookies.
Edgar Laprade was the first post-war freshman to give the club some measure of respectability; soon followed by Pentti Lund, virtually “stolen” from the Bruins only to star in the New Yorker’s almost-run to the 1950 Stanley Cup.
The Thin Man, Camille Henry, was so emaciated the Blueshirts used him as a designated power play point man and still he was the best rookie.
But none could match the Brian Leetch Saga because the Connecticut-bred kid won a Stanley Cup — and a cigar!
It has been said that Laprade could single-handedly kill a two-minute penalty simply by ragging the puck. He was that superior a stickhandler.
Although he made his rookie debut in 1945, the center had been pursued by Rangers manager Frank Boucher for several seasons. Edgar preferred playing senior hockey for the Port Arthur Bearcats.
When he finally did make his Rangers debut in the 1945-46 season, he was an instant star. Laprade scored 15 goals and added 19 assists in 49 games as a rookie, good enough to win the Calder.
A smooth skater, Laprade betrayed one shortcoming — a terribly weak shot. He frequently would find himself in scoring position only to shoot ineffectively; either weakly or wide of the mark. Yet, Laprade’s playmaking emerged as one of the jewels of a relatively lackluster New York team.
“I’ve always felt that he missed the general acclaim he deserved,” said Boucher, “because it was his misfortune never to be cast with a winner.”
Laprade starred for the Rangers in their vain try for the Stanley Cup in 1950, scoring three goals and five assists in 12 playoff games. He retired following the 1954-55 season and returned to Thunder Bay, Ontario, where he became a sporting goods dealer and village alderman.
The Rangers gain was Boston’s mistake when it came to left winger Pentti Lund.
Born in Helsinki, Finland but raised in the same community as Laprade, Lund originally was discovered and nurtured by the Bruins. He starred for their Eastern Amateur Hockey League farm team, the Boston Olympics, before being acquired by the Rangers in 1948.
He immediately attained critical acclaim during the 1948-49 season when he was voted the Calder winner with 14 goals and 16 assists in 59 games.
But for Pentti and the Rangers, the best was yet to come.
In the 1949-50 playoffs, the underdog Rangers faced the mighty Montreal Canadiens led by the Babe Ruth of hockey, Maurice “Rocket” Richard.
Lund was assigned the challenge of all challenges; to check the Rocket and prevent him from scoring. While Richard’s stick was muzzled, Lund stunned the Canadiens with an outburst of goals that led the Rangers to a four-games-to-one victory in the series. The Rangers reached the seventh game of the Cup Finals against Detroit before losing. In 12 playoff games, Lund scored six goals and five assists.
LORNE “GUMP” WORSLEY
As Rangers rookies go, Gump Worsley endured one of the most ironic freshman seasons one could imagine.
His superior play earned him the Calder in 1953, yet after the season ended he was demoted to the minors.
A product of the Rangers’ extensive farm system, The Gump — he got the nickname from a comic book character called Andy Gump — first was discovered playing junior hockey around his native Montreal.
Worsley made his New York debut not with the Blueshirts, but with their farm team the New York Rovers. After starring with the Eastern Amateur Hockey League team he was promoted to the Rangers in the fall of 1952.
Worsley was the diamond in the rough on this conglomeration of underachievers. His fearless performances while facing as many as 50 shots a game earned him the Calder with a 3.02 goals against average.
Gump’s round, jowled face and watery, hound-dog eyes sometimes gave the impression of intense nonchalance as he flopped around the ice covering up for his teammates’ many blunders. Even with a weak Rangers team, Gump was always a strong player which he also displayed later in his career with Montreal and Minnesota. Worsley went on to co-win two Vezina trophies and was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1980.
When Jean Beliveau graduated from the Quebec (Junior) Citadelles to the Quebec Aces (QSHL) in 1951, he already had become a hockey deity—the most talked-about young player in Canada. “Jean Beliveau in Quebec,” wrote author Leonard Shecter, “is like Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio in the United States.”
When the majestic, 6′ 2″, 192-pound Beliveau left the Citadelles, the man picked to fill his skates was scrawny Camille “the Eel” Henry. A 5′ 10”, 140-pound weakling with an extraordinary puck sense and so beloved a disposition, Camille actually was able to follow Beliveau’s act with the Citadelles. What Beliveau had in size, Henry had in brains. There never was a craftier forward who could thread a needle with a puck and stick if need be.
Inevitably, he reached the NHL and was an instant hit. However, the Rangers employed Henry mostly in power play situations during his rookie year. The Eel not only scored 24 goals and had 15 assists, but he also won the Calder Trophy. Perhaps more amazing was the night Camille scored four goals in one game against Detroit goalie Terry Sawchuk, then believed the best in the game. It was one of hockey’s most memorable moments, related here in Henry’s own words:
“Sawchuk looked like he was a cinch for the Vezina Trophy. He was two or three goals ahead of Toronto’s Harry Lumley going into that game. It looked like he’d beat out Lumley for the first All-Star team. While Detroit’s Marty Pavelich was serving a penalty, I tipped a shot past Sawchuk for my 21st goal of the season to give us a 2-0 lead.
“I was right in front of the net when Harry Howell hit me with a pass. I flipped the puck past Sawchuk again for my second goal of the game, both on power plays. That gave us a 3-2 lead. I would have been happy with two goals but I got another chance in the third period.
“I don’t even remember just how I got my third goal of the game on a power play. But I beat Sawchuk to get the hat trick and I can tell you I was feeling pretty good. We still had the power play going, so we went up the ice again. I had the puck and came in on Sawchuk. I faked him and he sprawled in front of the net, but instead of shooting I carried it behind. Then I looked and noticed that his stick was smack against the ice at just the right angle. So I shot the puck against his stick and it caromed back in the opposite direction into the net for my fourth goal.
“That four-goal night won the Calder Trophy for me as rookie of the year. It also knocked Sawchuk out of all the honors he practically had in his pocket. I ran into him a week or so later. ‘You little French baboon,’ he said to me. ‘You cost me plenty.’ I guess I cost him a couple of thousand dollars because Lumley beat him out for both the Vezina and the first All-Star team on the strength of my four goals that night.”
Almost overnight Henry became one of the most popular hockey players ever to skate in New York.
One of the best American-born defensemen of all time, Leetch began displaying his prowess in his early hockey years in Connecticut. Moving up the ladder to the U.S. Olympic team, he eventually graduated to the Rangers late in the 1987-88 season but didn’t play a full year until 1988-89. On the strength of 71 points — second most amongst defensemen — he captured the Calder, becoming the eighth Blueshirt to achieve the honor. His presence as a big league freshman proved that he earned the silverware.
Leetch was quickly a star on the Rangers, and as hockey writer Andrew Podnieks explains, “he anchored the defense of a team that was in the process of becoming a Cup contender.”
Leetch and the Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup in 1994 and the defenseman went on to have an excellent career that finished with a trip to the Hall of Fame.