The New York Americans in 1929: The Least Happy Hockey Team on Earth

Last week, the New York Islanders finally broke their 21st-century-long streak of doing nothing interesting whatsoever with a big announcement: the team is moving! Slightly to the left! Four years from now! Okay, sure, maybe this doesn’t sound like big news. It’s not like we traded for Rick Nash! news or we solved the lockout! news, but by Islanders standards, it’s pretty big.  If nothing else, I’m sure that the once-and-future players of the Eastern Conference are absolutely delighted that they’ll never have to see in the inside of Nassau Colosseum dressing rooms again.  And fans are absolutely delighted that they can now make hockey hipster jokes for the next eight million years, because the Isles aren’t moving to any old place.  The Isles are moving to Brooklyn.

Bizarrely, this won’t be the first time Brooklyn has had an NHL team, but it will be the first time NHL hockey has actually been played in Brooklyn.  Scroll down the list of defunct NHL teams, and you’ll find the name Brooklyn Americans.  The list will tell you that Brooklyn had an NHL team for one year, from 1941-42.  What the list will not tell you is that the team was never in Brooklyn and the name was a publicity stunt, the last desperate gasp of one of hockey’s lastest, most desperate teams.

The New York Americans are one of hockey’s most pathetic failed franchises, and that is an achievement. Founded one year before the Rangers, their story is a kind of morbid counterpoint to the phenomenal success of that franchise, for while the Rangers became one of the privileged Original Six and eventually grew into exactly kind of star-studded, big-spending team one expects in New York, the Americans went through every indignity that could be visited on an NHL team. Their founding players were a bunch of malcontents who’d nearly been kicked out of the League and their founding owner was a criminal. In seventeen seasons, they missed the playoffs twelve times and never once made it past the semifinals. The franchise hemorrhaged money, was taken over by the League, and eventually killed off by it’s own landlords. Basically, if there is a shitty thing you can imagine happening to an NHL team, it happened to the Amerks.

It began, topically, with a labor dispute. In 1925, the NHL added six games to its schedule, going from 24 regular-season matches to 30. However, because these six games were squeezed into the existing contract period (from the beginning of December to the end of March), players received no increase in salary. Late in the season, on a train back from an away game, some members of the Hamilton Tigers did a little basic math, realized that they had been working more for the same pay and issued a threat against the League: pay each of us $200 for the six additional games, or we strike for the playoffs.

Perhaps the Tigers thought that, as the first-place team in the League that year, they had some sort of leverage. They didn’t. The NHL summarily crushed them, as the NHL used to do to any players who engaged in union-ish behavior or, you know, did anything to advocate for their own interests. The owners dissolved the team, suspended all its players, and granted the championship to the Canadiens by default. Far from paying the players an extra $200, Frank Calder dictated that each of them would be fined $200, and moreover, should any ex-Hamilton Tiger want to play in the NHL again, they would have to write Mr. Calder a personal letter of apology and agree to have $300 per year of future salary held back, as a bond ensuring their good behavior.

Oh, and they would play in New York.

While one arm of the League was doing battle with the Hamilton players over contracts and salaries, another was busily laying the foundations of the first wave of American expansion. Putting a franchise in Boston- a city with a long tradition of amateur and college hockey- had proved remarkably easy, but getting into New York was harder. The new Madison Square Garden could, theoretically, support ice, but it’s owner, Tex Rickard, was not a hockey fan and didn’t lack for events to fill his building and his calendar. It had taken a fair bit of cajoling by the NHL, in the form of several booze-soaked research junkets to Montreal, to convince Rickard to take a chance on a hockey team in his building, and even after he agreed, he didn’t want to own the team himself. Eventually, the NHL found an owner in Bill Dwyer, a mob-connected bootlegger who had parlayed his illegal income into a series of legitimate business ventures. He decided to call his team the Americans.

New York had everything you need to create a new hockey team- an arena, an audience, boatloads of money- except one critical component: someone who knew stuff about hockey. This is quite possibly the essential difference between the early expansion teams that flourished and those that failed. Every 1920-30s franchise that made it to the Original Six had a hockey genius behind it: Jack Adams in Detroit, Conn Smythe in Toronto, Art Ross in Boston, Lester Patrick for the Rangers. The Blackhawks would probably have died from Fredrick McLaughlin’s mismanagement, had they not had Montreal-born hockey fanatic James Norris for a landlord. Every successful hockey team needs at least one ambitious, devious, amoral Cup-crazed motherfucker behind its bench or in its offices.  The Americans had no such person. They had a boxing promoter and a gangster in charge and a whole pack of players purchased wholesale from the NHL- the Hamilton Tigers, sent south at the final punishment for their rebellion. The team was like an experiment, a test balloon sent up to figure out if it was possible to sell hockey in New York City. But it was nobody’s baby. Maybe that’s why it never worked.

The single best moment in New York Americans history is the first one. Nowadays the bond between the Rangers and MSG is as tight as can possibly be, and it’s hard to imagine either in hockey without the other, but it was the Americans who christened the first sheet of ice ever laid in Madison Square Garden.  Rickard and Dwyer threw an opulent opening, envisioning hockey as something that might be marketed as a sophisticated entertainment for the upper classes.  The entire building was draped in patriotic banners and two separate bands were hired to play at the opening and intermissions.  The elite of New York came in furs and diamonds and the event was covered on the front pages of the paper and the social pages of the New Yorker. At the afterparty, a select few privileged fans got the opportunity to dance with Howie Morenz.  It was the grandest hockey launch a team had ever gotten, and the NHL could not have imagined a more successful start for a new team in a new city.  There were only two little problems with the evening, both of which would eventually grow into big problems. The first is that Bill Dwyer, the team’s owner, was unable to attend, having been incarcerated in Georgia a few days before for attempting to bribe the Coast Guard. The second is that the Americans lost 3-1.

It was the first of many, many losses.  Despite being made of players who had finished first in Hamilton the year before, the Americans finished the season 12-20-4 and out of the playoffs. If you were looking for a bright spot, you might point out that the experiment was successful: despite their shitty record, Americans tickets sold well at the Garden and the team was profitable. But even this practical victory turned into a disaster, for seeing that hockey could sell in his building, Rickard decided the following season that he wanted a team of his own. Although the NHL had a nominal policy of only granting a second franchise in a given market with the consent of the original franchise, they made an exception for Rickard (who, as the owner of the largest and therefore most lucrative building in the League, had considerable leverage). And when Rickard decided to found a team, he did it the right way, bringing in Conn Smythe to construct the Rangers and Lester Patrick to run them. Within one year of their founding, within one year of introducing professional hockey to New York City, the Amerks were already being unceremoniously shunted aside. Not only were they not the most favored hockey team in their city, they weren’t even the most favored hockey team in their own arena.

The next season the Americans finished at the bottom of their division while the Rangers finished at the top of theirs. The season after that the Americans finished last in the League while the Rangers won the Stanley Cup. In their fourth season, the Americans finally made the playoffs for the first time- joy!- only to be eliminated in two games by… wait for it… the Rangers. The battle for the hearts and minds of New York hockey fans was brief and brutal. The Americans never had a chance.

In a feat of Leafs-like ineptitude, the Americans missed the playoffs for six consecutive years between 1929 and 1936. To make matters worse, in 1933, Prohibition was repealed, cutting off Dwyer’s primary source of income. With no more money to be made in black market booze and the Great Depression well underway, the Americans could no longer afford to sign competitive players, and by 1934 Dwyer was frequently unable to pay even the players he already had. In 1935, he began trying to sell the team. In 1936, he abandoned it, and the NHL was forced to take over operations.

You would have to be a particular kind of hockey person to want to take over such a team. You know the sort I mean, the kind of hockey person who blends a fatalistic resignation to the cruelties of life with a stoical determination to keep on keepin’ on for no good reason. The kind of hockey person who ekes out a long, aching minor league career or maintains a zealot’s devotion to a perennially incompetent up team. Most of us can be passionate, for a while, about something terrible, but there is a special kind of person who revels in a passion for terrible, horrible, no-good very-bad things.

I think Red Dutton must have been such a person. You would have to be, to pick up the New York Americans in 1936 and still try to make something of them. At the time Dwyer abandoned the team, Dutton wasn’t even an executive yet. He was a player, one of those severe, solid, brutal defensemen who are so inexplicably yet perennially popular. He was a team guy, possibly the only team guy the Americans ever had. He lent Dwyer money to keep the team going, and when Dwyer and the money evaporated and the League took over, he retired from playing to devote himself to trying to save the franchise.

He did well. The year after Dutton took over, the Americans not only posted a winning record and made the playoffs, but actually defeated the Rangers for the first and only time in the postseason. From 1937-1940, the Americans made the playoffs every season, an unheard-of achievement for a club that had been the League’s bottom feeder for its entire existence. Later in life, Dutton said that with a few more years, he could have made the team better than the Rangers, and it seems as though he could have.  He was, so they say, a pretty decent guy, and he lacked the deviousness of a Jack Adams or a Conn Smythe, but he knew the game and he did once beat the living shit out of Art Ross in a hotel room.  I think he might have made something of the Americans, if he’d had five more years and an extra fifty thousand dollars.

But the Americans were out of time. The team had been dying almost since it was born, crippled by poverty and failure for over a decade, and World War II would finish it off. The Americans, ironically, lost most of their roster to Canadian patriotism, as players across the NHL enlisted in the military or went to make other contributions to the war effort. The fan base was already small and long-suffering, and the loss of talent hurt the Americans even more at the gate.

So, in what has to be one of the most poignant yet stupid gestures in hockey history, Red Dutton attempted to attract new fans by ‘moving’ the team to Brooklyn and renaming it the Brooklyn Americans. Now, you might be saying, hey, wait a minute, there wasn’t any hockey arena of NHL size in Brooklyn in the early 40s, so how the fuck did dude ‘move’ his team there? He didn’t. He moved there. As in, Red Dutton got himself an apartment in Brooklyn and he found some practice ice in a local rink they could use from time to time, and prayed that that would be enough. The team still played all their games out of MSG, and, obviously, the symbolic relocation made no difference at all. Potential Brooklyn fans showed no particular inclination to go to Manhattan to watch hockey games, and Manhattan fans felt betrayed. Far from attracting new fans, by the end of the season Dutton was selling off players for cash just to cover the team’s debts.

During the off-season, Dutton reluctantly agreed to suspend the Americans until the end of the war, extracting promises from the League that as soon as the player base expanded again he would be allowed to resume operations. But come the end of WWII- surprise!- the Rangers had decided that they liked being the only hockey team in New York, and being as how they also controlled the ice, they used their leverage with the League to ensure that the Americans were never revived. Dutton, supposedly, was so angry at this treachery that he issued a curse: that the New York Rangers would never win a Stanley Cup while he was alive.

It’s strange to think of a guy like Dutton laying a curse like some warty, beshawled hag out of a fairy tale. It’s like imagining Jay Bouwmeister waving his fingers and muttering spells over a cauldron- curses just ain’t the sort of thing big, serious defensemen do. But apocryphal or not, the story has power because it came true. In the long forty-five years between the death of the Americans and the death of Red Dutton, the Rangers didn’t win one single Cup. If there are hockey gods and they have a sense of justice, this was their retribution, to revisit all the failures of the Americans on the Rangers three times over. Dutton never said whether he actually did curse the team, but, reportedly, he was nevertheless extremely pleased that his name went down in history as a byword for the Rangers’ misery.  He couldn’t save the team he loved, but at the very least, he could plague the team he hated.

Research for this post was taken from the usual suspects: Lords of the Rinks, Deceptions and Doublecross, Putting a Roof on Winter- you know the drill.  There’s also a lot of excellent information about the Americans available online.  Check out their Sports Encyclopedia page, as well as the Wikipedia articles for Red Dutton and Bill Dwyer.