They were one of Broadway's most promising acts in the spring of 1940, a colorful outfit that had won three Stanley Cups in their first 14 seasons in the NHL. On the evening of April 13, 1940, when the New York Rangers skated off the ice at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens with a third Cup in hand, few could have imagined that the franchise would then embark upon hockey's longest-running version of "the agony of defeat."
Almost half the players on that 1940 team quickly scattered to their homes throughout Canada, many anticipating a call to serve in World War II. Three players stayed behind in a Toronto hospital for treatment of injuries. The others returned to New York amid little celebration, for that same week marked the confluence of baseball's Opening Day and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Thus was preserved another remarkable aspect of the Rangers' forlorn legacy: A Stanley Cup victory parade has never been held in Manhattan.
The 1940 Rangers belonged to a New York City that can hardly be imagined today. Under the shrewd management of the patrician Lester Patrick and Col. John Reed Kilpatrick, the team had firmly established itself as the team of the bluebloods, not the blueseaters. Tuxedos and evening gowns were de rigueur for much of the 1940 Garden crowd. "Next to the horse show set, the Garden hockey crowds 54 years ago were the most well behaved," says John Halligan, a devoted Ranger historian who is now the NHL's director of special projects.
In stark contrast to the fans back then, the team was an earthy, crude lot much better suited to today's more belligerent Ranger following. Indeed, when defenseman Muzz Patrick—Lester's youngest son—arrived in New York from Montreal in the mid-1930s, he initially achieved renown as a heavyweight prizefighter. And whereas only Brian Leetch, Mark Messier and Mike Richter of the current Rangers live in Manhattan, several members of the 1940 squad spent the season in the Belvedere Hotel, across the street from the Garden, and were given to late-night carousing while winking at Lester Patrick's strict curfews.
Had they been anything other than a bunch of rogues, the Rangers might never have survived in the first place. In 1925 Garden owner Tex Rickard had been cool to the idea of another hockey team in his building—he already leased it part-time to the New York Americans, owned by a former bootlegger, Bill Dwyer—but relented, in part, because of the sport's kinship to boxing. Near the start of a Ranger home game, the wail of ambulance sirens could often be heard outside the Garden. Rickard, it was said, had summoned them in hopes that they would soon be filled with opposing players. On another occasion he suggested that the sport might be enhanced if the players were allowed to use clubs when they fought.
Muzz Patrick, 78, and his seven living teammates still pass down these stories like minstrels. It's the best they have to offer. Every spring for as long as they can remember, Muzz and his wife of 50 years, Jessie, have marked the season by the arrival of journalists at their Riverside, Conn., home seeking an explanation for the Rangers' Stanley Cup drought, which is now of 54 years' duration. "And I don't have one," says Muzz. "We figured we were going to keep winning those things."