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history lesson

Remembering the Brooklyn Americans, the Borough’s First NHL Team (Sort of, But Not Really)

The 1941-42 Brooklyn Americans.

During yesterday's press conference announcing that the Islanders would move to Brooklyn's Barclays Center in 2015, commissioner Gary Bettman made reference to the 1941–42 Brooklyn Americans, an NHL team that had been known as the New York Americans and continued to play its games at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan even after the name change. They practiced in Brooklyn and had hoped to build an arena there eventually, but the 1941–42 season would be the franchise's last. Said Bettman of that Brooklyn arena plan yesterday: "It got sidetracked then, but 70 years later, the NHL is here with the New York Islanders."

When Bettman says the plans were "sidetracked," of course, he means they were sidetracked by World War II. In their book, Metro Ice, about hockey's history in the New York area, local puck expert Stan Fischler and co-author Tom Sarro explain that Red Dutton, the manager/coach of the New York Americans, had decided in the late-thirties to move the team to Brooklyn.

See, the Amerks actually predated the New York Rangers by a season, but they would quickly become Madison Square Garden's other team. The Americans' original owner, the bootlegger Bill Dwyer, was helpless to keep a second NHL team from playing in its home arena because the fine print in his contract didn't prevent the Garden from bringing one in. And so, after the Americans successfully drew fans in their first season, 1925–26, the Garden realized it could make even more money with a team of its own. And thus the city's second NHL team, the Rangers, was born. (How quickly did pro hockey become popular enough in New York for the Garden to want its own team? Fischler and Sarro explain that Tex Rickard's original blueprints for Madison Square Garden III, which opened in 1925, didn't include plans for an ice plant. Will arena owners never learn that they should should plan for hockey?)

From Metro Ice:

Fed up with the second-class treatment accorded his team at the Garden, Dutton had decided as early as 1939 to build a new arena in Brooklyn that would not only compete with the Garden but would be home to his Americans. "I've always regarded Brooklyn as one of the finest sports centers in the world," he said. "The way the fans support the baseball and football Dodgers convinced me that they would be just as rabid for hockey."

Dutton's Hockey Hall of Fame bio page explains that he personally arranged for $7 million in financing to build a new arena. But as Fischler and Sarro write, the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939 meant that steel for the new building was unavailable, so plans for the arena would have to wait until after the war. In the meantime, though, he went ahead and changed the name of the team anyway to the Brooklyn Americans, even though they'd continue to call the Garden home. (You can check out their snazzy red, white, and blue uniforms here.) Via Metro Ice, the Americans did at least practice in Brooklyn, at the Brooklyn Ice Palace on Atlantic Avenue near Bedford, about a mile down the road from where the Barclays Center is now located. Dutton himself moved to Brooklyn along with his wife, and several of the team's players relocated there as well.

In the franchise's one season as the Brooklyn Americans, it finished with a record of 16-29-3, and its 35 points put it in last place among the league's seven teams, meaning they'd miss out on the six-team playoffs. Defenseman Tom Anderson led the team in scoring with 41 points in 48 games, while winger Norm Larson led the team with sixteen goals.

And while Dutton still planned on building that arena in Brooklyn once the war was over, the Americans franchise wouldn't survive long enough for it to happen. From Metro Ice:

Had the war not erupted when it did, there is every reason to believe that Dutton could have rejuvenated the Americans. With a promising young nucleus, headed by future Hall of Famer Chuck Rayner, the Amerks were about a year away from being a playoff contender and a team with a promising future in Brooklyn. But service enlistments ravaged their roster.

Meanwhile, Fischler and Sarro explain, the Garden wanted the Americans out of the building, believing their 24 home dates could be better used for other events. And so, after the season, the NHL decided the franchise could no longer compete, and its owners voted to shut the team down indefinitely. Dutton returned home to his family's construction company in Calgary, and yet, the dream of a Brooklyn arena remained alive: He was promised by three owners (Montreal, Chicago, and Detroit) that he could revive the franchise after the war and proceed with his plan to move into a new arena in Brooklyn. Dutton would go on to serve as NHL president from 1943 until 1946, and as president, even floated the idea that the league could one day expand to fifteen teams divided into three divisions. But when he met with the league governors in 1946 to welcome his successor as president, Clarence Campbell, and try to bring back the Americans, it didn't go as he'd hoped. The Garden wasn't in favor of reviving the franchise, and the Maple Leafs and Bruins sided with the Rangers. The Amerks were dead, this time for good.

In their book, Fischler and Sarro point to an interview Dutton gave to Toronto author Trent Frayne more than a quarter-century after meeting with the league governors in 1946. Recalled Dutton:

"I looked around the room and nobody was looking at me. I got the message. 'Gentlemen,' I said to the governors. 'You can stick your franchise up your ass.' I gathered my papers and left."

The NHL would remain at six teams — the so-called "Original Six" — until 1967.

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