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The strange tale of the Brooklyn Americans

Cover from 1941-42 Brooklyn Americans program.

Cover from 1941-42 Brooklyn Americans program. Credit: Handout

As a teenager in the late 1930s, Ben Olan would spend 80 cents to watch New York Americans hockey games from the upper deck at Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue and 50th Street. Mostly, he listened on the radio.

"I was never a Rangers fan and I loved the Americans because they had stars-and-stripes uniforms," Olan, 89, recalled last week.

He quickly named his two favorite players. "Nels Stewart, a left wing, he was almost 40 years old. Could hardly skate," Olan said. "But he scored quite a few goals, 20 one year, by just standing in front of the net. And goalie Earl Robertson. Acrobatic, but had no defense in front of him.

"Attendance was really down though by 1940, so they changed the name to Brooklyn and took away those red-white-and-blue uniforms. A shame. They only lasted another year."

Robertson, but not Stewart, wore the Brooklyn logo in the 1941-42 season, the only one for the ill-fated Americans, who finished last in goals scored, last in goals allowed and last in the seven-team NHL with a 16-29-3 record.

Said Olan, "I hope the Islanders have better luck."

The Islanders don't plan to change their uniforms when they move to Barclays Center in 2015. They will, however, follow the path of the Americans and other teams that skated on borough ice.

"Brooklyn had significant hockey in one form or another from way back," hockey historian Stan Fischler said.

In 1898, the Crescent Athletic Club team played in a rink on Clermont Avenue and at the Brooklyn Ice Palace, neither very far from where Barclays now stands. Crescent won the American Amateur Hockey League championship in 1900, played Yale annually for several years, competed in the Eastern Hockey League against teams from Hershey, Atlantic City and Baltimore, and won the championship in 1934-35.

And although the Brooklyn Americans played at the Garden, they practiced at the Ice Palace on Atlantic Avenue, which could hold about 2,000 people.

During World War II, the Rangers had a farm team at the Ice Palace, Fischler said. Among the players: Fred Shero, who won two Stanley Cups while coaching the Flyers, and All-Star center Don "Bones" Raleigh, who in 1950 became the first NHL player to score sudden-death overtime goals in two consecutive games in the Stanley Cup Finals. "And Bill 'The Big Whistle' Chadwick learned his hockey there," Fischler said.

But the Americans, known as the Amerks, had the quirkiest history. Owned by bootlegger Bill Dwyer, they drew enough fans in their inaugural season at the Garden in 1925-26 to prompt the Garden to purchase the Hamilton Tigers, who immediately morphed into the Rangers.

As a rent-paying tenant, the Amerks struggled, notching only three winning seasons in the next 15 years, and with attendance dwindling, Dwyer abandoned the team. The NHL took over and Red Dutton, the team's manager/coach, hatched plans in 1939 to build an arena in Brooklyn.

"The way the fans support the baseball and football Dodgers convinced me that they would be just as rabid for hockey,'' Dutton said, according to an account in "Metro Ice," a book by Fischler and Tom Sarro. With the war in Europe, however, the project never developed. Instead, Dutton simply changed the name to Brooklyn Americans and stayed at the Garden.

The Americans jumped to a 3-3-1 record before skidding. They were in the midst of a 10-game losing streak during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and at season's end, the NHL shuttered the franchise and players enlisted in the armed forces.

Dutton tried to revive the idea of a rink in Brooklyn when he was NHL president from 1943 to 1946 but didn't have support.

Brooklyn was a springboard for numerous players, though. Goalie Chuck Rayner, 21, who played 36 games with a 3.47 goals-against average, became a four-time All-Star with the Rangers, won the Hart Trophy in 1950 and was elected to the Hall of Fame. Left wing Harry Watson played 10 years for Toronto, won five Cups and also is a Hall of Famer.

Watson's name also stirred memories of Brooklyn for Ben Olan.

"I was working in the jewelry district in Manhattan and I heard the Americans were 2-1 underdogs to the Rangers," he said. "I went to the pool hall and bet five bucks. At home, I was in the kitchen and heard the radio announcer say, 'Watson scores!'

"Then I remembered the Rangers also had a Watson: Phil. I had to wait eight or nine minutes. It was Harry, and turned out to be the game-winner."

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