‘Howe’ homesickness, shyness and a C-form conspired against the Rangers

Welcome to another edition of Blueshirts Briefs, a look back at those who worked a short shift for the New York Rangers. In this piece, we’ll revisit the Rangers’ ties to the Howe brothers, Gordie and Vic.

The New York Rangers knew Gordie Howe had the talent and toughness to be an NHL force. It’s why they invited him, at 15 years old, to their training camp, and why they tried to sign him before he returned home.

Unfortunately for the Blueshirts, that training camp in 1943 in Winnipeg, proved overwhelming for the shy, family-oriented boy from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Winnipeg was nearly 400 miles from home. The furthest from home he’d ever been previously was Regina, some 150 miles away.

“And that was only once for a hockey game,” Howe wrote in his autobiography, Mr. Hockey.

Howe recalled that some Rangers veterans made jokes about his youth, despite Howe’s 6-foot, 200-pound frame. He also was reprimanded by the team’s general manager, Lester Patrick, for a devastating hip check on a veteran forward.

“When I wasn’t playing hockey, Winnipeg didn’t treat me that well,” Howe wrote. “On the ice, I knew what I was doing. Off the ice, I missed home. For a kid who had never really been away from Saskatoon or his family, nothing was easy or routine.”

Howe found some comfort from Rangers’ veteran Alf Pike, who took the kid under his wing. But it wasn’t enough to overcome his shyness and longing for home. The final straw came at camp’s end when the Blueshirts offered Howe a C-form and insisted he attend a Catholic boarding school.

“A C-form essentially gave your rights to the club that signed you,” Howe wrote. “They told you where to play and they could renew the agreement every year for as long as they wanted. (C-forms) were a sweet deal for the teams, but not so great for a player.”

The Rangers further sabotaged themselves by asking Howe to attend Notre Dame, a boarding school in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, some 25 miles south of Regina, and known for producing good hockey players.

“I wasn’t Catholic, so my first thought was Notre Dame would be a bad fit,” Howe wrote. “I’d only been in Winnipeg for a short time, but I didn’t like feeling so alone. The thought of living at a boarding school, and a strict one at that, where I wouldn’t know anyone didn’t sound good at all. I didn’t want to go to Notre Dame and I didn’t want to sign anything with the Rangers.”

Onto Motown

Howe politely turned down New York and on Oct. 8, 1946, at the age of 18, signed as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings. As it turned out, the Rangers were spot on in believing Howe could thrive in the NHL.

After 1,761 NHL contests, he had amassed 801 goals and 1,049 assists for 1,850 points, along with 1,685 penalty minutes. He won four Stanley Cups, six Hart trophies, six Art Ross trophies, and was a 21-time all-star. He even has a hat trick in his name, applied to any player who has a goal, an assist, and a fight in one game.

One of his Cup titles came in 1950 against the Rangers, though he didn’t play in the Finals because of injuries suffered during a playoff match against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium.

Howe crashed headfirst into the boards, sustaining a brain hemorrhage, shattered cheekbone, broken nose, and badly scratched right eye. He was taken off the ice on a stretcher and needed emergency neurosurgery to relieve the pressure on his brain.

As a testament to his toughness, Howe returned the next season, played all 70 games, and led the NHL in goals (43), assists (43), and points (86). And in a 1959 match against the Rangers, “Mr. Hockey” destroyed Blueshirts’ tough guy Lou Fontinato.

One of my earliest hockey memories was my Dad regaling me with the story of Gordie’s fight with Lou Fontinato. pic.twitter.com/gyoFBXS40g

Not quite the Howe the Rangers needed

While Gordie didn’t pan out for the Rangers, his younger brother, Vic, skated in 33 games for them in the 1950s. Acquired with future Hall of Famer Andy Bathgate from AHL Cleveland for Glen Sonmor and Eric Pogue, Vic posted four goals and three assists for seven points, along with 10 PIMs.