My Great Uncle and the New York Americans



Recently I've been reading a memoir my great aunt and uncle wrote about their time driving around the country in an RV in the mid-70s. The following is an excerpt that I think the hockeytariat might enjoy.

Crossing western Canada, one of the campgrounds whose description in the RV "bible" sounded appealing was also the source of an astounding coincidence of special interest to Len. It was locate in a Canadian city whose name I could hardly say at first, let alone spell: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, what a mouthful! As we neared Saskatoon, Len was the driver while I studied the RV guidebooks. "Only one campground in Saskatoon seems good," I reported.

"What's its name?" Len asked perfunctorily, for he had no real interest in where we stayed overnight; I was the one who was fussy.

Reading from the book, I replied "It's called 'The Gordon Howe Provincial Park and Campground.'"

"WHAT!" shrieked Len in capital letters. "A provincial park named for Gordie! That's fantastic!"

"You mean you know Gordon Howe?" I asked, my eyes wide with astonishment. That a man prominent enough to have a provincial park named for him was someone whom Len knew well enough to call him "Gordie" was indeed surprising, though it was strange that I never before heard Len mention this individual.

"Well, I sort of know him," Len answered, "and when we reach Saskatoon, by golly, that's where we're going to stay! At Gordie Howe Provincial Park. That should be really great!"

"Please tell me how you happen to know Mr. Howe?"

"Well, when I was a kid in high school, my favorite sport was ice hockey. Not that I played it myself, but I was what you'd call a diehard fan of professional hockey. The New York Americans was the team I rooted for, and can you believe they were the worst team in the National Hockey League, always in last place: 'in the cellar,' we called it. But awful or not, I loved those N.Y. Americans with the same passion that baseball fans from Brooklyn love the Brooklyn Dodgers."

"But you haven't told me who is Gordon Howe!"

"Gordie Howe..." he explained grandiloquently, like a mentor instructing a dummy (me), "Gordie Howe was the greatest hockey player of all time. Although he was not on my favorite team -- he played for the Detroit Lions -- he was a fantastic hockey player. Scored more goals than anyone else; made the most assists; and he also holds the National Hockey League's record for winning the Most Valuable Player Award more times than anyone else, and he also..."

"Okay, okay! I'm impressed. So, Gordie Howe Provincial Park, here we come!"

On the way to "Gordie's Park," apart from repeating his admiration for Gordie's skill as a hockey player, Len also recalled, with obvious nostalgia, the "greatest hockey experience" he ever had. "But," he added, "as great as it was, it gave me, my father and my mom lots of grief."

"How come?" I asked. And this is how Len described his greatest hockey memory, the grief it caused, and the wonderful coincidence it later provided:

"Well, that year when I was about fifteen, there was only one more game scheduled to be played in the National Hockey League's regular season. My team, the New York Americans -- the worst in the league because its percentage of games won during the season was the lowest -- well, they were scheduled to play against the New York Rangers, the top team in the league. Just thinking about what could happen in that game made me palpatate. If, by some miracle, the N.Y. Americans BEAT the Rangers, then my beloved Americans would be in the post season playoffs for the prestigious Stanley Cup. That's the ultimate honor in hockey, as 'ultimate' as a baseball team getting to play in the World Series.

So I absolutely had to see that game, no matter what!

But this created a big problem for me because my father was not a hockey fan. In fact, he knew nothing about hockey and couldn't care less about it. But at the same time, he was a stickler about having our House Rules obeyed, especially those rules that specifically concerned me since I was the youngest in our house. And among those rules was that my curfew limit for being home at night when there was school the next day was 10:00pm. (11:00pm on Friday and Saturday nights)

What a problem that darn curfew caused! The game I was dying to see in person was on Sunday night, and there was school the next day. If I went to the game, there was no way I could return home by 10:00pm; I needed at least one extra hour after the game ended for the subway ride and walk home. What to do?

I appealed to my elder sister who had a special status in our father's heart. When I swore to her that I would be home by eleven p.m., she succeeded in wangling that extra hour for me. Eureka! I now could go to the game.

With five minutes left in the game, it didn't look good for the N.Y. Americans; they were losing by a score of 2 to 1, and I was not happy about it. So I decided it wouldn't be painful to make the mad dash to the subway station now since the final period of play was about to end. But the miracle of miracles occurred when there was only one minute fifteen seconds left in the game. From a crazy shot, the pick took a weird bounce and flew into the net, tying the score at 2-2! The fans went wild. Madison Square Garden shook from the pandemonium. The final play in the game ended NOT with the usual loss for my Americans but with the score tied. My team still had a chance to win because the rules required that there be a clear winner.

Overtime was about to begin, to be played now under the "sudden death rule" which means that the first team that scores a goal is the winner. It was 10:05 p.m. when the first overtime period began. Of course I should have already been on my way home, but at this stage in the game, nothing could pull me away. My N.Y. Americans (the worst team in the league) was now in big-time competition. I could hardly believe this; it really was a miracle!

At about 10:35 the first overtime period ended; no one had scored. After the rest period, another twenty minute overtime period began. Since it was already "a little too late" for me to get home on time, I stayed through another period of overtime play, and then another rest period; and then another period of play, followed by another rest period. On and on they played, and because no one scored a tie-breaking goal, I conveniently forgot about going home and, instead, shouted my head off cheering for my favorite underdogs.

It wasn't until 2:05 in the morning that the N.Y. Americans' right winger, in a brilliant play, finally broke through and scored the winning goal. And then, in the unbelievable noise that followed, I happily headed for home. It was 3:00 a.m. when I reached our front door. I was really 'kinda late.'

Not having a key, I knocked on the door. "Who's there?" my father's voice asked.

"It's me, Pa."

His voice sounded angry. "What time is it?" he snarled.

"Pa, it was an overtime game."

"What time is it?" he asked again, sterner than before.

"Pa, they played the longest game in hockey histo..."

"What time is it? And what time did you agree to be home?"

"I know, Pa, I'm late..."

Well, he wouldn't open the door. So I sat on the floor outside te door for the rest of the night until my brother and sisters came out on their way to school. My older sister was furious with me for breaking my word; she said she'd never again do me a favor. The others were sure I was lying when I told them how late the game had lasted. No one believed me; everyone was angry at me, and everyone in the family wanted to know what I "really did" until 3:00 a.m. because no hockey game lasts that late. That it had really lasted so long, and that my team was the winner, didn't impress my mother or father. To my family, I was the big loser that day. Even when the later editions of Monday's newspapers were filled with articles -- not only in the Sports Section but on the front page! -- about the historic hockey game that lasted until after 2:00 a.m. Monday morning -- and ended with a big upset did I have a leg to stand on in arguing my case. Nevertheless, I was in the doghouse and had to study a lot, do every bit of my homework, and was not permitted to see my friends for the remainder of the week. For the rest of the world of hockey fans, it was jeers, tears or cheers. Every newspaper, week-long, carried articles about the great game in which the National Hockey League's top team, the N.Y. Rangers, was defeated(!) by my favorite N.Y. Americans.

I felt really great about that victory, and as my wife and I drove towards Saskatoon, I finished telling her about that game and my father's reactions. She viewed my greatest hockey experience as both a very sweet and a rather sad story. As for me, i'd never used the word "sweet" for the most exciting hockey game I ever saw, and the longest game in hockey history. For me, it was the most dramatic episode in my young life. And now, telling it to my wife made that long drive to Saskatoon pass quickly.

At the Gordon Howe Provincial Park, two families were ahead of us at the reception desk registering for a site. My wife settled into a comfortable chair and flipped through a magazine while i was pulled by a magnet to the paneled walls of the reception room. From floor to ceiling, those walls were covered with hundreds of photographs: pictures of Gordie Howe in action on the ice; of medals and trophies being presented to him; group pictures of Gordie's teams, the Detroit Red Wings for each year from 1946 to 1971; shots of individual players, team staffs; etc. This was my meat! I drooled as I looked at one after another; up and down the walls were photos of guys posing formally and guys in action on the ice, many of them men who once were my heroes. What a nostalgia-trip that was for me, and it lasted until the man at the reception desk called out that he was ready for me to register.

As he watched me fill out the form, he commented on how intensively I had studied the photos. "Are you interested in hockey?" he asked.

"When I was a kid I was a diehard fan," I replied.

"Oh that's great. Did you skate?"

"No, I never played ice hockey. But from the newspapers, I followed National Hockey League teams and players: how they were doing; what were their scores; what were their standings in the League; who did what in which game. Occasionally I did manage to attend a hockey game; it depended on how 'rich' I was at the time, and if my father gave me permission."

"I see here on your registration card that you live in New York. Did you ever go to a game at Madison Square Garden?"

"Oh you bet I did! As a kid I lived in New York City and my favorite hockey team played at The Garden. I rooted for the New York Americans."

"No kidding! And did you ever see the Americans play at the Garden?"

"Not only did I attend some of their games, but I happened to have been at Madison Square Garden for the longest and greatest hockey game every played."

"You're joking!"

"No I'm not. It was a game that lasted until almost three in the morning; at the end of regulation time, the score was tied so they had o go into sudden death. But the teams played several overtime periods in which no one on either team was able to score. That's why the game lasted until almost three in the morning!"

"Really???" the man behind the desk exclaimed. "That must have been a sensational game to watch."

"Oh yes!" And because the desk man seemed eager to hear more about that game, I went into detail, telling him the long story of what happened in the overtime periods and how neither team could score.

"So no one broke the tie!" he exclaimed so loudly that it seemed to me he was becoming as excited as I was, just from talking about that game. Well, I could understand his excitement; so many overtime periods of play in which both teams fought like demons to score the winning goal, but when no one was able to, the game went on and on. The rules said it could not end without a winner.

"That's what made it the most exciting game you can imagine. And that's why I'll never forget it, even though it happened forty years ago," I said to the desk man whose face, by then, was flushed and his eyes had opened wide as if to help him absorb every word I said. "He must be a great hockey fan, I thought."

"And I even remember the name of the man who finally scored the winning goal," I told him. "It was a brilliant play! And you should have heard the fans go crazy. Everyone was standing on their seats and yelling. The Garden rocked. It was really something!"

"Did you say you remember the name of the man who scored the winning goal?" he asked me.

"I sure do! It was such a brilliant shot that I'll never forget him. He was the right winger for the N.Y. Americans. His name was Lorne Carr."

The man at the desk smiled and put out his big right hand to shake mine, as he said, "Hi, I'm Lorne Carr."

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