May 03, 2006

Steve Buzinski

A week before the start of training camp in October 1942 the New York Rangers were facing quite a predicament. The war that was raging in Europe had not only claimed over half of the members of the team which finished in first place the season before, it had also enlisted the services of their goalie, Jim Henry, as well. The Rangers were on the verge of opening camp without a goalie to play for them.

The Hall of Famer Lester Patrick, then the manager of the Rangers called his coach, another Hall of Famer Frank Boucher, into his Madison Square Garden office to talk the situation over.

"Frankie," he earnestly spoke, "what are we going to do for a goaltender?" Boucher could think of only one reply, "Lester, comb every blessed town in Canada for one." With that Patrick wired all the Ranger scouts across Canada with the immediate plea to find him a goaltender.

Three days later a telegram came from a scout in Saskatchewan named Al Ritchie. "HAVE YOUR MAN. WILL REPORT NEXT WEEK. HIS NAME: STEVE BUZINSKI." The Rangers tried to do some checking up on the man who would be their new goalie, but all that they could find out about him was that he was a grain and cereal expert with the Dominion Experimental Station who had played with Swift Current in an intermediate senior league.

With that telegram a legend for the annals of NHL history was born with the start of the career of Steve "The Puck Goes In-ski" Buzinski.

In the old days the Rangers always used to train in Winnipeg and Coach Boucher would always remember the camp of 1942 very well.

"When we got there and started workouts," he said, "I discovered that nobody named Buzinski had arrived. Well, there was nothing much we could do but sit around and hope that he'd show up; meanwhile we sent the boys through practice skates and light workouts. After a day or so I really began to get worried but on this particular afternoon we were on the ice when I looked over toward the sideboards and got the surprise of my life."

Boucher further explains. "In the Winnipeg Amphitheater the sideboards were quite a bit higher than in other rinks and as I looked at them I saw this tiny fellow walking along, wearing a black helmet -- but all I could see was the helmet over the sideboards. I first though that it was a "rink rat," one of those lads who hang around the rink and clean the ice between workouts. But soon I saw one goalie pad, then another, climb directly over the boards and, sure enough, this little chap skated directly to the net. I remember saying to myself when I looked at him, "Oh my gosh, it can't be him!!"

When Buzinski got into position at the net not only did Boucher see but a slight 140 pounds 5 foot 7 inch goalie, he saw how terribly bowlegged his new goalie was.

"Buzinski was," Boucher insisted "the most bowlegged goalie I ever saw in my life. When Buzinski stood in front of the net you felt that he had already been shot full of holes. He wore a pair of old tattered goalie pads that curved with his limbs like a pair of rawhide cowboy chaps."

If the sight of his new goalie didn't shock Boucher enough, then what happened when the Rangers started testing him with shots did. "He was marvelous," his coach said, "we just couldn't seem to get the puck past him. We tried everything, and he kicked out pucks like he was a new Davey Kerr."

That a bowlegged goalie could stonewall his own teammates during training camp should have told Boucher about the kind of team he had assembled for the season. The Rangers were destined to go 11-38-8 and finish last 20 points out of a playoff spot, no mean accomplishment in a 50 game season. With Buzinski, or anyone else in the net, the Rangers were destined to be a bad defensive team that gave up over an average of 5 goals per game.

The season opened with a 7 to 2 loss to the Maple Leafs at Maple Leaf Gardens and the Associated Press reported how "Steve Buzinski looked flimsy on a couple of Leaf goals." Regardless, Buzinski, the Prarie boy, sure gave the Rangers something to talk about after the game.

About midway in the second period the Leafs Bob Davidson took a shot on net from a melee in front of the Ranger's net and Buzinski went down and out like he had been pole axed. His teammates charged straight at the referee. "Give Davidson a major penalty for high sticking," demanded the Ranger's Ott Heller, who was standing protection over the downed Buzinski. "Take gas," Davidson shouted, "he just got hit with a puck." "Stick," screamed Heller. "Puck," retorted Davidson.

Frank Boucher from behind the Ranger bench thought Davidson had bashed his goalie flat with his stick. Then he suddenly saw Buzinski in a sitting position, then his goalie was back to being passed out again. When the Ranger's Lynn Patrick came over to the bench from the goalmouth he was laughing so hard that he could barely skate.

"What in the world is going on out there ?" Boucher asked. "You'll never believe it," Patrick answered with tears rolling off his cheeks. "We thought Steve had been knocked out by Davidson's stick and were yelling for a penalty on him. Davidson was shouting it was just the puck when Steve, lying there like a dead mackerel on a plate, sat straight up and said to the referee, "It's a damn lie, he high sticked me," and then he just fell back dead on his back again!!"

The next game in Detroit, a 12 to 5 loss to the Red Wings, gave the team more to talk about with their former grain and cereal expert turned NHL goalie. The Red Wings had zoomed out to a quick 7 to 1 lead and when their forward Carl Liscombe launched a shot from center ice that was quite wide of the net, Buzinski made a desperate leap to snag it in the webbing of his glove. As he casually flipped it into the corner of the rink he exclaimed to teammate Bryan Hextall who glided by, "Hex, it's just like picking cherries off of a tree," in a tone that made you feel he'd been doing it all game.

If that wasn't bound to bring a few jokes from teammates, what happened a few minutes later sure would. The Red Wings attacked and again sent a high shot against Buzinski who gloved it, but as a Detroit player veered in upon him the bowlegged goalie took a notion to shadow box the opponent and bobbed and weaved like he was counterpunching against the on-coming rush. As he paused to stop and say something to the Detroit player, his glove hand fluently swept out clutching the puck to toss it into the corner OF HIS OWN NET! "Steve," as one Ranger explained years after, "had actually scored upon himself."

It was obvious to most everyone by now that the Rangers were a bad team with a goalie who would make it worse. By the time four games had been played Buzinski had been rung up for 32 goals, which made one New York scribe wonder if Steve hadn't been pained by a sunburn on the back of his neck by the perennial red glow of the light behind him.

None the less, it seemed that Lester Patrick thought he had something in Buzinski. "It isn't fair to pass judgment on Steve after such a short time," he stated. "Remember Charlie Gardiner was murdered in his first four games. Then Charlie improved and developed into one of the greatest goalies of the game."

Buzinski was taking his rise from the grain elevators of Swift Current to the NHL life style of a player in the Metropolis of New York as if it was a leap of little consequence. A reporter asked him about what the differences between the NHL and the Intermediate Senior Leagues were and Steve seemed a little surprised at the question.

"No difference at all," he answered, "Same as back home. Only difference I notice is that the rinks are classier and there are more people than I am accustomed to seeing at one game."

The Rangers were beaten twice by the Bruins in the home and away weekend series on the weekend of November 14 -15 and Buzinski's style of play seemed to be melting under the pressure of being a bad team's goaltender.

"Steve has begun to show a new technique," wrote Dan Daniel in the New York World-Telegram. "He adopted the falling system. Persuaded that he who drops over the disk need not have fears of it being elsewhere, Buzinski spent more time on the ice than a mackerel in cold storage."

By the third weekend of the season the Rangers were firmly entrenched in last place with a 2-6-1 record with Buzinski having allowed 55 goals in the nine games. By this time, his teammates were convinced that Buzinski wasn't of top calibre and when they heard that Jim Franks, an AHL goalie who had played only two NHL games in his career so far, was available, they went to Lester Patrick and threatened mutiny unless Buzinski was replaced. Patrick arranged the loan of Franks from Detroit for the season and the change was made.

"I'm not hitting Buz below the belt," explained the Ranger's Phil Watson when the change to Franks was announced, "because considering his experience, or lack of it, he did a marvelous job. But his newness in NHL play was disconcerning to us."

Despite it all, Lester Patrick still couldn't bring himself to part with his bowlegged goalie and he kept Buzinski on the payroll.

"He was a refreshing prarie boy," Frank Boucher explained, "always good for laughs. Lester simply listed him as a member of our public relations department."

It was also thought that Patrick still believed he had a diamond in the rough of a goalie with Buzinski. Whatever it was, Patrick seemed awful patient with him.

"Steve just sat around and played cards and got paid," said player Alf Pike. "No matter what we said to Lester, he wouldn't get rid of Buzinski."

One afternoon the Rovers farm team which the Rangers ran out of Madison Square Garden approached Patrick about lending them a few players to round out a scrimmage. Patrick got Pike to agree to go and thought Buzinski should get some practice in as well.

"Go along with Alfie," he told the goalie. Buzinski, the public relations man, was kind of taken back by the request. "Gee, I'd like to help you out, Mr. Patrick," he innocently replied to one of the greatest all time legends of the game, "but I've got a lot of letters to write."

The next day Lester Patrick had Steve Buzinski on a train back to his grain co-operative job in Swift Current. "We were sorry to see him go," said coach Boucher, "kind of missed the little guy. He was a lovely little fellow, earnest and sincere, and we all liked him tremendously, but that simply doesn't stop pucks. Granted he was one of the worst goalies in NHL history, but he was also one of the funniest."

Even years after his departure from the Rangers, stories of his stay in New York, always claimed by Buzinski as being made up, were still joked about and insisted as true facts by members and officials of the Rangers at the time.

No comments: