THE SIGHTS AND SOUNDS OF THE RANGERS: The Gardens
There have been four Madison Square Gardens, with a $600 million refurbishing of the arena slated to begin in 2009. The Rangers have played in two, neither of which-oddly enough-is near Manhattan’s Madison Square.
The first two Gardens were ornate buildings on the site of the passenger depot of the New York and Harlem Railroad on the northeast corner of Madison Square, a park on Madison Avenue and 26th Street. In 1871 P.T. Barnum converted the first structure into “Barnum’s Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome,” and it was later renamed Madison Square Garden by William Henry Vanderbilt and used for bicycle racing.
In 1890 architect Stanford White designed the second Garden, a 32-story edifice that echoed a Moorish palace with a minaret tower, an 18-foot copper statue of the goddess Diana, and a main hall-the largest in the world at the time-with permanent seating for 8,000 people and room for thousands more. It was demolished after the 1924 Democratic Convention to make way for the New York Life Insurance Building.
The third Garden, where the Rangers were born, was built in 249 days in 1925 for $4.75 million at 50th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues-on a depot for the city’s trolleys-by boxing promoter Tex Rickard to house his matches. Its most distinct feature was the marquee above the main entrance, with abbreviations announcing the events (“Rgrs, Tomw., V/S, Tonite”). Even the name atop was shortened: “Madison Sq. Garden.” And in another turn ofphrase, the new hockey team was named for Rickard: “Tex’s Rangers.”
With 17,000 seats, Rickard’s Garden was a smoky place, bristling with electricity, a block from Times Square. It evolved into a mecca in the city, presenting everything from college basketball doubleheaders to heavyweight fights to the Rangers, who played their first game on Garden ice on February 13, 1926.
The Rangers’ games would start at 8:45, late enough for people to have dinner first, recalled Stan Lomax, a radio announcer of that era. “People would attend games dressed in tuxedos, and have no idea how the game was played or why players were fighting on the ice,” said Lomax.
The New York Americans-the original NHL team at theGarden-and the Rangers were co-tenants for 15 years, until the Amerks disbanded before World War II.
But the Rangers’ biggest in-house rival at the Garden was the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which was crucial to the Garden’s success, with two or three performances daily in the spring. In fact, when the Rangers played in the 1928 Stanley Cup Finals, the team was forced to play all games on the road (four in Detroit, and two “home games” at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto).
The Rangers won the series in six games despite the home-ice disadvantage.
Through the decades, the Rangers’ playoff games also arrived with the aroma of the big top downstairs: elephants, hay, and musk. The team often played the role of the clowns, never securing the Stanley Cup in that building.
“We had good teams, but the things that bothered me the most were things like the rodeo, the Westminster Kennel Club, and the circus,” defenseman Harry Howell said in an interview for the series Legends of Hockey.
“The first two weeks of the season, the rodeo was booked at the Garden. The Kennel Club had dogs come in February when we were making a run at the playoffs, [meaning] two more weeks on the road. Teams like Montreal and Toronto didn’t have to do things like that because hockey was number one, but hockey wasn’t number one in New York at the time. It still isn’t, but at least they get to play all the playoff games on home ice.”
Practices were also like circuses, players recalled, in a rink designed for figure skating.
“For my first 10 years, we practiced at ‘Iceland,’ which was on the fourth floor of the old Garden on Eighth Avenue and 49th Street. It was 160 feet long and maybe 70 feet wide with aluminum boards and mirrors all around it,” Howell recalled. Andy Bathgate remembered chain-link fencing in one section. “Before my time, players would shoot the puck and break the mirrors,” Howell said. “That’s where we had to practice. You wouldn’t believe what went on.”
On February 11, 1968, Jean Ratelle beat Roger Crozier for the final goal in the last game at Madison Square Garden III, as it came to be known, in a 3-3 tie with the Detroit Red Wings.
Earlier that day, Bill Cook, the club’s first captain and a veteran of the 1926 and 1928 Cup victories, was given the honor of scoring one final ceremonial goal, skating toward the Ninth Avenue end of the rink and sliding in the puck to rousing applause as “Auld Lang Syne” was pumped out by organist Gladys Gooding.
A week later, Ratelle won the first faceoff against Forbes Kennedy of the Philadelphia Flyers in the next Garden, the circular arena that rose above Pennsylvania Station on Seventh Avenue between 31st and 33rd Streets. Phil Goyette, assisted by Bob Nevin, scored the first goal in the new rink.
This building had its quirks, as well. Madison Square Garden III was built without a box office, and one had to be fashioned in the lobby afterward. The current Garden had a box office, but no press box, and the media were spread throughout the building in sections and suites once designed for fans. And in an engineering error, the rink was actually several floors above street level.
Cablevision, the Long Island-based corporation that owns the arena, the Rangers, and the Knicks, as well as the cable network that televises the games, is planning extensive renovations: a soaring new entrance on Eighth Avenue, more luxury suites, wider concourses, a museum, and a hall of fame. The renovations are due to be completed in 2011.
“This excerpt from The GOOD, the BAD, and the UGLY New York Rangers is printed with the permission of Triumph Books, www.triumphbooks.com.”