World War II began in September 1939 and by 1942 many of the best National Hockey League players had enlisted in both the Canadian and American armed forces. For example, the 1942 Stanley Cup champion Maple Leafs lost captain Syl Apps to the Canadian Army while the 1941-42 first place Rangers captain Art Coulter now was a sailor in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Of all six NHL teams, the Rangers suffered the most decimated roster in the entire league and that included first place goalie Sugar Jim Henry. From the 1942-43 season through the war’s end in 1945 the Blueshirts struggled in vain to find an adequate replacement between the pip[es.
“The truth is,” said coach Frank Boucher, “that we failed. One of our replacements — Steve Buzinski — was so bad he got the nickname ‘Steve Buzinski — The Puck Goes Inski.’ We had a few other subs and finally thought we had a winner in Ken McAuley, who had come from out of the West.”
Unfortunately, McAuley didn’t have much help on either defense nor offense for that matter and the Rangers hovered near the NHL depths. For McAuley — nicknamed “Tubby” — the 1943-44 campaign was the worst. Not only did his team miss the playoffs for the second straight year but McAuley took on all aspects of The Human Sieve.
By contrast, the Montreal Canadiens were hellbent on one of the most dominant seasons in league annals en route to The Stanley Cup. The Habs were powered by “The Punch Line,” (pictured in the top right corner) featuring (left to right) Maurice Richard, Elmer Lach and Toe Blake. In my 1943-44 scrapbook I discovered a page from the New York Daily News sports section that featured two stories about the Habs visit to Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers had gained attention because of a rare — but deceptive — winning streak, while the Habs were running away with the league lead. With that in mind, Daily News columnist Jim McCulley ran a piece headlined RANGERS LOOKING UP.
Sportswriter McCulley noted that the Blueshirts had gone five games without a defeat. Furthermore, Jim added: “The Rangers look better than at any time in the past two seasons.”
As for McAuley, the Daily News writer pointed out that some experts had forecast great things for goalie Ken; but then McCulley soberly added, “I must admit that I never shared this opinion.” But then Jim added that he watched McAuley beat the Boston Bruins, 5-1, “Ken looked especially fine that night. I find my criticism of Ken weakening.”
He then asserted that the upcoming Canadiens visit to The Garden would give a good indication of just how much McAuley had improved. “I hope we haven’t been encouraged too soon,” McCulley concluded.
He was. The right-side headline from my scrapbook tells the tale: CANADIENS WALLOP RANGERS, 6-2. News hockey writer Hy Turkin covered the game and opened his story with the following lead:
“The Canadian game of hockey is still the Canadiens’ game. Class of the NHL for two seasons, the Montreal ice wizards invaded the Garden and cooled off the Rangers, 6-2, for the first local loss in six games.”
As it happened, this was a particularly nasty game in which Montreal’s Fern Gauthier was “banished for five minutes for punching Joe Shack….and a sneak punch or two were delivered.” But there were other hostile acts.
Turkin: “One moron in the lower stands flung a pop bottle across the ice, but the visitors were not fazed. Montreal’s goalie Bill Durnan held off the large-numbered Rangers.”
But on January 23, 1944, McAuley convinced McCulley that Jim was right, after all, and that Ken was not such a hotshot as a goaltender. On that night at Olympia Stadium in Detroit, the Red Wings defeated McAuley and the Blueshirts, 15-0. Fifteen to nothing!
And if that wasn’t astonishing enough; how about this: Long after leaving the NHL, the very same Ken McAuley was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame!
This, despite his night of goaltending infamy in Detroit!