Lester “The Silver Fox” Patrick
New York Rangers, 1926-1942
American Division Titles, 1926-1927, 1931-1932
Prince of Wales Trophy, 1941-1942
Playoff Appearances: 1927-1935, 1937-1942
Stanley Cup Finals Appearances: 1928-1929, 1932-1933, 1937, 1940
Stanley Cup Victories: 1928, 1933, 1940
The moniker “The Silver Fox” was an illustrious nickname long before Cliff Fletcher acquired that appellation. It once belonged to another esteemed NHL general manager who, too, became a master builder in the annals of NHL history.
Lester Patrick remains one of the most revered figures in hockey history. His contributions to the game endure forever. He was the patriarch of the one of the greatest families in hockey history.
He, more than any other individual, gave hockey a foothold in the United States and fostered the Americanization of the game like no other figure did.
Not only was he one of the greatest head coaches in NHL history, he made his mark as a manager too. During his first sixteen years as the first general manager in New York Rangers history he presided over their strongest stretch as a franchise. After his departure in 1946 the Rangers as a franchise have never come close to equaling the sustained greatness and success they experienced from 1926 to 1942—it was their greatest era as a team.
Still, despite these attainments Lester Patrick (and the Rangers) did not dominate the league; nor was he the best general manager of his time. According to my rating system, Lester Patrick was the third best GM of the 1920s (you will know the names of the top two in the weeks to come); and he was the third best GM of the 1930s (again, you will know the names of the top two in the weeks to come.
In the 1940s (especially after 1942) Lester Patrick’s value free-fell dramatically; based on my calculations he was the fourth worst general manager exceeded in futility only by Frank Boucher, Red Dutton, and Bill Tobin.
Still, Lester Patrick was the second best general manager of the NHL’s Expansion and Contraction era (1926-1942) and the NHL’s first half-century (1917-1942) as well (again you will learn the names of who was number one in the weeks to come).
By the time he became general manager and head coach of the New York, Patrick was already a living legend in the game: one of the greatest defencemen in hockey history; co-founder of the PCHA (a rival hockey league that vied with the NHA and NHL for the Stanley Cup; and head coach of the Victoria Cougars (in the WHL) that won the Stanley Cup in 1925.
But in 1926 the WHL folded and Lester Patrick was for a brief time without a job until New York Rangers owner Tex Rickard and John S. Hammond asked Patrick to manage and coach the team. Patrick did not have to recruit playing talent. For the most part the talent was already signed (thanks to another hockey legend Conn Smythe).
Conn Smythe had been Lester’s predecessor as head coach and GM but had drawn the ire of Rickard and Hammond when they expressed doubt that the players Smythe had signed were capable of winning games. Smythe disagreed—in his inimitably combative, acerbic manner.
Bought out of his contract by Rickard and Hammond, Smythe took his money (and his hockey genius) to Toronto.
(That is another great hockey what-if: how would the personal destinies of Lester Patrick and Conn Smythe along with the team destinies of the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs have been altered in Conn Smythe had not lost his job with the Rangers. The counter-factual scenarios are mind-boggling).
Patrick confounded his bosses by retaining the players that Smythe had signed. In truth, Lester Patrick was managing a powerhouse. His first Ranger roster had four future HHOF members: Frank Boucher, Bill and Bun Cook, and Ching Johnson. Boucher and the Cook brothers formed the A Line: one of the greatest scoring lines in the NHL until the mid-1930s. Ching Johnson was a crushing blue-liner. These men formed the inner core that helped the Rangers make nine straight playoff appearances; two division titles; four Stanley Cup finals appearances; and two Stanley Cup wins in 1928 and 1933.
In the process Lester Patrick did more to promote the game of hockey in the United States than any other individual. His cultured, urbane, witty, sophisticated style played well with the New York press (and, by extension, the American press—which took its lead from New York as well).
By 1936 the team was aging and Lester Patrick was rebuilding the team by adding youngsters Phil Watson and Bryan Hextall Sr. along his Lester’s son Lynn Patrick. Goalie Dave Kerr was already on the team. More young lions like Muzz Patrick and Clint Smith and Alf Pike would strengthen the team even more.
Patrick stopped coaching in 1939 (and was replaced by Frank Boucher) but he remained GM. The Rangers kept winning until 1942 when World War Two eviscerated the roster and cast the team into any abyss from which it would not emerge until the arrival of Emile Francis.
The Rangers had not followed other teams like Montreal, Toronto, and Detroit in establishing a farm system. Financial problems forced the
Rangers to resort to obtaining scraps from the other great teams’ tables.
After 1942 the Rangers became the doormats of the NHL and Lester Patrick earned 40 of his 43 minus points from 1942 to 1946. When he retired as Rangers GM he was succeeded by Frank Boucher. (One of Boucher’s first acts as GM was to establish a farm system for the Rangers but the team wouldn’t reap its fruits until the 1950s).
Patrick could not remain a spectator for very long. Still working for the Rangers in an advisory position, he cast a long shadow over Boucher’s work—a shadow that remained until his son Muzz replaced Boucher as Rangers general manager.
Lester Patrick died of cancer in 1960.
(My next column will feature former Montreal Canadiens GM Serge Savard.)