Back in the early 1970s, after watching Gene Carr blow yet another scoring opportunity, Ranger broadcaster Bill “The Big Whistle” Chadwick, loudly proclaimed to play-by-play man Jim Gordon, that the long-haired forward “couldn’t put the puck in the ocean if he was standing at the end of the dock!”
The line was funny, and probably true, but it was not original. It’s one of those time-honored expression like “Katie bar the door,” and “If you can’t beat ‘em in the alley you can’t beat ‘em on the ice,” that are unique to old-time hockey.
During the 1946-47 season a Detroit sportswriter used the phrase to describe the scoring drought of Red Wing forward Fern Gauthier. Fern was not considered a great scorer, but he certainly knew where the net was, having scored 73 goals in three seasons with the Shawinigan Cataracts, as a prospect in the Montreal Canadiens organization.
The 5-11, 175-pound right winger made his NHL debut with the Rangers in 1943 when he was part of a war-time deal that allowed Phil Watson to be loaned to the Canadiens for the 1943-44 season.
You see, Watson had an off-season job with Fairchild Aircraft in Montreal and due to war time border crossing restrictions was not going to be allowed back into the United States to play for the Rangers. So, Montreal GM Tommy Gorman and Ranger boss Lester Patrick concocted a deal in which Watson was loaned to the Canadiens in exchange for the loan of Dutch Hiller, John Mahaffy, Charlie Sands and Tony Demers, as well as Gauthier to the Rangers. Watson wound up winning the Stanley Cup with the Habs that season while the five erstwhile Canadiens “took one for the team” and finished in last place with the Blueshirts.
Gauthier scored in his NHL debut and added 13 more goals as well as 11 assists in his 33 games with the Rangers that season. The following year, as border crossing restrictions were loosened, all parties were returned to their original teams and Fern notched 18 goals with 13 assists in his first season with the Canadiens.
Fern was traded to Detroit in October 1945 to complete an earlier deal in which the Habs obtained Billy Reay. But after proving himself to be a decent scorer in both New York and Montreal, Gauthier found it much harder to light the lamp in Detroit. But by the time Fern arrived in the Motor City, the war was ending and the NHL’s level of play was inching back to its pre-war levels.
Gauthier’s scoring trouble prompted sportswriter Lew Wilson of the Detroit Times to dig up the old line that Fern “couldn’t put the puck in the ocean,” which gave him an idea for a publicity stunt.
As described by Stan Fischler in a 2018 story for NHL.com, the idea was that the next time the Red Wings played the Rangers in New York, they would take Gauthier down to Manhattan’s waterfront where he would attempt to shoot pucks into the ocean.
While many players might have refused to take part in what may have been an embarrassing stunt, Fern went along with the gag. “Fern took it good-naturedly,” said Ranger publicist Stan Saplin, who helped arrange the caper, “because he was a swell guy with a great disposition.”
So on the Red Wings’ next trip to New York, Gauthier, accompanied by teammates Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Marty Pavelich as well as Walter, Saplin, and a photographer took a taxi down to the Battery at the tip of Manhattan Island alongside New York Bay.
What happened next depends on who you ask.
One version has it that it took three attempts for Gauthier to actually put the puck in the ocean. His first shot landed on a passing barge. The second was picked out of the air by a hungry seagull, thinking it was a snack. Finally on his third attempt, Gauthier hit water.
The second version was that Gauthier did, in fact, put the puck in the ocean on his first try. Saplin, the publicist favored the first account while Walter the reporter went with the second.
Gautier retired from professional hockey in 1951. During his six seasons in the NHL, he shot 46 pucks into the standard 6’x4’ Art Ross model goal and at least one into the ocean.