RETRO RANGERS: When the NHL rode the Rails

Back in the days before air travel became the norm, NHL teams rode the rails to their road games within the then six-team league.

Bob Chrystal, who patrolled the Rangers Blue Line for a couple of seasons in the mid-50s was one of those players who spent countless hours on trains as the Blueshirts traveled around the league.

“They treated us well,” recalled Chrystal, now 92. “We traveled well, we lived in good hotels, and they didn’t skimp in any way on us.”

The Rangers left from New York City’s Grand Central Station for destinations north and west, with Boston being the closest and Detroit the farthest.

“For weekend home-and-home series, we used to leave on a Friday night and go to Montreal or Toronto,” recalled Chrystal. “We’d play the game and then go back on the train and arrive back in New York on Sunday morning, along with the other team, and play them again on Sunday night at the Garden.”

“We were on the same train but we weren’t in the same coaches. We were separated by the Dining Car. The only time we would see them would be Sunday morning when we got to New York. Some of the guys would say hello but others wouldn’t give you the time of day.

We used to order tickets for those games in Toronto and Montreal at the beginning of the season because we needed all the tickets we could get for our family and friends. Those games would always be sold out.

I remember Gump Worsley’s dad worked as our stick boy in Montreal because he had given his ticket up to some family member and he would come and stand behind our bench.”

The players traveled in Pullman coaches and slept in curtained berths. “It was all very first class. They always had a porter or two and had the beds made up.  We had upper and lower berths, usually the rookies got the upper berths and the veterans got the lower ones. Goalies always had the lower berths and the coach had a bedroom at the end of the car

The berths were quite comfortable, but the guys weren’t as big back then as they are now. 5-8, 5-10 was the average size back then. I was just over 6-foot, and I was considered big.  But guys like Wally Hergesheimer at 5-8, 165 pounds seemed to have enough room.”

Those curtained-berths were also good for hiding unwanted guests from the coach’s eyes. In his 1974 book, Slapshot, writer Stan Fischler related a story of an incident that occurred when he was a stowaway on the Rangers Pullman from Boston to New York. Fischler was covering the weekend home-and-home series for The Hockey News and had purchased a round trip coach ticket from the Rangers Fan Club.

But following the game, a one-sided loss to the Bruins, Stan was collared by Ranger winger Aldo Guidolin with whom he had become friendly with. Guidolin insisted that Fischler ride back to New York in the Rangers Pullman coach. The only problem was that Stan and Ranger coach Phil Watson had a mutual dislike for each other and if he was caught, there was a good chance that Watson would literally throw him off the train.

“Don’t worry about Watson,” Guidolin said. “We’ll put you in an upper berth, close the curtains and he’ll never know you’re on board.”

The plan was to hide Stan in Aldo’s lower berth until the train left the station and then find a vacant upper berth for him.

All well and good until Guidolin opened the curtain a little to let some air into the compartment just as Watson was passing through the car, allowing the coach to catch  a glimpse of Stan.

“What are you doing here,” Watson fumed.

“I’m sitting here,” Fischler nervously responded.

Apparently, Stan’s simple and truthful answer flummoxed “Fiery Phil,” who glared at him for a few seconds and stomped away. Stan was eventually tucked into an upper berth and arrived in New York the next morning without further incident.

“All the teams had at least one guy who would help the trainer get the bags out and hang the uniforms up. We always had dressing room attendants. The guy in Chicago was the best. He would hang up your coat, brush you off and shine your shoes while you were playing the game. Of course, we all tipped him and if he made $20 extra that night, that was a lot of money in those days.

The food on the train was fine, but we always had our pre-game meal in the hotel or a restaurant. The only problem I remember with food was Christmas morning in Montreal. Everything was closed and we ate our breakfast at the train station.

After the game we’d gather in the Smoking car and have a couple of beers and talk about the game. Sometimes we got back on the train and just sat there because it wasn’t due to leave until two in the morning or something like that.

Quite a few of the guys played cards, usually “Hearts.” I used to like reading cowboy stories or working on a puzzle.

Frank Boucher let us have our space. He would call a meeting and all the players would gather around and we’d talk about the next game. But he treated us like men, we weren’t juniors anymore.”

Train travel did have its drawbacks however, mostly weather-related problems that would cause delays in the team’s arrival for games.

On the night of January 18, 1945, the Rangers didn’t arrive at the Detroit Olympia until after 10pm for a game that was supposed to start two hours earlier. With 7,687 die-hard fans still in their seats, the game began at 11:13 pm. The first period ended in a 2-2 tie, with one of the Ranger goals coming on a penalty shot by Fred Thurier against Red Wing netminder, Harry Lumley. But as the second period began the Blueshirts long journey began to catch up with them and the Red Wings skated away with a 7-3

win.  The game ended at 12:56 AM and is the only Ranger regular season game on record to have started on one day and ended on another day.