Retro Rangers: When “The Rocket” almost became a Ranger

by | Oct 2, 2023

Retro Rangers: When “The Rocket” almost became a Ranger

by | Oct 2, 2023

The legendary Maurice Richard was one of the greatest players in NHL history, but the man who would later be called “The Rocket”  got off to a sputtering start during his rookie season in Montreal and was almost traded to the Rangers.

Richard had made his debut with the Canadiens as a 21-year-old in 1942–43, scoring five goals with six assists. But his season ended after only 16 games when he broke his ankle.  He had previously fractured the other ankle and a wrist while playing with the Canadiens’ senior league team in the QSHL and was thought to be too brittle to survive in the NHL.

So Habs GM Tommy Gorman offered Richard to Lester Patrick of the Rangers, hoping to get feisty forward, Phil Watson in return. Gorman had always coveted Watson whom Patrick had stolen from the Canadiens in 1935. As a Montreal native,  the then 20-year old Watson seemed destined for a role with the Canadiens, who owned his rights due to the territorial rules that allowed the Habs to claim the rights to any French-Canadian youngster born or playing in the province of Quebec.

But Patrick had scouted Watson and liked what he saw. So, “The Silver Fox” found a loophole in the rule and argued that since Watson’s father was Scottish, he was not purely French-Canadian and therefor could not be claimed by the Habs. The NHL agreed and “Fiery Phil” became a Ranger.

Patrick did not make the deal and ironically, Richard stayed healthy and had a breakout season in 1943-44,  scoring 32 goals with 22 assists and was named to the league’s second All-Star team.

“The Rocket” went on to lead his beloved  Canadiens to eight Stanley Cup victories, won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP in 1947 and was the leagues leading goal scorer five times. He went on to play 18 seasons with Montreal, scoring 544 goals with 422 assists with 1,267 PIM, gained God-like stature among French-speaking Canadians, and  was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961. .

While at first glance it may seem like Patrick blew the opportunity to obtain one of the greatest players in league history, it should be noted that Richard had an impressive supporting cast in Montreal and was very comfortable in his native Quebec. It’s doubtful that he would have blossomed if dropped into the Rangers’ rag-tag lineup in New York, although he still would have been better than the majority of players on those wartime teams.

Watson did eventually play one season and win a Stanley Cup with Montreal.

Due to war-time border crossing restrictions, Watson, who worked for Fairchild Aircraft in Montreal during the offseason, was not allowed to enter the United States to play for the Rangers. So, Gorman and Patrick arranged a deal in which Watson would be “loaned” to the Canadiens in exchange for forwards Charlie Sands, Fern Gauthier, Dutch Hiller, John Mahaffy, and future considerations (loan of Tony Demers)  in November 1943.

Watson notched 17 goals with 32 assists for the league-leading Canadiens that season and won his second Stanley Cup, while the sad sack Rangers finished in sixth place.

As border crossing restrictions eased, the loan arrangement with Montreal was reversed and Watson returned to the Blueshirts in 1944–45, while  Sands, Gauthier, Hiller, and Mahaffy were  returned to the Canadiens, after seemingly taking one for the team the previous year.

Of the five players loaned to the Rangers, only three had any impact in New York. Dutch Hiller, who had previously played for the Rangers from 1937 to 1941 had his most productive NHL season with 18 goals and 22 assists for 40 points.  John Mahaffy, who saw more playing time in New York than in Montreal went 9-20-29 and 24-year old rookie Fern Gauthier scored 14 goals with 11 assists for 25 points.

While their efforts were appreciated by coach Frank Boucher, they did little to help the Blueshirts who managed only six wins, gave up 310 goals and finished dead last with 17 points, 26 points behind the fifth place Boston Bruins.

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