Seventy-four years before the Islanders settled in Brooklyn,RED DUTTON—war veteran, Hall of Fame player and second president of the NHL—dreamed of bringing hockey to the Borough of Churches. But after just one season, theBROOKLYN AMERICANSwere doomed to become hockey's all-but-forgotten franchise
THE STORY OF New York City's first NHL franchise, the Original Seventh team that never was, begins with ball gowns and bootleg booze, high society and great hope. It winds through war on battlefields and in boardrooms, lurching toward a demise marked by betrayal. It sends the club's caretaker into self-imposed exile, 34 years spent bitter at the league he once ran. It ends when he returns to the spotlight, finally ready to forgive but never forget.
On Oct. 9, 1980, Mervyn (Red) Dutton arrived in downtown Calgary for the Flames' inaugural home game. He wore a plain jacket, patterned tie and dark slacks; nothing fancy except for his full head of slick white hair, glistening like the rink at the Stampede Corral. He emerged between the benches and strode across the carpet to center ice. Seated in the stands, his grandson thought he looked "really stoic and at peace with things."
When the Flames had looked for someone to drop the ceremonial puck that night, there had been no better choice. In the 1920s Red Dutton, nicknamed for the fiery shade that his hair once had, launched a Hall of Fame career with the Calgary Tigers of the old Western Canada Hockey League, and he was one of three living participants left from the '24 finals. In the '40s he shepherded the NHL through World War II as its president, and he later served as a Stanley Cup trustee. During peacetime his lucrative construction company was largely responsible for advancing western Canada into the modern age. Its contracts included Calgary's 22,000-seat football stadium, Canada's first drive-in movie theater and 241 miles of the Alaska Highway. Most recently Dutton had overseen the annual Calgary Stampede rodeo, the city's most profitable enterprise.
"An apparently indestructible living testimonial to the fact that a career in professional hockey can pave the path to business success and the acquisition of wealth," wrote the Calgary Herald. "The archetypical Canadian sports hero of glorious legend."
But to the announced sellout crowd of 7,243 at the Corral, Dutton was merely one more face at the celebration, during which Calgary's mayor presented the Flames' owner with a Stetson. That the fire department had nixed the team's request for players to enter through a flaming horseshoe, and that the game would end in a 5--5 tie, hardly mattered. The town had been buzzing for the team's arrival.
Moving from Atlanta, the Flames were part of an unprecedented era of change for the NHL, which had grown from 14 to 21 teams over the previous decade. The league's four newest clubs, absorbed from the shuttered World Hockey Association, included the Edmonton Oilers and their rising superstar, Wayne Gretzky. Eight and a half months earlier a group of college kids from below the 49th parallel had toppled a Soviet juggernaut at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
No one inside the Corral understood the importance of timing quite like Dutton. In between doling out hits as a defenseman and chairing meetings of league governors, Dutton had once adopted the unenviable cause of resuscitating a moribund franchise. In 1941, two months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he moved the New York Americans across the East River to Brooklyn. It would be their last season.
From the first row behind the visitors' bench, Joe Dutton watched the festivities with pride. Then 27, Joe knew his grandpa foremost as a successful businessman. But hockey sweaters, wooden sticks and grainy pictures passed down to the young man hinted at another life, too. Once, as a teenager visiting his grandfather's ranch, Joe spotted a miniature Stanley Cup replica in the corner of the fireplace mantel, a gift from the NHL to its governors and the only piece of hockey memorabilia inside the house. When Joe asked to hear some stories, Red skirted the issue. "He implied he was a long way from his NHL days," Joe says, "and nothing more was discussed."
It was only a year later, while indulging his curiosity on another matter, that Joe learned the truth. He noticed that many executives of Original Six franchises who had worked beside Red at NHL headquarters in Montreal (Frank J. Selke and Conn Smythe of Toronto; Jack Adams and James Norris of Detroit; Art Ross of Boston) and the presidents who preceded and succeeded him (Frank Calder and Clarence Campbell) had NHL awards named after them. Joe recalls thinking, Where is my grandfather in the history books? Acting on impulse, Joe wrote a short letter asking that the league consider honoring its second president in similar fashion. He mailed one copy to NHL headquarters and another to his grandfather. Within days Joe's phone rang. The stern tone on the other end surprised him.
"Stop your efforts," Red said. "Don't go any further with it."
Then he explained why.
AS MEDICS HAULED him away on the same stretcher he was delivering to the front lines in France, Pvt. Norman Alexander (Mervyn) Dutton turned his thoughts to hockey. It was April 27, 1917, two years into his overseas service with Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. When Germans bombed his unit at Farbus Wood, on the southern end of Vimy Ridge, artillery shrapnel had pierced Dutton's left calf and right buttock.
As he was being carried away to the hospital, Dutton overheard medics discussing whether his right leg needed to be amputated. He sat up and screamed, Doc, you can't do that to me! "I felt that a young soldier who had played hockey all his life would find things rather empty in Western Canada if the game were to be denied him when he was discharged from service," Dutton later wrote in his book, Hockey: The Fastest Game on Earth. The surgeons changed their minds. Instead of taking the leg, they merely removed the shrapnel.
To those who knew him, Dutton had always been a fighter. At 16 he ran away from school in Winnipeg and joined Canada's World War I effort, so eager to enlist that he fudged his age on the forms. When he returned home in March 1919, leaving Europe with two long scars and few plans for the future, he hopped between jobs in coal mines and packing plants, too prideful to ask his father, a well-known contractor, for work. To strengthen his atrophied muscles, he relearned to skate and competed in several local leagues, staying at the rink well after midnight. Dutton was "determined to be a hockey player again if I died in the attempt," he would write.
He parlayed this drive into his first professional contract, with the Calgary Tigers for the 1921--22 season, and five years later he inked a massive $7,000-per-season deal with the NHL's Montreal Maroons. A rugged, right-shot blueliner, Dutton played with a style true to his spirit. "I never saw anyone who could flatten an enemy player or pinwheel him into the promenade seats as deftly as he could," wrote journalist Frank Graham in the foreword to Dutton's book. Stories of Dutton's toughness were legion. Once, facing the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, he cracked three ribs, wrapped tape around his abdomen and returned to the ice. Only when another hit jarred the bones loose did Dutton finally take a seat.
Dutton's world intersected with that of the New York Americans on May 14, 1930, when the Maroons traded him and three others. The official return price was $35,000. Unintentionally the Maroons tossed the Americans a life raft.
While the Americans had burst into the Big Apple five years earlier (a season before the Rangers joined the league) by hosting a black-tie home opener at the Garden that counted future First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt among its attendees, they were suffering financially. Absent at that debut was team owner (Big) Bill Dwyer, a notorious bootlegger who two weeks later would be arrested for sneaking 4,000 cases of liquor aboard a steamship and bribing dockworkers at U.S. ports. Dwyer eventually served two years in prison on those charges, then ran into even bigger trouble when the IRS sued him for $4 million in back taxes.
As Dwyer's empire dwindled with the ratification of the 21st Amendment in December 1933, Dutton assumed responsibility for the team ignored by the rumrunner. A successful construction business he started in Alberta with his brother, plus the inheritance received from his father, who died in 1935, had given Dutton a modest fortune. He poured much of it into the Americans, at one point lending $20,000 to Dwyer to cover unpaid salaries.
After the 1935--36 season, in which the Americans beat Chicago for their first playoff series win, the NHL's governors officially dissolved Dwyer's ownership stake. They split financial control among the other six teams; created a new ownership group under Calder, the NHL president; and named Dutton the team's manager. Despite the awkwardness of paying rent for home games to Madison Square Garden, the company that owned and housed the Rangers, Dutton steered the Americans to relevancy.
They pioneered airline travel for road trips. They beat the Rangers in the first round of the 1938 playoffs, a triumph for a franchise always viewed as the little brother. They even adopted Dutton's signature zeal. Inside the dressing room he would scribble motivational sayings onto the blackboard each week. Only one stayed constant. It was his personal motto, his life slogan.
"By 'punching' I mean the trick of keeping on the offensive all the time," Dutton wrote. "You've got to make the other guy hustle, and you can only do this by hustling yourself. Keep punching!" Often Dutton also took this literally. As a player he twice led the NHL in penalty minutes. As an executive he was fined $100 for storming onto the ice and thumping officials in the chest. But fans loved him for it. "One fighter who does all his battling for the team," a columnist noted.
And so, on Oct. 24, 1941, when the NHL's governors convened for a special meeting at Toronto's Royal York Hotel, Dutton climbed into the ring for a bout that would last four decades. There he pitched the idea of moving the Americans into the burgeoning sports scene of Brooklyn, whose major league baseball team had just reached the World Series and whose NFL team had finished second in its division. He envisioned denting the Rangers' standing as the city's "common law" champions and forever changing the Amerks' status as the "little girl in the nursery rhyme." The Americans would have an identity of their own.
"I intend to live in Brooklyn this season," Dutton told the governors. One day, he planned, the team would join him.
BY THE FIRST DAY of February 1942, three-quarters of the way through the debut season of the Brooklyn Americans, Dutton's optimism had greatly waned. Partly this was due to his team, which had tumbled into last place after losing 10 straight games before the New Year. But when a local journalist visited Dutton at his desk at Madison Square Garden, where the Americans were still tenants, the manager's mind had wandered far away from hockey. Dutton sat with his arms folded and his head bowed, silently reading a single sheet of paper. It was a telegram from his oldest child, Joseph. "Spending leave with Alex," the note read, referring to Red's second oldest. "Feeling fine."
For another wordless minute Dutton reread the note. Both sons had enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Both were flying missions over Germany during World War II, Joseph as a captain and Alex as a gunner. Dutton leaned back and wiped his eyes. Never one to fully bare his soul, he allowed the journalist a glimpse of his pain.
"Them hockey games," Dutton said, "do you think I really can get excited about them now?"
Besides, his team could offer little solace. While Dutton proclaimed that the Americans had "definitely transferred our allegiance to Brooklyn," in reality their much-hyped relocation was partial. The Brooklyn Ice Palace on Atlantic Avenue hosted only the team's practices. The club's offices and home games would remain at Madison Square Garden until Dutton could find money and land for a new rink. Supplies, too, were hard to acquire; after Congress declared war on Japan on Dec. 8, 1941, the commercial availability of metal waned.
Shortages plagued Dutton on the ice, too. Before training camp the Americans lost three skaters who had combined for 40 points in 1940--41. Five others, including starting goalie Chuck Rayner, were prevented from crossing the Canadian border for two months due to wartime passport restrictions. To fill the roster, Dutton traded sturdy forward Lorne Carr to Toronto for four lesser players, one of whom was rather appropriately nicknamed Peanuts. It wasn't Dutton's first lopsided deal. "When Red digs up a diamond," The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote, "he must trade it for several other players."
The plight seemed so cruel. At first the Americans had been welcomed warmly as Brooklyn's newest entertainment enterprise. Local schoolchildren came to the Ice Palace and watched practice. A 60-piece band from Brooklyn played at the home opener, and the borough president dropped the ceremonial puck. The Americans were expected to, as one journalist wrote, "stir up the Rangers-Americans' feud to a new high."
But whatever the Americans gained from stomping the Rangers 4--1 in their first meeting, on Nov. 20, 1941, swiftly evaporated. While the Rangers jockeyed for first place, setting a record for consecutive games without being shut out (78), the Americans labored to climb out of the cellar. When the team's 10-game losing streak mercifully ended, the Eagle offered this sarcastic account: "The Brooklyn Americans emerged from their hiding places today. They walked down the street unafraid, without disguises."
No one took this harder than Dutton, whose wife reported that he began muttering about the Americans in his sleep. "His volcanic eruptions so affect the warriors that they become jittery," wrote the Eagle. In December, citing his temper as a liability, Dutton stepped down as head coach and ceded control to assistant Art Chapman. The change failed to calm his nerves or the team's fate. Entering the season finale in Boston, the Americans sat one game behind the Canadiens for the sixth and final playoff spot. Needing a victory, Brooklyn instead drowned. As the Associated Press reported, "The final score was 8--3 and 9,000 were in on the kill."
Two months after the debacle in Boston, on May 15, 1942, the NHL's governors again gathered at the Royal York Hotel, where Dutton had presented his plan for Brooklyn with such hope. This time they began the slow process of dissolving the Americans. "The truth is," Calder said, "that the Americans have not made the money they were expected to make." Their debt, he reported, now totaled $185,000; "relatively little" had been paid. And since the league had usurped ownership from Dwyer, its active teams were responsible for covering the losses.
This arrangement particularly irked representatives of Boston and New York, who lodged objections against the franchise continuing for the 1942--43 season. They refused to budge so long as the Amerks remained without stable, individual ownership. Again the league turned to Dutton, offering him the option to purchase the club. Though the price hadn't been set, Dutton said he would buy the team if the terms were "attractive." He also inquired about moving the team to Buffalo. But these were futile efforts. The governors reached no resolution except for asking president Calder, on behalf of the NHL, to write Madison Square Garden officials to request that they renew the Americans' lease for the upcoming season.
In September, right before training camp, the building's owners suddenly denied this request. Dutton was furious. "We didn't quit, we were scuttled," he told reporters. The league had no choice but to act. Without a home, an owner or a future, the Americans, by a vote of the league governors, suspended operations for the 1942--43 season.
Left behind were the Rangers, Bruins, Canadiens, Black Hawks, Maple Leafs and Red Wings—the group that would make up the NHL for the next quarter century. The Americans' exit had reduced the Original Seven to Six.
THE DECISION BUMMED Dutton, but he left the Royal York still confident about his team's future. Provided he could find the resources and location for a new rink, he planned to rebrand his team as the Brooklyn Dodgers and further pit it against the Rangers, much like the baseball team of the same name and the New York Giants. "I can assure you," he once wrote to the Eagle, "that as soon as we are through with Hitler and the Japs, the Amerks will be back in business, and it won't be in Madison Square Garden, but right in Brooklyn."
At home in western Canada, released from the financial burdens of hockey, Dutton thrived. But behind the scenes the Americans' demise coincided with a period of tremendous personal tragedy for Dutton. In June 1942, Joseph went missing while conducting his 16th bombing mission in Germany. Dutton learned of this later than he should have, because an initial notification from the RCAF was mailed to him at an address that no longer existed: c/o Brooklyn American Hockey Club. Then, the following March, Alex and his crew departed on a mine-laying mission over enemy waters. Another RCAF official wrote to Red in Calgary: "Unfortunately the aircraft never returned, and we have heard nothing from it or any member of the crew since time of take-off." Neither Joseph's nor Alex's body was ever found.
Around the time that Alex's Wellington X 3390 disappeared, the NHL suffered its own tragedy: On Feb. 4, 1943, Calder died from complications of two heart attacks. Initially the NHL appointed Dutton and two others to a committee to handle Calder's duties, but that May the governors elected Dutton, who had no club to run, as the league's sole managing director. At the same meeting, a motion was passed to suspend operations of (though not dissolve) the Americans for the '43--44 season. They were still alive, but barely.
One season passed, and then two. Finally, on Sept. 4, 1946, 12 months and two days after Japan surrendered in Tokyo Bay, the Brooklyn Americans' fate was decided. At a meeting of NHL governors in Montreal, Dutton issued a report. It was bleak. He had located no suitable rink site in Brooklyn. Though he claimed architects were working on designs, he also admitted he had "done very little" to file an application to purchase the team. In the minutes Dutton appears mournful.
"I am very desirous of being a member of the National Hockey League at some future date," he said, "but until the situation is eased, I cannot see any hope or any promise of saying when I may have an arena. It may be a year, two years or four years.... I would like at some future date to come back ... and submit an application. I want it, and I want it very badly." Dutton made just one request: Could the governors promise that no other team would move into New York City before the Americans got back on their feet?
At this the governors balked. "Nobody knows in 10 years' time," Chicago's Bill Tobin said.
"We have to look ahead a little further than we have been doing," Boston's Art Ross added.
For years afterward Dutton would equate the governors' resistance to a broken promise. He believed his rivals at Madison Square Garden were backstabbing him to rid their market of a competing team—entirely plausible given their earlier refusal to free up dates. It's why Dutton returned to Calgary; why he divorced hockey for 34 years; and why he told Joe to stop.
Later that afternoon in Montreal, Dutton resigned as NHL president, handing power to Campbell, his assistant and preappointed successor. Meeting minutes show only cordial, businesslike exchanges, but Dutton remembered things differently. In Stan Fischler and Tom Sarro's 1999 book on the history of New York hockey, Metro Ice, Dutton recalled, "I looked around the room and nobody was looking at me. I got the message."
Dutton stood up, collected his papers and headed for the door. Destined to vanish from the NHL until he dropped the puck in Calgary, he hurled a haymaker on his way out. "Gentlemen," he said he told the room, "you can stick your franchise up your ass."
AS HIS GRANDFATHER spoke on the phone, Joe Dutton immediately understood the message. "It was like it had happened yesterday," Joe said recently. "He was very clear that he was given a promise, and when it didn't materialize, he said that was it, and he was going to leave the game forever."
In a way, then, Red Dutton might've preferred how his ill-fated venture into Brooklyn was remembered: as a footnote to both league history and an illustrious life. After the Flames opener he seemed to appreciate the decision in hindsight, telling the Calgary Herald, "People think that I still bear a grudge against NHL governors because they didn't give me back my New York team. The truth is that they did me a big favor. They sent me back here to work ... in a business which has brought joy and success...."
Nearly three quarters of a century later Dutton's dream of hockey in Brooklyn has materialized, albeit in a slightly different fashion. The former site of the Ice Palace is now a 24-hour parking lot, but just one mile away, on the same street, sits the home of the New York Islanders, who moved from suburban Long Island at the start of the season. On April 17, in their first playoff game at the Barclays Center, the Islanders fought back from a two-goal deficit and defeated the Panthers in overtime, sending a joyous crowd spilling onto Atlantic Avenue. The event, however, passed without recognizing the team that paved the way. The same was true when Dutton died in 1987, at 89; his Toronto Star obituary made no mention of Brooklyn.
Instead, Dutton's legacy endures in the city that embraced him when he felt hockey had not. Thirty minutes west of downtown Calgary local teams compete at Red Dutton Arena. The best defenseman in Canada West University Hockey annually receives the Mervyn (Red) Dutton Trophy. In the concourse of the old Corral one framed picture shows Dutton standing with the Stanley Cup, surrounded by fellow executives such as Ross, Smythe and King Clancy.
Across the street at Scotiabank Saddledome, where the Flames moved in 1983, fans can visit a sports bar named Dutton's Lounge. Near the entrance, under dim lighting, hangs a cartoon taken from a 1930s newspaper. Thought bubbles float at the top, containing images of bumbling New York Americans falling on the ice with stars dancing around their heads. Below them sits Red, the player-coach wearing an Americans jersey with stars across the chest. He grits his teeth, as though frustrated by the futility of his charges, and holds a hockey stick. His hands are covered by gloves. They are large and thickly padded. They look perfect for punching.
Stories of Dutton's toughness were legion. Once, facing the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, HE CRACKED THREE RIBS, WRAPPED TAPE AROUND HIS ABDOMEN AND RETURNED TO THE ICE.
"We didn't quit, we were scuttled," Dutton told reporters. THE LEAGUE HAD NO CHOICE BUT TO ACT. Without a home, an owner or a future, the Americans, by a vote of the league governors, suspended operations.
Photograph by LE STUDIO DU HOCKEY/HOCKEY HALL OF FAME
IMPERIAL OIL-TUROFSKY/HOCKEY HALL OF FAME (DUTTON WITH SONS)
RED'S MEN Dutton (second from right, with sons) played six seasons with the Americans (below, seventh from right).
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES (AMERICANS)
[See caption above]
IMPERIAL OIL-TUROFSKY/HOCKEY HALL OF FAME
LOCKER ROOM AND BOARDROOM Dutton, once president of the NHL (left, center), felt betrayed when his peers put him and his team (above) out of business.
MIKE STOBE/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES
AMERICANS DREAM This season the Islanders made Dutton's vision a reality, moving to Brooklyn's Barclays Center. There, to the delight of fans, they defeated Florida 4--3 in overtime on April 17.