JACK McCARTAN: the one-man American invasion of big-time hockey

Previous Yanks in the NHL failed to crack the normal Canadian monopoly because American fans didn’t care—but that was before the U.S. won an Olympic title. Now it will be different, if the rookie goaltender is as good as he looks

Dave Anderson October 22 1960

JACK McCARTAN: the one-man American invasion of big-time hockey

Previous Yanks in the NHL failed to crack the normal Canadian monopoly because American fans didn’t care—but that was before the U.S. won an Olympic title. Now it will be different, if the rookie goaltender is as good as he looks

Dave Anderson October 22 1960

JACK McCARTAN: the one-man American invasion of big-time hockey

Previous Yanks in the NHL failed to crack the normal Canadian monopoly because American fans didn’t care—but that was before the U.S. won an Olympic title. Now it will be different, if the rookie goaltender is as good as he looks

Dave Anderson

EARLY LAST WINTER Jack McCartan was an obscure amateur goaltender. not considered good enough for the United States original Olympic hockey squad. Two months later he was an Olympic hero, the player who sparked the upsets of Canada and Russia that resulted in the surprising U. S. gold medal in the winter games at Squaw Valley, California. Less than three weeks after that, he was the most celebrated personality in the National Hockey League. During a four-game tryout with the last-place New York Rangers, only seven of ninety-nine shots on net got past him. In McCartan’s first three games, the Rangers were undefeated with a win and two ties. In his final game, they lost by one goal. His sudden stardom completed the most remarkable metamorphosis in hockey history.

This season McCartan signed a contract calling for what ît confidant describes as more than $10.000 — compared to the NHL rookie minimum of $7.000. But as McCartan prepares for a more extensive and exacting examination with the Rangers, his dramatic debut is replaced by the question: Is he a marvel or a mirage?

The answer involves more than the goaltending ability of this serious, almost shy. soft-voiced 25year-old from St. Paul, Minnesota, who last March established a beachhead in the NHL for the U. S. hockey player. If McCartan's one-man invasion fails, there may never be another to equal its intensity. But if McCartan breaks the Canadian monopoly on NHL talent, the Yank players will be inspired as never before. Even in the pre-World Wqr II era. when U. S.-bred Frank Brimsek. Johnny Mariucci. Mike Karakas and Cully Dahlstrom were NHL stars. U. S. hockey interest never equaled the coast-to-coast celebration of last winter's Olympic gold medal, followed by McCartan's stimulating saga with the Rangers.

“The U. S. victory in the Olympics,”'says Clarence Campbell, the president of the NHL. "made the greatest impact on U. S. hockey since the league went into the U.S. cities in 1924. Eventually, for U. S. boys wanting to be hockey players, it might be the most important thing that has ever happened to the NHL. The best thing for us would be to have at least one American player on each of the American teams. McCartan could be the best missionary we’ve ever had.”

This, of course, does not mean that potential NHL players will be sprouting in the muddy swamps of Mississippi or the golden desert country of southern California. But it should end the withering of what hockey talent there is in the cold-weather climate stretching from Massachusetts to Minnesota, a condition caused by the lack of co-operation of artificial-rink operators. "We’ve got enough artificial rinks to produce hockey players," says Tom Lockhart. the president of the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States, “but the kids don’t get enough time to play hockey on them. Most of the rink owners seem to care only about public skating.”

Lockhart, a one-time business manager of the Rangers who grew up in


Jack McCartan continued from page 29

In regions where the name Gordie Howe brought a blank “Who’s he?”, they all talked about McCartan

New York, adds, “If our kids had as much free ice as they do in Canada we could have a big amateur program and a Memorial Cup, too. Our kids need only two things: ice time and some good tough top sergeants to keep them pointed in the right direction. We’ve needed somebody like McCartan. If he makes it big, he’ll be the leader. But even if he doesn’t make it, I don’t think it will hurt us too much. The Olympics woke up the country to hockey, and there’ll be more free ice for the kids this winter. The Olympics made the rink owners realize that hockey will pay for itself if there’s enough interest. And we’ve never had so much interest.”

Television is primarily responsible for this interest. During the Olympics, an estimated 36,079,000 people (according to the Nielsen ratings) watched the telecast of the U. S.-Russian game on the 200-station CBS network. By comparison, the NHL’s game-of-the-week telecasts on Saturday afternoons in the United States last season attracted an estimated average of only 5,000,000 viewers. The Olympic telecast thus introduced hockey to millions of U. S. citizens. For those Americans familiar with the game, it shattered an inferiority complex.

Murray (Muzz) Patrick, the general manager of the Rangers, used to smile when his two sons, Dick and Paul, vowed to develop into NHL players despite the lack of organized competition near their home in Connecticut. “Not a chance,” Patrick would tell his sons. “U. S. kids can’t be hockey players. That’s a game for Canadians.” After the clinching U. S. Olympic victory over Czechoslovakia, 14-year-old Dick Patrick declared, “Now we can be hockey players. We won the Olympics.”

It was that way all over the United States, particularly among millions who had known virtually nothing about hockey. Many of them couldn’t appreciate the finesse of the forwards and defensemen but it was easy for them to appraise the goalkeeper on television, especially when he handled his glove like a third baseman who had once rated a tryout with the Washington Senators. In regions where the mention of Maurice Richard or Gordie Howe would have brought blank-faced “Who’s he?” comments late last February, all the up-todate sports fans were talking about Jack McCartan.

Before World War II, when the Yank infiltration was at its peak, comparatively few U. S. sports fans were aware of hockey, much less U. S. hockey players. “At that time,” says Massachusetts-born Carl Voss, then a forward with the Chicago Black Hawks and now the NHL referee-in-chief, “about ten percent of the players in the league were U. S.trained, and more were coming. But the war stopped them. Maybe McCartan will start them coming again.”

Like McCartan, three of the most successful U. S. players of that era were Minnesota - born goaltenders: Frank

Brimsek, Mike Karakas and Sam LoPresti. Brimsek, twice an All-Star for the

Boston Bruins, was known as Mister Zero because of his shutout streaks. If his career had not been interrupted by U. S. Coast Guard duty, he might be remembered as the best goaltender of them all. As it is, he is always mentioned with the best. Both Karakas and LoPresti played with Chicago, which has employed more U. S. players than any other NHL team.

If McCartan clicks, general manager Muzz Patrick can thank Bob Dill, a Minnesota-bred former Ranger defenseman. Last October, just before the NHL season opened, the Rangers were in St. Paul for an exhibition game. “Dill told me how many good prospects there were in Minnesota,” Patrick says, “and how we should have a scout there to protect our interests. As soon as I hired him, he told me to put McCartan on our negotiation list. I wanted to hold off until Mc-

Cartan got out of the Army but Dill told me not to wait. I put McCartan on the list.”

The Rangers knew McCartan’s boxoffice value to a team locked in the cellar. Patrick even surrendered to MeCartan’s demand of $1,000 a game in “expenses” for his amateur trial after the shrewdly advised University of Minnesota alumnus rejected the Rangers’ original offer of $200 a game. McCartan won his gamble, raking in a pot of some $5,000 for two weeks’ work: $4,000 for his four games plus about $1,000 in television fees.

As it turned out, the Rangers made a wise investment. But at the time, it was a quick-money deal. Even if McCartan had been riddled by the Detroit Red Wings in his debut, the Rangers sold enough extra tickets for that game to recover their $1,000. During McCartan’s four games, all in New York, the Rangers announced an attendance of 48,340, about 10,000 more than had been anticipated with the team mathematically eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. At the accepted NHL average of $2.25 a ticket, the Rangers grossed an extra $22,500 because of McCartan.

Meanwhile, the NHL collected an unprecedented pile of U. S. press clippings. By the time the six-foot, 195-pound McCartan returned to the U. S. Army at Fort Carson, Colorado (he was playing during the last of his Olympic leave), it seemed that just about everybody knew who he was. But nobody knew how good he was. He had looked bad, as they say in the goaltenders’ union, on only one goal of the seven. All McCartan knew

was that he’d played well in four games. No one knew how well he would play in, say, forty-four games.

"We’ll find out this season," says Alf Pike, the Ranger coach, "but I don’t think McCartan was a fluke. What I’d like to do is keep both him and Gump Worsley all season.” George (Red) Sullivan, the Ranger captain, also seems sold on McCartan. "As far as I’m concerned,” Sullivan says, "he’s a big-league goaltender.”

Other Ranger veterans prefer to postpone their decision. “I’ve seen a lot of guys stand this league on its ear for ten games,” says Bill Gadsby, a three-time All-Star defenseman. “Maybe it won't be that way with McCartan, but it’s too early to tell.” Andy Bathgate, a Hart Trophy winner, points out, “Last season, the other clubs were just shooting at him, trying to find a weak spot. They had only one look at him. We were starting to find him out in practice. We'll know how good he is when the other clubs get to know him.”

McCartan agrees. Nevertheless he says, “Nothing happened to make me think I was in over my head. I never lost confidence. But don’t forget maybe the most important thing: I got great protection.”

In winning only 14 of their first 62 games last season, the lifeless Rangers seemed dedicated to sabotaging the skills of such established professional goaltenders as Lome (Gump) Worsley, Marcel Paille and AÍ Rollins. McCartan’s arrival prompted the cynics to snicker: “It’s only a publicity stunt to sell tickets.” Certainly it was a stunt to melt the Olympic gold medal into box-oflice silver but there were two unexpected developments: McCartan fooled the cynics with his poised performances, and his presence inspired the Rangers to play better hockey than they had all season.

"One of the big reasons for that,” explains a New York confidant of the

Ranger players, “is that McCartan was a good guy. He didn’t come in with a wise-guy attitude. No matter what they say, the Canadian players think hockey is their game and they resent a U. S. player horning in. But 1 don’t think they resented McCartan because he seemed to fit in.”

McCartan also was careful to avoid any mention of the negotiations that resulted in his $1,000 a game for "expenses,” easily the highest per-game payment in NHL history. By comparison, Maurice (Rocket) Richard has earned an estimated $25,000 a year with the Montreal Canadiens in recent years. Over a 70-game schedule, Richard earned roughly $350 a game, not even half McCartan’s “expense account" as an untested amateur.

When McCartan returned to visit his pretty brunette wife, Barbara, and their now nine-month-old son, John, in St. Paul after the Olympics, he was met by Ranger scout Bob Dill. McCartan was anxious to join the Rangers at almost any price but Johnny Mariucci, the onetime Black Hawk defenseman who coached him at the University of Minnesota, convinced him that he shouldn't sign a pro contract immediately. "If you’re good,” Mariucci advised him, "you can get a lot more than the $7,000 NHL minimum next season. For now, ask for $1,000 a game and stay amateur. When Muzz Patrick calls, tell him you want $1,000 a game. Don't back down. You'll get it.”

After two days of negotiations, McCartan did get the $ 1,000-a-game promise. That night, he flew to New York. The next morning, it was snowing when a taxicab skidded to a stop outside Madison Square Garden. The meter read fiftyfive cents. He gave the driver a dollar bill. “Keep it,” he said, waving away the change as he stuffed his goaltender’s pads under his left arm and grabbed a red-

white-and-biue equipment bag marked USA.

Upstairs, he spent twenty minutes with Muzz Patrick and Alf Pike. Then he went to the dressing room to meet the other players and get into his pads. After that, the merry-go-round started. The newspaper photographers posed him with Pike in the small skating rink on top of the Garden that the Rangers use for practice. Then he was on his own as the players sw'ooped in, one by one, and shots thudded into his pads.

"He looks okay to me,” Muzz Patrick

said. “He’s got a good glove.” Later that afternoon, he expanded: “This kid has had the biggest publicity buildup of any player in my time, except maybe for Jean Beliveau. But I don’t think Beliveau had it so tough when he broke in with Montreal. Every time Beliveau made a mistake, the red light didn't go on. If McCartan makes a mistake, it’s a goal.” The next Ranger game was a Saturday TV matinee in Chicago. McCartan went along but he didn't play for an obvious reason: visiting NHL teams don’t share in the gate receipts; it would have

been foolish for the Rangers to have McCartan sell tickets for the Black Hawks.

The next night, however, a near-sellout crowd of 14,028 poured into Madison Square Garden as McCartan strapped on his pads. Near him stood his new roommate, AÍ Rollins, the sometime Toronto and Chicago star who had been brought in from Winnipeg of the Western Hockey League as a stopgap goalie for the injured Gump Worsley. “If I tell you too much about this Detroit club,” Rollins told McCartan, “I’ll only get you

mixed up. Just think about a couple of guys. Howe shoots from anywhere. Watch him every second. Delvecchio has a quick rising shot. That’s it, kid. Good luck.”

Early in the first period, Gordie Howe swooped in on McCartan. This was what the crowd was waiting for: Man and Superman. But Howe was slightly off balance, and McCartan smothered his shot. He stopped eight more shots by Howe. Only Alex Delvecchio beat him. The Rangers won, 3-1.

Throughout the game, McCartan appeared to be cool, except for a repeated sign of tension. About ten times, when the play was at the other end, he swept his stick on the ice, took off his left glove, picked up some shaved ice and chewed on it.

“It was hot out there,” he explained later. “My mouth went dry. I wasn’t nervous, I was anxious. But I didn’t have to make any hard stops. Anybody could have stood in there. Somebody told me I made 33 saves, but how many did Gadsby and the rest of them make?”

In the Red Wings’ dressing room, their three - time All-Star goaltender, Terry Sawchuk, didn’t seem impressed. “If the Rangers ever checked like that for Worsley, he’d be the All-Star,” he snapped. “McCartan didn’t have a hard save the whole game. Wait till he goes on the road. He'll find it ain’t always this easy.”

McCartan didn’t, of course, go on the road — except as a spectator. After his second game, a 1-1 tie with Chicago, his place was taken by AÍ Rollins. When the Rangers returned to New York for a game against Toronto, McCartan battled the Maple Leafs to a 2-2 tie. By then, his leave was almost over. In his finale, a 3-2 loss to Boston, he let in the only “easy” goal of the seven, a fluttering 20-footer by Dick Meissner. It didn’t tarnish his reputation, though.

“As far as I’m concerned,” said Lynn Patrick, the shrewd general manager of the Bruins, “McCartan is the best goaltender in the league. Four games, seven goals. If I had a choice between him and Worsley, I’d take him. He makes good moves with that glove. You can tell he’s a ballplayer.”

Baseball was McCartan’s game when he was growing up as the son of a fruit salesman in St. Paul. “I’ve played baseball since I was seven,” he says. “My dad was a semi-pro third baseman, and he taught me a lot.” As a sophomore third baseman, McCartan batted .438 to lead the University of Minnesota to the 1956 National Collegiate Athletic Association championship. After his graduation in 1958, the Washington Senators invited him to Griffith Stadium for inspection. “McCartan impressed us,” recalls Harry (Cookie) Lavagetto, the manager of the Senators, “but he was on his way into the Army and we didn’t want to sign him then.”

The Army, oddly enough, kept McCartan in hockey. Early in November 1958 he was ordered to report to the University of Minnesota for the tryouts for the U. S. team going to the 1959 world amateur championships in Czechoslovakia. “If I hadn’t been in the Army,” McCartan says, “I might have given up hockey that winter. When you have a job, you can’t just take off a few months to play hockey for free. In the Army, you do what you’re told. And they told me to play hockey.”

McCartan learned to skate at nine, but didn’t play hockey until he was twelve, when “one day at a Pee Wee game they needed a goalie and somebody gave me the stick." Later, at Marshall High School in St. Paul, nobody noticed him because the team, as he

remembers, “won only about six games in four years.” When he entered the University of Minnesota, he was merely another student in an enrollment that fluctuates around the 25,000 mark. “He came in unasked and unknown, with no athletic aid,” recalls Johnny Mariucci, “but when he tried out for the freshman team, I knew he was a goaltender. Now everybody tells me I discovered him. That’s ridiculous. If you look at a guy like McCartan for a week and don’t know he’s a goaltender, you don’t belong in this business.”

Although Minnesota won no national collegiate titles, McCartan was a twotime hockey All-American. That resulted in his tryout for the U. S. team and he was one of two goaltenders sent to Prague for the 1959 world championships. Marsh Ryman, the freshman coach at Minnesota, handled the squad but the most interested spectator was Jack Riley, the hockey coach at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. Some time earlier, Riley had been appointed the I960 Olympic coach.

“I never figured on McCartan for the Olympic team,” Riley explains now, “because in the three most important games of the world championships, Ryman used the other goalie, Don Cooper. Naturally, I assumed that McCartan couldn't be too good. Just last winter, I found out why Ryman used Cooper. He admitted that McCartan was the better goalie but he thought the team played better in front of Cooper because he needed more protection.”

During the original Olympic tryouts early last December, Riley was not yet aware of Ryman's strategy. McCartan was cut. At the time, the two U. S. goaltenders were ex-collegians Larry Palmer and Harry Batchelor. Just before Christmas, Riley realized the U. S. hadn’t a chance in the Olympics without better goaltending. He invited McCartan to rejoin the squad. "But I still didn’t think we could come close to winning the Olympics,” Riley says now.

Eventually, McCartan established his superiority over Palmer, a second lieutenant who had played for Riley at West Point. At Squaw Valley, with McCartan as goaltender, the U. S. outscored Czechoslovakia and routed Australia to qualify for the championship round. Then the Yanks stopped Sweden and Germany. Against Canada, McCartan played his best game, making 39 saves in a thrilling 2-1 upset. Against Russia, he captivated the TV millions with 31 saves in a 3-2 victory. In the final game, again with Czechoslovakia, the U. S. team trailed 4-3 after two periods but rallied to clinch the gold medal, 9-4.

“For the six championship games,” Riley says, checking his Olympic statistics, “McCartan allowed only 11 goals. He made 134 saves. When 1 heard that the Rangers were interested in him, I knew he’d do okay in the NHL.” Mc-

Cartan proved that in his four games last season with the Rangers. If ever a player had an excuse to act jittery, it was McCartan but. except for those occasional mouthfuls of shaved ice in his first game, there was no outward sign of nerves. “The only thing that affected me,” he says, "was all the appointments.”

As a celebrity, McCartan was a natural to appear on television shows, and newsmagazine writers got in line to interview him. One of them, in his eagerness to embellish the facts, insulted McCartan’s intelligence. Of his NHL debut against

Detroit, it was reported that “... the New York Rangers’ rookie goalie flung out his left leg, and the puck thunked into it. At the next whistle, a Ranger defenseman skated over to the goalie. ’Nice stop on Gordie Howe,’ he said. ’Who the hell is Gordie Howe?’ asked goalie Jack McCartan politely.”

When McCartan read this, he was ashamed. Most hockey players, immune to an occasional misquote, would ignore the incident with a shrug but McCartan felt obliged to explain. He wrote to Howe and, before leaving the Rangers,

gave his letter to trainer Frank Paice to deliver to Howe in Detroit. “I just want you to know,” it said in part, “that I never said I didn’t know who you were.” The letter came as a surprise to Howe, who was unaware of the article, but he was impressed by McCartan’s sincerity. Without realizing it, McCartan had obeyed one of the first laws of the goaltenders’ union: don’t get Gordie Howe mad at you.

Apparently, McCartan is a natural. How many more Yanks like him are on the way? ★