Alec Connell was exceptionally good at stopping pucks for the Detroit Falcons (later Red Wings) in 1931-32. Whether he could blunt lead bullets was another story.
Connell, who once had six straight shutouts in 1927-28, is less, but still notably, remembered as the only hockey player to cause Manhattan’s police riot squad to be called out. That was because the mob nearly took over Madison Square Garden one night in 1932, all because of a disputed overtime goal that had big-time playoff implications for the New York Americans.
This was when the Amerks shared MSG with Gotham’s other NHL team, the Rangers. Unlike Lester Patrick’s well-behaved Blueshirts, the Star-Spangled Skaters proved to be the Gashouse Gang of hockey. Their owner, and Mob boss, William ‘Big Bill’ Dwyer, was a convicted felon who’d been the state’s most notorious bootlegger during Prohibition. He surrounded himself with a scary gang to protect him and his liquid interests. These gangsters included such notorious figures as Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz, Legs Diamond and Frank Costello, who would people the Garden on hockey nights as Dwyer’s guests.
Better still, one of Big Bill’s gunmen, known around MSG as ‘Big Nose Harry,’ also happened to be one of the Garden’s goal judges at Amerks home games. With one finger, he lit the goal lamp and with the other hand, he packed his heater, facts that were neither in the Americans guide and record book nor Connell’s brain at the time. Otherwise, an astute Connell would have acted with more revolutionary decorum after Americans defenseman Mervyn ‘Red’ Dutton rang a shot off the goal post in overtime.
Had the rubber crossed the red line it would have put the Amerks in the playoffs. But referee George Mallinson knew the puck never went in, as did everyone else in MSG with the significant exception of the Dwyer Gang and Big Nose Harry. Doing his duty for Big Bill and the Americans, he pressed the goal button. A second later, Mallinson waved off the goal and all hell broke loose. Big Nose Harry screamed at the referee and Connell with a variety of invective until Connell skated behind his net to have a few words with Dwyer’s sluggo. That could have been Connell’s first mistake. The second could have cost him his life.
Face to face with the goal judge at the chicken wire fence, the Detroit goalie delivered a since-legendary jab. “I punched him right on the nose,” Connell said, “and the blood started to run.”
Connell admitted as much in Bill Roche’s The Hockey Book. Had Connell realized who he’d socked, he’d have started running as well, and a lot faster than the blood. “I didn’t know who he was,” Connell said, “but the Garden people did.”
You bet they did. The cops were called and when the overtime ended in a 1-1 tie, a platoon of policemen guarded the goalie’s walkway to the Falcons dressing room. The riot squad included a pair of gunslinging detectives who sat next to Connell as he changed into civvies and then escorted him to the club’s Times Square hotel. “I was told to stay in my room,” Connell said.
Trouble was that a New Yorker friend of Connell had dropped in at the team’s hotel for a late-evening schmooze and the pair, ignoring the detectives’ warnings, decided to get some fresh air on Broadway. The air was fresh, all right, but so was a large hood that caught up with Connell and pal in a Broadway drug store. “Are you the Detroit goalie, Alec Connell?” the man demanded.
Bingo! Connell made his best save of the night, pretending to be a shoe salesman from Peoria. “I told him I never heard of the guy and never even saw a hockey game in my whole life.”
Deked by the split-second comeback, Dwyer’s gunman apologized for the mistake, wheeled around and disappeared into the Times Square crowd. Connell and his buddy then broke several sightseer speed records getting back to the hotel. It was there that Connell gave Falcons manager, Jack Adams, a play-by-play of the near hit-and-run. Adams got on the blower to the police and hustled his goalie to Grand Central Terminal where the club’s Pullman car was to be Connell’s haven from the hoods.
By now, the goalie had figured the cost of punching out an Americans’ goal judge. New York’s Finest also reminded Connell what would have happened had the gangster discovered his true identity. “He would have made me get into a waiting taxi to go for one of those notorious rides to be quietly rubbed out.”
Much later, Connell was told about the most unhappy ending that befell the mobster who had followed him into the drugstore. When Connell asked how, he was told, “Bang! Bang!”
Stan Fischler is an award-winning writer and broadcaster who's covered the game since 1954. He's been a contributor to The Hockey News since 1955 and you can continue to find his Strange But True features in almost every issue. He's also produced the hockey newsletter, The Fischler Report, for the past 20 years. Fischler's latest book is Behind the Net: 101Incredible Hockey Stories.