As the Islanders prepare for their first season at the Barclays Center, an exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society is telling the fascinating tale of the Brooklyn Americans, the NHL team that almost called the borough home. The Americans were the bootlegger-owned, blue collar team that nearly turned the ‘Original Six’ into the ‘Original Seven.’
Every hockey fan worth their salt can name the Original Six, but the seventh team, the one that didn’t quite make the cut, is the answer to one of the most interesting trivia questions in sports. That forgotten franchise, the New York Americans, is getting new life thanks to the New York Islanders’ move to Brooklyn and an exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society. The story of the Americans is so bizarre that even Steve Cohen, the mind behind the exhibit, found it difficult to believe. Cohen was born in Brooklyn but began to play hockey in Illinois, where his father, a Brooklynite, would tell Cohen about the borough’s hockey history. “There was always reference made to what always seemed to me like it was a mythical team, the Brooklyn Americans,” Cohen explained. “If you think about it from the standpoint of somebody who understands or was brought up in the lore of hockey, all you need to think is the great name is the Montreal Canadiens. Wouldn’t the analog be the New York or Brooklyn Americans? In addition, the story was that the team had been founded by a bootlegger and had been here, in New York, a year before the Rangers, which seemed inconceivable…In all candor, I wasn’t really sure if it was true.” But it was. All of it. The Americans were founded by a bootlegger, they were the original tenant at Madison Square Garden and their massive attendance in 1925 was one driving force behind the creation of the Rangers. But even with Cohen’s knowledge of the team, it was a chance encounter with a piece of Americans history that really sealed his obsession.
Following his graduation from law school, Cohen headed to New York City to become a federal prosector. While there, he came across the biography of famed US Attorney Emory Buckner, which contained the story of one of his notable prosecutions, that of ‘Big Bill’ Dwyer. That name struck a chord with Cohen. “I knew Dwyer as the original owner of the Americans,” he said. “That was it for me. That was 1991. At that point, I was totally hooked on the story.” That wasn’t the only coincidental run-in with a piece of Americans’ history, though. In one of his offices, he had a framed photograph of Hall of Famer and one-time Brooklyn Americans goaltender Chuck Rayner, which led to yet another incredible coincidence. An FBI agent Cohen was working with during his time as a prosecutor walked in and pointed to the photo of Rayner, asking why Cohen had a photo of the Americans netminder on the wall.
“I said, ‘How do you know him?’ He says, ‘Well, my uncle knew him.’ And I said, ‘How did your uncle know him?’ He said, ‘Rayner, in the offseason, worked in a butcher shop in Queens where my uncle would buy meat.’ It’s stuff like that. Every time I turned around, it was this other fabulous, enchanting piece of the history. I just couldn’t get enough of it.” As his interest in the team grew, he acquired memorabilia — some of which is one display at the exhibit — and read deeper into the Americans’ history, becoming a fountain of knowledge about the franchise. He wanted to tell the story, but he could never find the time to make it a reality. But, as it has been with Cohen’s obsession with the franchise, serendipity took over. “One day, I’m at dinner in Brooklyn with my wife and a couple of friends and I start telling the story of the Brooklyn Americans, kind of with the hope that one day NHL hockey will come to Brooklyn,” Cohen said. “It happened to be that one of the people at dinner was involved with the Brooklyn Historical Society, and that’s how the idea was formed to do an exhibition.” The display at the Brooklyn Historical Society, which opens Wednesday, Sept. 23, tells the story of the franchise from start to finish — it touches on the purchase of the team, Dwyer’s arrest and subsequent loss of the franchise and the transfer of ownership to Red Dutton. Eventually, following Dutton suspending the franchise with hopes of bringing them back to life post-World War II, the Americans would fold, but not without one final hurrah. In their final season, the club had the intention of moving out of the Garden and changed their name to Brooklyn Americans. Though the team practiced in Brooklyn, they didn’t have a suitable building for their games and ended up playing another season at MSG, much to the dismay of the Rangers, says Cohen. “The notion was you were not going to have a team competing against the Rangers, playing in a different building. I don’t know if it was because (the Garden) wanted the rental or they didn’t want the competition, but when Dutton says, ‘I’m here to reinstate the franchise,’ the line was, ‘It’s not going to be. The Rangers oppose.’ Dutton then famously said, ‘You can take your franchise and shove it up your (backside).’ ”
With the Islanders moving in to Barclays Center, Dutton’s dream — and, in a way, Cohen’s — is finally coming true. Cohen compares the potential the Americans would have had in Brooklyn to that of the famed Brooklyn Dodgers of the MLB: they would have been a franchise that was beloved and incredibly important to the NHL’s lore. So for that reason, he has an emotional response to the Islanders’ arrival to Brooklyn. “I have no right to feel a sense of personal satisfaction, but I absolutely do,” Cohen said. “I feel a tremendous satisfaction that the Islanders will be playing in Brooklyn, not far from where the Americans practiced. And I feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction that the story is being told in Brooklyn, in a place where people really don’t know the tale.”
Photos courtesy of Scott Rudd/Brooklyn Historical Society