One of the beautiful parts of following the NHL – way back when – was the amazing artwork that accompanied team magazines, guides and programs, as well as daily newspapers.
Nationally known artists such as Norman Rockwell, Burris Jenkins Jr. and Willard Mullin were some of the more renowned craftsmen who painted and drew hockey scenes dating back to the mid-1920s.
Many of the team program drawings depicted the speed and creativity of the game without naming any particular player. But caricatures in newspapers usually zeroed in on a stickhandler or goalie in the news at that time.
A rarity was the program magazine created by a Madison Square Garden artist for New York's first NHL game on Dec. 15, 1925. The New York Americans played host to the Montreal Canadiens in what was a gala event, not unlike the first night at the opera.
The program Garden cover seen above was unique in at least two respects. For starters, it featured a boxer on the right side and a circus lion on the left while birds flew in between. The other oddity was that the visiting Montrealers' name was misspelled on the cover as Canadians instead of Canadiens. Not that it mattered, but the program magazine was dubbed a "Historical Book."
By their second season (1926-27), the Americans had a nifty nickname – 'Amerks' – and serious competition from a second Big Apple sextet, the Rangers. The Amerks program (shown below) featured their then-popular star-spangled uniforms and sold for 15 cents.
"Rangers and Americans programs were almost as colorful as the teams themselves," said the late historian and collector Tom Sarro whose program photos are shown here. "Players from both the Rangers and Americans were featured on the covers."
For the 1930-31 season, the Garden marketing folks decided to capitalize on what had become a fierce Rangers-Americans rivalry. A player from the Amerks and Blueshirts was portrayed on the program cover – notice fans in the upper right corner – while on the cover of MSG's own Hockey Magazine, a caption under the picture features a table of contents. Stories on such stars as Frank Boucher of the Rangers and Red Dutton of the Americans were among those mentioned.
New York newspaper broadsheets allowed their top artists to be loaned to the Garden for even more realistic drawings. "Naturally," said historian Tom Sarro, "the artists had to be evenhanded so players from both teams were equally represented."
An example of that was Burris Jenkins' action drawing (see below) with two players from each team battling around the Rangers goal mouth. Jenkins worked for Hearst's New York Journal-American and was commissioned to do several Garden programs.
When designing a program for the Rangers farm team, the Rovers, the Garden decided to go for realism and simply ran a photo of the arena's marquee along with the teams involved in that particular Sunday afternoon doubleheader. (This Rovers program is from my scrapbook. The marquee dates back to the Garden's premiere in 1925.)
Dubbed "The Dean of American Sports Cartooning," Willard Mullin of Scripps-Howard's New York World-Telegram newspaper was a big fan of hockey. But he didn't confine his work to New York players.
The drawing from Feb. 24, 1943, plays up Boston Bruins Hall of Fame center Bill Cowley, who was visiting The Garden for a Rangers-Bruins contest. Mullin's cartoons were known for an assortment of clever sidebars seen here in the Cowley presentation.
"I tried to get Mullin as much as I could," said Rangers publicist Herb Goren, "because he was the dean of all the sports cartoonists."
When I worked as Goren's assistant during the 1954-55 season, Mullin was an occasional visitor to our office.
Willard also was a keen boxing fan and was commissioned that season to do a Rangers program cover with a fight theme since the new Rangers coach, Murray 'Muzz' Patrick, had been a Canadian amateur heavyweight champion.
In the cartoon cover seen below, Muzz is depicted as the fight trainer with two cotton sticks in his mouth. The eager Ranger – it looks a lot like defenseman Ivan 'The Terrible' Irwin – can't wait to slug it out.
"The picture confused some folks," Goren recalled, "because they didn't understand why those sticks were coming out of Muzz's mouth. After all, not everybody was a fight fan."
Hockey-oriented artists had a field day with the two New York teams through the 1941-42 season, after which the Americans went out of business. Meanwhile, the Rangers continued employing Burris Jenkins Jr. and Willard Mullin for the program covers.
One of my favorites by Jenkins – pictured below – is an arresting Ranger skating hard; so hard, in fact, that he seems to be leaping off the page.
With the coming of the high-tech revolution and other computer possibilities, the hockey portraits went the way of the New York Americans. Now they've become collectors' favorites, just a handsome relic of the past.
I miss the works of Rockwell, Jenkins and Mullin a whole lot. Just as much as I miss those wonderful star-spangled guys we called "Dem Amerks!"