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From the Archives: The Magic Elixir That Amazed the Rangers

Since there was nothing in the National Hockey League's 1950-51 rulebook that forbade the Rangers from drinking a "magic elixir" to gain a playoff berth, the Blueshirts did sip -- and sip and sip.
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Since there was nothing in the National Hockey League's 1950-51 rulebook that forbade the Rangers from drinking a "magic elixir" to gain a playoff berth, the Blueshirts did sip -- and sip and sip.

These were the same New Yorkers who skated to double-overtime of the seventh game of the 1950 Final before bowling to the eventual champion Red Wings.

"Since we got that far," said Rangers manager Frank Boucher, "we figured that the next season (50-51) would be even better. But it turned out to be wishful thinking on our part.

"The boys got off to a bad start and we disappointed a lot of people; but especially our fans."

One of the Rangers most ardent supporters also happened to be one of the Big Apple's most popular characters. His name was Gene Leone, restaurateur of "Leone's" restaurant, a slapshot from Madison Square Garden.

Gene happened to be one of Boucher's best friends and host to the weekly New York Hockey Writers' luncheons at his eatery. Leone wa so distressed over the Rangers slump, he searched for a cure.

Boucher wrote about it in his autobiography, When The Rangers Were Young. "Gene told me that he had concocted a magic brew. He said that if the players would drink it, they'd shake off their lethargy and start playing to their potential."

On December 31, 1950, hours before a match with the Bruins at Madison Square Garden, Leone showed up at the home team's dressing room.

"Gene had a large black bottle with a note attached," wrote Boucher.

"It said, 'DRINK IT AND WIN.'"

Sure enough, the Blueshirts guzzled and then beat Boston, 3-0. After a close 3-2 loss the next night,the oversized wine bottle -- swathed in black tape -- worked its magic again.

The defending champion Red Wings were defeated 5-3 putting the Gotham hockey writers on to a hot story; the cold elixir. By far, the most enthused was James Burchard of the New York World-Telegram. The reporter was notorious for his thirst for the grape.,

"Thirsty Jim," as Burchard was known to the players, gave Leone's black bottle a nickname, "Flagitious Flagon," and soon the tale of the magic elixir crossed the Canadian-American border into Toronto.

The Rangers had a game scheduled at Maple Leaf Gardens on January 6, 1951 and by January 5th, Leone's black bottle became a bigger story in Canada than the contest itself.

Boucher: "One fellow wasn't so enthused about it and that was Conn Smythe who ran the Leafs and didn't like the idea of some New York potion helping to beat his team. He was going to stop it somehow."

Meanwhile -- with a lot of help from his Rangers pals -- Burchard was put in charge of delivering the magic elixir to the Gardens' visiting dressing room. Leone supervised the brewing and packing at the last possible moment.

"I had to catch a plane that got me to Toronto just before game time," Thirsty Jim recalled. "They gave me a sealed bag surrounded by three hot-water bottles and off I went."

The Canadian caper worked perfectly as Burchard's, four-engined DC-4 landed at Toronto's Malton Airport and Jim hustled off to a waiting car surrounded by enthused newsmen. One of them was Globe and Mail hockey writer Al Nickleson and the other his photographer, Harold Robinson, renowned for his pranks.

The lone unenthused gentleman at the airport was a Canadian uniformed Customs officer who -- on Conn Smythe's order -- tried to seize the black bottle from Burchard's determined grip.

(In Brooklyn, I had been following the story via the daily arrival of my Globe and Mail.)

Neither Nickelson nor Robinson were going to let some Customs guy ruin this wonderful gambit. With a bit of gab here and a few gags there, Robinson nabbed the big, black bottle.

Hence, the Globe and Mail story and accompanying headline:

CAMERAMAN LUGS FLAGITIOUS FLAGON.

According to Nickleson's tongue-in-cheek story, Robinson saved the Rangers "by undermining the customs officer with stale jokes and Christmas cigars so that Burchard had no trouble slipping by."

The Globe photographer pushed Thirsty Jim in his sedan and sped -- avoiding at least three possible speeding tickets -- to Maple Leaf Gardens.

Robinson made it just in time for the Blueshirts to quaff their brew while the cameraman snapped photos. The picture here features Thirsty Jim with bottle, bag and Ranger Tony Leswick (lower right) slipping over for a swig.

As to the magic elixir's flavor, opinions varied. Robinson said, "It tastes like the Atlantic Ocean. But the Blueshirts center Edgar Laprade countered that "One gulp and we feel like a bunch of war horses."

To underline Laprade's point, the Rangers then took the ice, scored three quick goals and beat the Leafs, 4-2. It was the Blueshirts first win in Toronto in more than three years!

The Globe and Mail's rival newspaper headlined its game story, RANGERS NEW AID SCORNED BY LEAFS.

Flying to the Windy City with the Rangers, the Black Bottle did the job again, providing another New York win. But eventually either the brew or the Rangers -- likely both -- lost their power.

By season's end, the Rangers finished out of a playoff berth and poor Gene Leone once again had to give full attention to his restaurant.

He carefully placed the big, black bottle on a shelf and got down to his real business; great food, not mysterious liquids.

All this time the restaurateur resisted telling anyone the contents of his magic elixir. But at season's end, he did confide to his purloining partner, Thirsty Jim: "It was only orange juice and ginger ale, with a little honey."

Then, a pause and a wistful, reflective if. "But it almost turned the trick!"

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