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From the Archives: The Battle-Scarred Life of Chuck Rayner

Stan Fischler takes you through the wild and twisting journey of former Hart Trophy winning goaltender, Chuck Rayner.
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A goalkeeper's life was not easy for Chuck Rayner.

At times his face looked no better than a duck target in a Coney Islander shooting gallery.

"But," Charlie always was quick to point out, "it's a living, and not a bad one at that."

That, of course, depends on one's view of life. For the Sutherland, Sask. native, there would be plenty of reasons to complain. After all, the puckstopper – affectionately nicknamed 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' – is one of the precious few who had an NHL team pulled out from under him.

Having starred at Springfield in the American Hockey League, Rayner made it to The Show with Red Dutton's New York Americans for a handful of games late in the 1940-41 season. "He was one of the best goaltending prospects I'd ever seen," said Dutton. "I knew that his future was going to be bright."

But where?

Although the Amerks shared Madison Square Garden with the New York Rangers, for the 1941-42 season, Dutton changed his team's name to Brooklyn Americans, which was fine until April 1942 when the franchise went under.

Rayner: "World War Two had been on for three years by that time so I figured it was time for me to follow what my teammates were doing. So, I enlisted in the Canadian Navy for the duration. I had no idea whether there'd be a team for me when I got discharged."

When Charlie left the Canadian Navy, he discovered that there were no more Americans, but he got a break. The NHL owners decided that the former Amerks players would be spread evenly among the six remaining teams.

Canadian sportscaster Ron McAllister remembered how Rayner's fate was sealed.

"Each Amerks player's name, written on a patch of cardboard, was placed in a hat and the owners drew by turns," McAllister explained. "Lester Patrick of the Rangers came out with Rayner's name and bought Chuck for the Blueshirts."

While that would seem to be a positive break for Rayner, there was a problem, actually two problems. 

1. Patrick already had a first-rate goalie, Jim Henry. 2. As it happened, 'Sugar Jim' was Rayner's best friend and off-ice business partner.

"Jimmy and I shared the Rangers crease for two seasons," Rayner recalled, "and we remained the best of friends. But, finally, Patrick gave me the goal for myself and my buddy wound up being traded."

The good news was that Rayner emerged as one of the best NHL goalies of the late 1940s. The bad news was that the New York defense was as bad as 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' was good.

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"His weak team," McAllister asserted in his book, More Hockey Stories, "failed to lessen Rayner's stature in the world of hockey. He was usually named to All-Star lists and in 1949-50, he achieved what a lot of NHL reporters thought was impossible."

Although Chuck finished fourth in the Vezina Trophy race and his Rangers would wind up with an under .500 record, Rayner won the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player. Had there been a Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP at the time, Rayner would have won that as well.

"He almost single-handedly led us through the playoffs," said Rangers' publicist Stan Saplin. 

"We beat Montreal in the first round – Charlie topped the Canadiens' Bill Durnan – and then Chuck took us all the way to double-overtime of Game 7 before he was beaten on a screened shot."

By that time, Rayner had become the hockey hero in New York. But in those mask-less days, Chuck's face took such a beating that New York World-Telegram and Sun famed sports cartoonist Willard Mullin drew a road map of the goalie's mangled mug.

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And since I was a big fan of Rayner's, I clipped the Jan. 15, 1951 "Hamburger Puss" drawing and put it in my scrapbook. If you look carefully, you might discern some of the signposts Mullin inserted. 

These included: Hairline Furrow, Bloody Peak, Jack Crawford Crater, Needlework Lane, Broken Jaw Bend and Norm Dussault Cavern Of Missing Dentures, among others.

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"Charlie got a kick out of Mullin's work," Saplin remembered. "He was that kind of guy; just a good fellow who went out there – never complaining – doing his best no matter how serious the injury."

But the wounds – and natural attrition – took a toll and 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' retired from NHL play after the 1952-53 season.

"The best way to understand how great a goalie Charlie was," concluded Saplin, "is that he never had a season with a winning record and yet, the hockey experts voted Rayner into the Hall of Fame."

Then, a pause: "Too bad the Hall didn't include all of Chuck's stitches!"

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