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NHL Centennial

Strange potion turned into good-luck charm for 1950-51 Rangers

Leone's Magic Elixir provided temporary boost for New York after slow start

by Stan Fischler / Contributor

Ever since the first hockey puck was dropped, losing teams have resorted to good luck charms to turn themselves into winners. Not surprisingly, there have been some astonishingly bizarre samples over the years.

But for a sheer headline-grabber that really worked, nothing could top a strange liquid known to the Manhattan media in 1950 as Leone's Magic Elixir.

The "chemist" who developed the strange liquid was New York restaurateur Gene Leone. In the 1940s and 1950s, Leone ran one of the most popular trattorias in the city, just around the corner from the old Madison Square Garden.

When Leone wasn't producing exotic Italian dishes, he hung out at the Garden with his dear friend, Rangers general manager Frank Boucher. Leone did more worrying about his beloved Rangers than Boucher himself did.

There was plenty for Leone to be concerned about early in the 1950-51 season. Although the Rangers had reached Game 7 of the 1950 Stanley Cup Final, the winning magic had disappeared like smoke rings when play resumed in the fall.

By early December the Rangers were well below .500, and Boucher had no idea how to get his team turned around. When he turned to his pal for advice, Leone stunned Boucher with an unlikely solution; a "winning" potion.

Gene convinced Frank that he could distill some of his delectable juices, mix them with vintage wine from his underground grotto and produce a "wonder drink" that would turn the Rangers into winners.

"Leone told me that if the players would drink it, they'd shake off their lethargy and start playing up to their potential," Boucher wrote in his autobiography "When the Rangers Were Young." "It was non-alcoholic, he promised."

It would be good publicity for Leone, and perhaps it would boost his favorite team's sagging spirits. Just before Christmas, Leone perfected his formula and poured it into a large black bottle about three times the size of a normal pint of whiskey. There was a note on it from Leone: "Drink it and Win."

"I told the boys this was a magic brew, a new liquid vitamin discovery," Boucher said. "We passed it around in paper cups from the wash room. I told the writers, as seriously as I could, that Gene had just provided the Rangers with the key to a glowing future."

Don Raleigh, Pentti Lund, Frank Eddolls and Neil Colville were among the regulars who quaffed the brew. To say the results were amazing would be an understatement. They were hallucinatory.

After drinking the elixir, the Rangers began to win and win and win. By early January, they had lost just twice in a stretch of 11 games. But observers insisted the real test would come when they visited Toronto, where they hadn't had a victory in ages.

But there was a hitch, and this time Boucher needed some major help from New York World-Telegram hockey writer Jim Burchard, who had covered the club from its inception in 1926.

Leone demanded that the magic elixir, whose formula was so secret that he wouldn't even trust it to paper, be prepared at the last possible moment. This was done on Saturday afternoon. When the brew was ready, he turned it over to Burchard, who boarded a plane for Toronto. The plan was for him to arrive just before game time and present the potion to the thirsty Blueshirts.

Burchard boarded the plane carrying a sealed bag containing the potion, surrounded by three hot-water bottles. A skull and crossbones adorned the black zippered bag. Unknown to the Rangers strategists, the suspicious Maple Leaf organization was arranging for Canadian Customs to capture the secret weapon at Toronto Airport, denying its use to the New Yorkers.

"Naturally," wrote Al Nickleson in The Globe and Mail, "the Leafs had been hoping the flagon would have been seized as an enemy power when Burchard wouldn't explain its contents."

But, according to Nickleson, a Globe and Mail photographer named Harold Robinson saved the Rangers "by undermining the customs officer with stale jokes and Christmas cigars so that Burchard had no trouble slipping by."

Robinson then pushed Burchard into his car and set several Ontario speed records driving to Maple Leaf Gardens just in time for the quaffing. Burchard had forgotten a corkscrew, so he had to push the cork down into the bottle. The Rangers, who actually detested the vile stuff, had their brief sips -- some just gargled and spat it out -- and then returned it to Burchard.

"When the cork stops disintegrating," explained Burchard as he poured what he couldn't drink down the sink, "we know that the stuff has lost its power. Why look at that! Here comes a mouse up the drain waving a white flag."

The Rangers, who enjoyed the joke more than the elixir itself, had their laughs and then went on the ice and performed like supermen. They scored three goals before the game was seven minutes old and coasted to a 4-2 win.

The victory caused a sensation.

"Cameraman lugs Flagitious Flagon," screamed a headline in The Globe and Mail. "Rangers new aid scorned by Leafs," the Toronto Telegram roared.

While players and scientists speculated on the elixir's contents, Leone said he'd bottle the stuff and sell it commercially.

"It tasted like the Atlantic Ocean," Robinson said. "I think it's hot broth," Leafs coach Joe Primeau said. The Rangers had other opinions that weren't fit to print, but the idea was appropriately conveyed by Toronto writer Bob Hesketh, who tasted the stuff. "It was creamy liquid," Hesketh said, "that smelled just like water doesn't."

Occasionally, Leone would be distracted by business and forget to distill the potion. Once, when the Rangers lost to Detroit, Burchard explained, "The Leone brew wasn't on deck. Without it, the Rangers were under a psychological handicap."

After the loss, an SOS was dispatched to Leone, who quickly prepared more of the liquid, and the Rangers topped Toronto 2-1. But eventually, the psychological value of the elixir ran its course and the Rangers faded to fifth place by the end of the 1950-51 season.

The chief protagonists, Boucher and Leone, convened one more time for an elixir post mortem. Sorrowfully, Gene turned to Frank and uttered this deathless conclusion -- and admission.

"Frank, I was sure that stuff would make them fly. I thought they had the ability and just needed something to bring it out," he said. "You know, it was only orange juice and ginger ale, with a little honey. But it almost turned the trick!"

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