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Fox follows in Buller's footsteps with Rangers

Defensemen share Jewish heritage, NHL success seven decades apart

by Stan Fischler / Special to

Legendary hockey reporter Stan Fischler writes a weekly scrapbook for Fischler, known as "The Hockey Maven," shares his humor and insight with readers each Wednesday.

This week Stan returns to his popular "Then and Now" theme, comparing stars of the past with today's outstanding players. His subjects today are New York Rangers defensemen from different eras, Hy Buller and Adam Fox.

Separated by seven decades, New York Rangers defensemen Hy Buller and Adam Fox each proved to be a rare Big Apple press agent's dream come true -- a Jewish player starring in New York.

This would have amused Rangers founder Lester "The Silver Fox" Patrick. When the Rangers were born in 1926, Patrick was urged to sign a good Jewish player.

"The thinking then," one-time Rangers historian and publicist Stan Saplin said, "was that with New York's large Jewish population, the Rangers would get a big group of fans. At the time they were competing with another NHL team, the Americans."

The Rangers didn't have any Jewish players on their original roster but Madison Square Garden press agent Johnny Bruno had a ruse to solve that issue. He talked Patrick into changing goalie Lorne Chabot's name to "Chabotsky" and pretended that the Catholic French-Canadian was Jewish.

"Bruno's gimmick worked for a while because New York fans were new to hockey," Saplin said. "But it didn't fool anyone in Canada. Soon, everyone caught on to the trick. It took Lester eight years before he actually signed a real Jewish player."

Alex Levinsky was a good get for the Rangers. The defenseman helped the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup in 1932 before becoming a New York regular in 1934.

But by far the best Jewish player during the Original Six era was one who originally had been raised in the Rangers farm system. In 1942 Hyman Buller was imported to Broadway from his Junior team in Saskatoon. At age 16, Buller played defense for the Rangers farm team, the New York Rovers.

"For a kid his age," former Rangers publicist Herb Goren said, "Buller was good but he needed a cup of coffee with [the Detroit Red Wings] and a lot of minor league experience before he got to the Rangers."

It took nine years before Buller arrived at Madison Square Garden. He was named to the NHL Second All-Star Team in 1951-52, was runner-up to Bernie Geoffrion for the Calder Memorial Trophy as the top rookie in the NHL and was awarded the West Side Trophy as the Rangers most valuable player when he scored 35 points (12 goals, 23 assists) in 68 games. 

"The thing about Buller," said Rangers general manager Frank Boucher, who acquired him from the Cleveland Barons (of the American Hockey League), "is that he was good at all ends of the ice. He reminded me of Bill Quackenbush, the Detroit star. Hy was solid in his own end, played a hard, clean defense and was as good carrying the puck as well as setting up plays for his forwards."

Boucher's description also fits Fox except for the background check. A native of Jericho, Long Island, Fox spent three years starring for Harvard University before graduating to the Rangers. By that time scouts raved about him.

One NHL bird dog wrote this report: "His on-ice vision -- both on the offensive and defensive side of the puck -- is off the charts. Watching him, you immediately appreciate how he anticipates and manages to consistently be a step ahead of the opposition on both sides of the puck. His hockey acumen is way outside the sphere of players his age."

Fox finished fourth in Calder Trophy voting in 2019-20 when he averaged 18:54 in ice time and tied for fourth among NHL rookies with 42 points (eight goals, 34 points) in 70 games.

"His all-ice vision is remarkable," said Matthew Blittner, author of "Unforgettable Rangers," "and he has terrific skating ability. Size, which is an issue with smallish defensemen, is no challenge for Fox at all."  

At 5-11, 181 pounds -- same as Buller -- Fox compensates with his speed. Earlier this season Fox authored a better-than-fair impersonation of Rangers legend Brian Leetch in a game on March 6 against the New Jersey Devils.

"Adam went coast to coast to score a goal," said Glenn "Chico" Resch, the former NHL goalie and now a Devils radio analyst. "It had a Leetch look to it."

A Buller look, as well. 

"As soon as Hy made our team, he was one of the best players in the League," said Charlie Rayner, the Rangers Hall of Fame goalie. "He was a defenseman, but I liked his offense just as much. He had an accurate shot and was super at setting up plays." 

Not surprisingly Buller, like Fox, became a fan favorite. One reviewer noted, "Buller's connection to the large Jewish population in New York was used by Rangers management to attract a new audience to the home games. Banners emblazoned with the Star of David hung from The Garden and his faith was frequently reinforced by sports writers."

Although born in Montreal, Buller moved with his family to Saskatoon when he was three. By the time he was 16 -- during the 1941-42 season -- and starring for the Junior Saskatoon Quakers, he was invited to sign with the Rovers along with two of his Saskatoon buddies, Vic Lynn and Dave Livingstone.

Fox played youth hockey with the Long Island Gulls. He then moved up to the U.S. National Team Development Program. He was selected with the No. 66 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft by the Calgary Flames but was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2018. A year later he was traded to the Rangers and won the Lars-Erik Sjoberg Award as the top rookie at Rangers training camp, a portent of superior things to come.

Vic Morren, an ESPN analytics expert and author of "Breakaway," recently predicted, "At the rate Fox is going, he'll win the Norris Trophy within six years."

Fox has been a Norris contender this season. He is tied with Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning for first among NHL defensemen with 36 points (five goals, 31 assists) in 37 games and leads the Rangers averaging 24:38 in ice time. He also has an 11-game point streak.

Buller played three seasons with the Rangers before retiring at the end of the 1953-54 season.

The Rangers expect a longer playing career for Fox, so the hope is this is where the similarities end between the two defensemen.

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