No team suffered more than the New York Rangers. Two of the first to go were 1940 Stanley Cup winners Lynn Patrick, a left wing, and Murray Patrick, his defenseman brother. They enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Still, the Rangers finished first in the seven-team league in 1941-42 season. With "Sugar" Jim Henry in goal and a star-filled lineup that finished 29-17-2, the Rangers looked like a team capable of staying on top for a while. But by the start of the 1942-43 season, most of their top players were in the military rather than on the ice.
Even tougher for general manager Lester Patrick was the fact that the Rangers opened training camp in Winnipeg without a single goaltender on the roster.
"Frankie," Lester exclaimed, "what are we going to do about a goaltender?"
Boucher was no less puzzled. "There's only one thing we can do, Lester," he replied. "Comb every blessed town in Canada."
The message went out to Rangers scouts across the Dominion: "Find a goaltender." Three days later, Patrick received a wire from scout Al Ritchie in Saskatchewan. "HAVE YOUR MAN. WILL REPORT NEXT WEEK. HIS NAME: STEVE BUZINSKI."
Neither Patrick nor Boucher knew very much about Buzinski, who suddenly had become the most important man on their team. They had heard he was a grain and cereal expert with the Dominion Experimental Station and a goaltender with an amateur team known as the Swift Current (Saskatchewan) Intermediates. That's all they knew.
Buzinski was late arriving. When he finally did make it to the Winnipeg Amphitheater, the Rangers already were on the ice at practice.
"He startled everybody," Boucher recalled. "I remember seeing a wee fellow with a black helmet. He was so small all I could see was his head and shoulders over the sideboards.
"At first I imagined he was a lad who cleaned the ice after the workout. I couldn't help laughing to myself until he climbed the dasher -- he just about made it over -- and skated to the net. 'This couldn't be,'" I said to myself. "But it was. Steve Buzinski had arrived."
Buzinski was a thin little man with extremely bowed legs. He wore a pair of tattered goalie pads that curved around his limbs like cowboys' chaps.
"When you looked at him," Boucher said, "you felt the poor fellow was shot full of holes."
But with no challengers, Buzinski won the job by default.
New York opened the season on Oct. 31, 1942, at Maple Leaf Gardens and lost 7-2. "Steve Buzinski," The Associated Press wrote, "looked flimsy on a couple of Leaf goals."
But he did betray an asset, a rare sense of humor.
Midway through the game, Toronto's Bob Davidson caromed a shot off Buzinski's forehead during a scramble. The puck inflicted a harmless cut, but as soon as the goalie detected a spot of blood, he swooned to the ice in a dead faint. The Rangers charged at the referee.
"Give Davidson a major penalty for high-sticking," demanded defenseman Ott Heller, who was standing over the prostrate Buzinski.
"Take gas," shouted Davidson, "he got hit with the puck."
"Stick," wailed Heller.
"Puck," snapped Davidson.
Suddenly, Buzinski opened his eyes, raised his head and bellowed at the referee: "I got hit with the stick." And in the same motion, closed his eyes and resumed his reclining position on the ice!
Next stop was Detroit, where the Rangers lost 12-5. Carl Liscombe of the Red Wings set a League single-game record with seven points (three goals, four assists). This feat impressed everyone with the possible exception of Buzinski, who marveled at his own goaltending skills.
With the Red Wings leading 7-1, Liscombe fired a shot from center ice. It was considerably wide of the net but Buzinski made a desperate lunge and caught it in the webbing of his mitt. Then he nonchalantly tossed it into the corner of the rink as teammate Bryan Hextall skated by.
"Hex," Buzinski said with the confidence of a 10-year man, "it's just like pickin' cherries off a tree."
The line eventually became a hockey classic.
Minutes later Buzinski gloved another high one. This time a Red Wing skated in front of him, a maneuver which pleased the goaltender no end because it gave him an opportunity to kibitz with his opponent. Buzinski bobbed and weaved like a welterweight, traded quips and, in the same motion, tossed the puck into the corner -- the corner of his own net.
But Patrick was not about to give up on his rookie, although Buzinski allowed 32 goals in New York's first four games. "It isn't fair to pass judgment on Steve after such a short time," Patrick insisted. "Remember, [Hall of Fame goalie] Charlie Gardiner was murdered in his first four games. Then Charlie started to improve and developed into one of the greatest goaltenders in history."
Buzinski was inclined to agree. When a reporter inquired about the difference between big-league hockey and the Swift Current Intermediates, Steve was surprised. "No difference at all," he replied. "Same as back home. Only difference I notice is that the rinks are classier and there are more people than I'm accustomed to see in one game."
But the facts indicated otherwise. On the weekend of Nov. 14-15, 1942, the Rangers lost twice to Boston and Buzinski appeared to be turning punchy from all the rubber hurled his way.
"Steve showed a new technique," wrote Dan Daniel in the New York World-Telegram. "He adopted the falling system. Persuaded that he who drops over the disk need not have fears of it being elsewhere, Buzinski spent more time on the ice than a mackerel in cold storage."
After his ninth game, the Rangers were in last place and even Patrick was ready to concede that Buzinski was not a NHL goalie. Coincidentally, some of the Rangers heard that Jimmy Franks, a goalie of proven ability, was available. They threatened a mutiny unless Patrick replaced Buzinski with Franks. Patrick finally agreed.
Franks took over in goal, but Patrick kept Buzinski on the payroll. "He was a refreshing prairie boy," Boucher explained, "always good for laughs. We simply listed him as a member of our public relations department."
But deep down, Patrick believed that Buzinski had talent. He was willing to wait, and so was Steve. "He just sat around and played cards and got paid," forward Alf Pike said. "No matter what we said to Lester, he wouldn't get rid of Buzinski."
One afternoon the Rangers farm team, the New York Rovers, asked Patrick to lend them a few players to round out a scrimmage. Pike agreed to go and Patrick suggested to Buzinski that he, too, could use some practice. "Go along with Alfie," Patrick said. Patrick's was a quiet command that never tolerated rebuff.
Buzinski, who was enjoying his public relations job, was surprised by the request. "He looked up at Lester," Pike recalled, "and said, 'Gee, I'd like to help you out Mr. Patrick, but I've got a lot of letters to write.'"
It was not the response the boss wanted to hear. One day later, Buzinski was on a train to Swift Current, holding a one-way ticket.
Buzinski's departure didn't end New York's goaltending problems.
One year later, the undermanned Rangers tried another goaltending prospect. His name was Ken McAuley, who had shown some puck-stopping prowess in and around Edmonton and was nicknamed "Tubby" although he never seemed to me all that rotund.
But minor hockey is one thing and big-league hockey is another. That was a fact of life McAuley discovered at Detroit's Olympia Stadium on Jan. 23, 1944, when he allowed 15 straight goals in what is still the most one-sided shutout in NHL history.
Things didn't get much better. McAuley played all 50 games for the Rangers that season and won six. His reward: a contract for the 1944-45 season.
By the time the war ended in August 1945, the Rangers had employed seven wartime goalies. In addition to Buzinski, McAuley and Franks, they used Bill Beveridge, Lionel Bouvrette, Harry Lumley and Doug Stevenson.
Henry returned after the war along with Charlie Rayner, who arrived from the disbanded New York Americans. That gave the Rangers two NHL-caliber goaltenders in a one-goalie on the roster. In 1948, Henry was traded to Chicago and Rayner went on to a Hall of Fame career in New York.
Then again, McAuley outdid Rayner. He remarkably was inducted into two Halls of Fame; the Edmonton version in 1975 and the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.
As for Buzinski, he wound up in no Halls of Fame but with perhaps the greatest nickname in hockey: "Steve Buzinski, The Puck Goes Insky!"