One big question dogged New York hockey fans as the 1950-51 NHL season got underway: What’s wrong with the Rangers?
Having battled through to the Stanley Cup final the previous spring (they lost to Detroit), the team opened the new season with a disastrous run, losing all but one of their first 14 games.
With his team bogged in last place in the old six-team NHL Rangers’ general manager Frank Boucher was taking suggestions from anyone with an offer. Dr. David Tracy had one. A psychologist and hypnotist who’d worked with baseball’s St. Louis Browns, he was a hockey fan, too, who thought he could boost the Rangers’ confidence as they lurched through their 12-game losing streak. And so in November, ahead of a game with the Boston Bruins, he visited the New York dressing room at Madison Square Garden.
Boucher later described him:
He was a burly jowly man with sleek black hair, beautifully tailored clothes, and he had a peculiar eye. There was a white dot in it that made him look very odd indeed.
One by one he talked to the players — all except winger Nick Mickoski, who fled the room when his turn came up. Hypnosis wasn’t on the menu. “I want you to stop worrying,” Dr. Tracy told the players, simply enough. “When you worry too much, you block off the thinking process.”
“We played a great game, too,” Boucher later said. Tied in the last minute, the Rangers lost on a long Bruin shot that jumped goalie Chuck Rayner’s stick into the net. Dr. Tracy apologized: he said the 13th game of a losing streak was the wrong one to have started with. Also, he should have spent more time with the goalie who, he said, was clearly overstressed.
The Rangers’ struggles continued. As Christmas came on, Boucher tried to spark his players by vowing to quit his job if New York didn’t make the playoffs. He also heard from Gene Leone, a zealous Rangers fan who owned a Manhattan restaurant favoured by the team. He told Boucher that he had just the juice for a Ranger turnaround: a homemade (non-alcoholic) magic elixir that would transform the team’s fortunes.
Boucher decided to give it a go. He enjoyed a good gag, he later wrote. Also: “What the hell.”
Leone’s brew arrived in a big black bottle as the Rangers were preparing to play Detroit. A note attached read: Drink It and Win. The players drank. That night, they beat the Red Wings. Imbibing again later in the week, they dispensed with the Bruins. After travelling to Toronto and downing the first-place Leafs, they carried on their winning ways in Chicago.
Fans loved it, and the press was keen. What was this mysterious potion that turned Rangers (as one paper put it) into ripsnorters? Leone wasn’t sharing. It was bubbly and salty, it couldn’t be allowed to cool and had to be taken precisely one hour before puck-drop. It soon had a name: The Thing.
“You take one swig,” said star centre Edgar Laprade, “you belch, and then you feel like a war-horse.”
The Rangers’ run continued, right up until it stopped. Within the month, they’d given up on The Thing, and ended up missing the playoffs after all. Boucher kept his job. He did finally learn Leone’s recipe: orange juice and ginger ale, just a dash of honey. The GM deemed it a winning formula, at least at the box office: while they were drinking and winning, the Rangers’ home attendance rose by about 3,000 fans a game.