The Brooklyn Americans

The Brooklyn Americans

A new exhibit uncovers the history of hockey in Brooklyn

There was never a witty marketing campaign about the Islanders inaugural season in the brand-name-borough to amp up New Yorkers. So it seemed almost coincidence that the Brooklyn Historical Society mounted a retrospective exhibit on pro hockey in BK extending through three quarters of the NHL season this year. “With the imminent arrival of the New York Islanders in the borough, we are thrilled to be uncovering the history of hockey in Brooklyn,” said Deborah Schwartz, President of Brooklyn Historical Society. The exhibit, at the Historical Society’s Brooklyn Heights headquarters, tells the story of New York City’s first professional hockey team, The New York Americans. Through multimedia installations as well as original team equipment, objects and programs on loan from the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Society hopes that visitors not only walk away with a new understanding of hockey history, but also a better appreciation of how far Brooklyn has come.

New York City’s first hockey team was founded in 1925 by notorious prohibition bootlegger “Big Bill” Dwyer. To legitimize his income, the Hell’s Kitchen native and Belle Harbor resident purchased the Hamilton, Ontario Tigers and relocated them to New York City, dubbing them the New York Americans. Ironically, the “Amerks” would play at what was then the third iteration of Madison Square Garden for only a year until their name was changed to the Brooklyn Americans, though they continued to play at MSG, only practicing in Brooklyn and never actually migrating across the river. Based off the popularity of the Americans and the NHL forecasting Dwyer’s unscrupulous business activities (he also had a penchant for rigging games and intimidating opposing goalies and goal judges), the NHL awarded MSG builder and promotor Tex Rickard a franchise. It was nicknamed Tex’s Rangers and they too would play at the Garden. Two teams enter, one team leaves.

Like any flashy mobster worth his wing-tipped Brogues, he couldn’t help but flash his cash. Dwyer handed out lucrative contracts, including a three-year deal to Yonkers native and Hart Trophy winner Billy Burch rumored to be worth $25,000. Captain Shorty Green also received a huge raise, his salary going from $3,000 to $5,000. This was a time when most NHL players were said to make about $1,500 or $2,000 a year. 

Two weeks before the New York Americans home opener, Dwyer was arrested for attempting to bribe members of the Coast Guard during an undercover operation by the Prohibition Bureau and was sentenced for two years. In 1936, the NHL cut ties with Bill Dwyer, turning the franchise over to Red Dutton, an Amerks player-coach. Dutton looked to start afresh by transforming the New York Americans into the Brooklyn Americans, promising a new beginning across the river. But a history of dubious finances, commercial pressures and World War II all led to the team’s eventual collapse. •

The exhibition will remain on view through March 27, 2016. Gallery hours are Wednesday to Sunday, noon – 5:00pm.
128 Pierrepont Street, Brooklyn, New York 11201