Boucher, Frank Xavier

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BOUCHER, Frank Xavier

(b. 7 October 1901 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; d. 12 February 1977 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), hockey player who joined the New York Rangers in their inaugural season, later serving as the team's coach and general manager. Most notably, he was seven-time winner of the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship and fair but skillful play.

Boucher was the son of Thomas Boucher, a newspaper linotype operator, who although of French extraction could barely speak the language, and an Irish mother, Annie Carroll, whose father drove a hack for Canadian Prime Minister John MacDonald. Boucher's father played football with the father of King Clancy, later the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The youngest boy in a family of six boys and two girls, he played hockey in the subzero Ontario winter until nine at night.

In 1914, at age thirteen, he quit school to take a job with the Imperial Ministry of Munitions. After World War I ended, he joined what was then called the Northwest Mounted Police and was assigned first to Lethbridge (Alberta) and later to Banff, Alberta. Meanwhile, Boucher continued to play amateur hockey and was offered a professional spot with the Ottawa Senators of the National Hockey League (NHL).

Boucher briefly hesitated, because accepting a professional offer would forever bar him from amateur events, and there were probably no more than 110 professional players in all of Canada. He decided to accept, however, and played with the Ottawa team that lost the Stanley Cup finals in 1922. The Vancouver Maroons of the Pacific Coast Hockey League claimed Boucher as their own because he had last played hockey in western Canada, where they were located. He played for Vancouver for four years, beginning with the 1922–1923 season. In 1924 he married Agnes Sylvester; they had one son.

In 1926 his contract rights were given to Boston but were quickly sold to a newly organized New York team, the Rangers, which offered him $5,000 for a one-year contract. Tex Richard, the owner of the new Madison Square Garden, needed an attraction to fill the building between prize-fights, so Tex's Rangers, as they became known, were formed. It was an interesting era in New York sports; Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, among baseball's all-time greats, were the main attractions of the time, as they hit homers for the Yankees.

Boucher was placed on a line with the Cook brothers, Bill and Bun. Hall of Famer Ching Johnson led the defense with his vibrant checking. This was not only the Rangers first line but practically the only line: Boucher claimed he played forty-five minutes a game. Boucher had a formidable poke check, and his linemates claimed to have invented the drop pass. The hockey broadcaster Foster Hewitt later said that they "always seemed to have the puck on a string," and Boucher was the premier passer on the line. In 1928, while living in the Forrest Hotel with fellow residents "Legs" Diamond and Damon Runyon, Boucher led the American Division of the NHL with twenty-three goals.

In 1928 Boucher scored the winning goal in each of the Stanley Cup final wins against the Montreal Maroons. Lorne Chabot was the star goaltender, but he was injured in the second game of the Cup finals. After Ottawa refused to let the Rangers use their goaltender, Boucher suggested that the Rangers' coach and general manager, Lester Patrick, play the position. (In that era, teams would borrow players from the opposition to cover injuries that arose during the Cup series.) Patrick took several hard shots, but he helped win the game, with Boucher scoring the winning goal. In the 1928–1929, 1929–1930, and 1932–1933 seasons, Boucher lead the NHL in goals. In 1933 the Rangers again won the Cup with essentially the same lineup. This was a turning point, as the original Ranger contingent was aging and its members retired one by one. Boucher retired at the end of the 1937–1938 season.

Boucher's most remarkable feat may have been winning the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship in seven of eight years between l928 and 1935. The Governer-General's wife, Lady Byng, had decided to create the sportsmanship trophy for professional hockey. Boucher, who had actually played games on the grounds of the Canadian Governor-General's palace in has youth, won the trophy so often he was given it to keep. The NHL now awards a copy of the original.

After his retirement as a player in the 1938–1939 season, Boucher immediately got a job as minor league hockey coach, then was named coach of the NHL Rangers in 1939. With All-Stars Phil Watson, Brian Hextall, and Lynn Patrick on the first line and Dave Kerr at goal and Babe Pratt on defense, this team won the Stanley Cup in 1940. Boucher worked with this team to perfect pressing offensively while shorthanded, and the team developed the box defense method of penalty killing. In 1943 Boucher urged the institution of the center red line, in order to keep the defense from clearing or passing the puck into the offensive end and creating an unfair rush on the opponents; this change defined the modern era of hockey.

On the down side, the Rangers lost players to World War II and suffered as a team from lack of talent. (Boucher returned for fifteen games as player-coach in the war-torn 1943–1944 season.) When Patrick, one of his brothers, and others returned from the war, they had lost their luster. The team floundered. Boucher moved to the general manager position, but the team had difficulty qualifying for the playoffs, usually finishing below fourth in a six-team league. In the 1954–1955 season, the team finished fifteen points out of the playoffs despite help from Andy Bathgate, the only Ranger Hall of Famer from this era. Boucher and the team decided it was time to part ways.

Boucher was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1959. During the off season, he lived on a farm in Kemptville, Ontario. In 1965 his farmhouse burned, destroying the Lady Byng Trophy. On 11 May 1972 his wife Agnes died. Boucher's brother George had a long career with the Ottawa Senators, and another brother, Robert, played forty-eight major league hockey games

Boucher's nickname, rarely heard, was "Raffles." He shot from the left side, was five feet, nine inches tall, and weighed 185 pounds. Boucher played 557 NHL games, scoring 160 goals and 423 points in an era when seasons had forty-eight games. Over his entire professional career he served but 119 NHL penalty minutes. He scored thirty-four points in fifty-five Stanley Cup games and was the leading scorer in the 1927–1928 series.

Boucher wrote his own biography, When the Rangers Were Young (1973). The book was a reminiscence long after the fact, but it is one of the few autobiographies of hockey players in that early era. John Halligan and Wayne Gretzky, New York Rangers: Seventy-five Years (2000) contains pictures and accounts of the early Rangers. A brief treatment is Bruce Cooper, "New York Rangers," in Michael L. LeBlanc (ed.) Professional Sports Team Histories: Vol. 4 Hockey (1994). The New York Times described the famous Patrick goaltending performance on 8 Apr. 1927 in a 1928 article, and carried Boucher's obituary on 13 Feb. 1977.

John David Healy