The night Red Wing goalie Alex Connell tangled with gangsters

Hall of Fame goalie Alex Connell won a pair of Stanley Cup titles in the net in the 1930s, and played one season for the Detroit Falcons.

Alex Connell’s name doesn’t ring a bell with most Detroit Red Wings fans today, but in his time the future Hall of Famer was a cool and composed stalwart between the pipes. During the 1920s and ’30s he won Stanley Cups with the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons and at one point set a still-standing NHL record with six straight shutouts.

In 1931, during the depths of the Great Depression, Connell was loaned to Detroit as cash-strapped Ottawa took a one-year hiatus from league play. The 30-year-old goalie was utterly unflappable, as he proved one night late in the season at Madison Square Garden. That evening the Falcons (as the Detroit club was then called) were playing the New York Americans in an important contest that would decide whether or not the Americans would make the playoffs.

The game was in overtime, knotted at a goal apiece, when the Americans’ Red Dutton blasted a shot that appeared to blow by Connell and ricochet out of the net. While the goal judge set off the red light and New York players started celebrating an apparent 2-1 victory, the referee disallowed the goal. It never went in, he stated emphatically. During the commotion the goal judge, who was seated in the stands, directed a few choice words at Connell, who reacted by skating behind the net and punching his antagonist squarely in the nose.

Arena officials let out a collective “Uh-oh.” The Americans were owned by a notorious bootlegger named “Big Bill” Dwyer, and the fellow Connell had bloodied was known to be one of Dwyer’s triggermen. “Evidently his fingers on the red light switch were as fast as his fingers on the trigger,” Connell later confided.

The game ended in a draw. As Connell trundled toward the locker room, he noticed an unusual number of policemen pushing back the crowd. It wasn’t until two detectives came up to him in the dressing room that he realized his life could be in danger.

Connell was given a police escort back to his hotel and told to stay in his room until Detroit left town the next day. However, an old friend of Connell’s happened to be in town, and the two decided to make a quick run for dinner. A couple of men followed them as they walked out the hotel lobby door and into a nearby diner.

“Aren’t you Alex Connell, goalkeeper for the Detroit Falcons?” one of the heavies asked.

If Connell was nervous, he didn’t show it. The quick-thinking netminder assured the pugs that not only was he not the man in question, he had never even heard of the Detroit Falcons. The men were suspicious, but they finally decided to let him go. That night, policemen stood guard outside Connell’s hotel room to ensure his safety.

A few years later, a New York reporter told Connell that both of the gangsters he had encountered that night had met untimely ends. When Connell asked how, the reporter replied: “Bang! Bang!”

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.