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John Wayne played a Mainer in forgotten hockey movie

Posted June 06, 2014, at 2:33 p.m.
Last modified June 06, 2014, at 8:57 p.m.

As two star-studded stadiums host the first-ever coastal clash between the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings for the Stanley Cup, it’s a rare opportunity to revisit a time when one of the biggest stars Hollywood ever produced strapped on the skates and claimed a title for New York. The year was 1937, the film was “Idol of the Crowds,” the team was the Panthers (a surrogate for the Rangers, then only a decade into their existence) and the star was John Wayne. In the new biography “John Wayne: The Life and Legend,” by Scott Eyman, this bewildering golden-era hockey picture provides a brief respite from the rundown of Wayne’s lowly B-westerns of the period. (“Idol” was released two years before Wayne broke out as a marquee idol in John Ford’s “Stagecoach.”)

Though Wayne spoke rarely of the pictures he starred in during this era, Eyman managed to compile a couple cringe-worthy quotes about his impressions of stepping out onto the ice. “I’m from Southern California. I’ve never been on [expletive] skates in my life,” Wayne says. “I was in the hospital for two [expletive] days after that.”

Justifiably forgotten over the years, “Idol of the Crowds” (a brisk 60 minutes available on YouTube) tells the story of Johnny Hanson, a retired amateur hockey player plucked from his chicken farm by scouts scouring Maine for players to slot into the Panthers lineup. He’s soon lured into the high-stakes world of professional sports in the Big Apple, complete with gangsters rigging games from their rink-side seats. Wayne’s co-stars — an orphan, a dame — are straight from the sports-movie playbook. On the ice Wayne is accompanied by a raffish squad of skaters sporting thick hockey sweaters and even thicker heads of hair. Soon the Panthers are trouncing the competition, with Hanson potting goals and snaring headlines — “Hanson Saves Bacon For Panthers” cries the fictitious New York Chronicle — that trumpet the bumpkin turned “Broadway big shot.”

Reached by phone last week at his home in Palm Beach, Eyman laughed about Wayne’s sore spot for Idol. “It was a fish-out-of-water experience,” he said. “Not like riding horses. Wayne had ridden horses as a kid in Palmdale, near the Mojave Desert. But hockey was just something completely alien to him. This was before television, so he’d probably never even seen a hockey game. He was never east of the Mississippi until 1930, I believe. As for his skating, he basically gets away with it. He’s OK as long as he’s moving in a straight line. To get a job, he had to do the one sport he’d never played before. Naturally he was a little unnerved.”

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