With the professional hockey season just a week old, it is far too early to tell which is the best team in the NHL. It is not too early, however, to tell which one is the most changed it is the New York Rangers.
Part of this change has been bred of shame. Last season the Rangers won only a sorrowful 17 out of 70 games played, wound up in a heap at the bottom of the league and, for the second year running, missed out on the prestige (and the money) of hockey's championship series, the Stanley Cup playoffs. Not one Ranger doubts that this record, an alltime low for the team, can be improved upon.
As individuals, at least five of the teammates who contributed to this group disgrace are among hockey's very best players. This was plainly apparent last week when Ranger Captain Red Sullivan, Andy Bathgate, Andy Hebenton and Bill Gadsby took to the ice as members of the NHL All-Star team and beat the mighty Canadiens. A fifth Ranger, Dean Prentice, was prevented from participating only by injury.
The main difference between these individual but ineffectual stars of last year and the Rangers of this year is that they suddenly have started to look like a team, a seemingly simple but actually complex wonder accomplished by their new coach, Alf Pike.
Alf is a former Ranger defenseman who took over the coaching job in mid-November of last year. He already is held in high regard by the Rangers but, ironically, this regard—at the moment anyway—is inspired less by the coach he is than the coach he is not. What he is not, in unminced words, is his predecessor, the voluble, choleric, fire-breathing Phil Watson, who quit the Rangers with ulcers.
In contrast to the temperamental and tactless Watson, whose relations with his players were less than cozy, Alf Pike coaches with the gentle prod and the soft rebuke. Beyond that, he radiates confidence that is quickly reflected in those around him. As the Rangers began to crumble early last season, Watson betrayed his uncertainty by frantically switching his men around, changing his lineups almost daily and—many felt—on whim. This is a perilous practice in a game that depends as much as hockey does on almost intuitive teamwork, and the Rangers responded predictably by falling apart. Alf Pike has not yet completely restored the equilibrium. But he has given the Rangers new confidence. A case in point is that of Lou Fontinato, one of the Rangers' ablest (and angriest) defensemen. He once more is back in fighting form after a listless year. Some critics felt Fontinato had been tamed by his happy marriage, but the marriage is still doing all right and Fontinato is doing much better.
Whether Alf Pike's new formula will lead to victory remains to be seen, but the Rangers, if a look at them at their training camp in Kitchener, Ontario last month meant anything, give every indication of thinking so. As Andy Bathgate put it: "We've never had it so good." As Muzz Patrick, the Ranger vice-president and general manager, put it: "I'll say nothing against Phil Watson, who's a personal friend of mine. But I will say this: I've not seen a happier training camp in five years than this one run by Pike."
A hockey training camp is a place where old skills are refurbished and slack bodies reattuned to the strains and whacks of some of the fiercest body contact in sport. It is a time of high temperament and touchy egos, when the veteran must prove that he is just as good as he used to be and the rookie must prove that he is even better than the scout thought.
In Kitchener the Ranger training day began at 7 a.m. The team was quartered, two men to a room, at the Walper Hotel, Kitchener's best, and given $7 a day for expenses. With the first payday not due until November, everyone spent his cash sparingly, and the universal penury helped engender a helpful spirit of democracy among youngsters and veterans. By 8 each day the first players would have finished their bargain breakfasts at the Pennsylvania Kitchen across the street (scrambled eggs and sweet rolls—60¢) and have begun to drift into the locker rooms of Kitchener's Memorial Auditorium. Often not yet fully awake, they would pull off a shoe, then stop to smoke a cigarette before pulling off the other.
"You see here where old Stan Musial says he's going to play in one more World Series before he quits?" Defenseman Bill Gadsby asked his teammates one Friday morning as he pounded a newspaper with the back of his hand. Gadsby has been playing in the NHL for 14 years. "I guess I'll just have to play in another Stanley Cup before I quit, too."
"When's that going to be, Father?" muttered a voice from the corner.
"I hope to God it's this year," said Gadsby. "I'll be too old to stand up before long."
Brian Cullen, still in street clothes, balanced a hockey stick in his hand, sensed a subtle irregularity and sent for a saw to take a quarter inch off the end of the blade. "What are you going to do with that puck they gave you the other night?" Cullen asked Don Johns, as he got to work. In an exhibition game with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Defenseman Johns, a rookie, had scored a goal, his first in major league play. "I don't know. I guess I'll have it mounted on a trophy of some kind," said Johns, showing boyish embarrassment at having to admit his pride.
Across the hall, Goalie Gump Worsley sat musing, stark naked, a cigarette in his fist. "Hey, Alf," he said to Pike, who was lacing his skates. "Ya know my kid's playing right wing up in Montreal?"
"Why the hell ain't he a goalie like his old man?" asked Tubby Ensign, the Ranger skate manager. "Yeah, he ought to try that," said Worsley. "And he'll try it just once, I'll tell you." As if to illustrate, Worsley slipped his tongue under his lip, still stitched together where a puck had slit it in two five days before.
While the men dressed, Frank Paice, their trainer, passed among them—as he did each morning—dropping clean socks and underwear at their feet, parceling out Aspergum to those with colds, friction tape to those with drooping woolen hose. Finally, he took a dozen pucks from the ice-tray compartment of the dressing-room refrigerator (frozen pucks, being harder, have less bounce to the ounce) and scattered them on the rink. A half dozen players were already on the ice, circling slowly, stretching their sticks over their heads to unkink themselves. Occasionally one of them caught a puck on his stick blade and slammed it viciously at the rinkside boards or the untended goals. Bathgate, an unassuming but quietly confident young man, was idly executing a series of figure eights.
Alf Pike appeared on the ice, muffled in a Ranger jacket, and blew his whistle. As the coach huskily began to call directions, the men skated fast, then slowly, then reversed and repeated the exercise. Presently Pike split the team into groups of forwards and defensemen, and they scrimmaged.
"I don't like those passes," Pike shouted in unexpected irritation at one point. "I want to hear zippy-zip-zip."
To the lay ear, zippy-zip-zip is hard to distinguish amid the uproar of shouts, the crack of sticks and the ripping sounds of the skate blades, but Pike must have heard it, for he dropped the subject in seeming satisfaction. A moment later he found a new worry. "Damn it, Sullivan," he yelled, and Red Sullivan, the Ranger captain, looked up with the schoolboy's standard "who, me?" expression. "You know how to stop a shot on your knees?" asked Pike, skating into center ice. Sullivan nodded, but Pike demonstrated anyhow, just to make sure, while Sullivan copied him before a circle of snickering smiles. "O.K., Sully, that's better," said Pike with more compassion than a tough nut like Sullivan needs. Sully grinned back at him foolishly but amiably and the scrimmage resumed.
A few minutes later, the play centered around Worsley's goal, and Pike skated to the other end to say something to Jack McCartan. The only native-born American in the NHL, 25-year-old McCartan, hero of the Winter Olympics, made the astonishing leap from amateur to the major league in one jump, and is so promising that the Rangers may carry him on the squad along with Worsley. This would be an innovation in pro hockey, which generally gets along with only one goalie per team. By sparing him the minor leagues, however, Pike hopes to keep him from "picking up any more bad habits." After a moment with the new goalie, Pike skated away, then suddenly turned to fire an unexpected puck. McCartan caught it in his glove, and Pike looked pleased. Later he sent Worsley down to McCartan's goal, and the oldtimer cheerfully gave pointers to the rookie who may someday take his job.
When the Rangers at last broke camp they were more than ready for action. They had beaten Toronto and Chicago twice each in exhibition games, and now they were headed by bus to take on four minor league clubs. They won three, tied one and set out for Providence (whose team is coached now by Phil Watson of unhappy memory) and won twice more. Then the season was on them.
Had Alf Pike's relaxed, fatherly air in the training camp really made new men of his boys? You certainly couldn't tell by asking Alf Pike himself. "Watson had a way of coaching, and I have a way," is all he will say about it, "but I can tell you right now, my way doesn't always win either."
Neither, as has already been seen, does it always lose, so now it must be left to the Rangers themselves to find the answer.