You're young," Coach Emile Francis told his perennially flagging Rangers after a lackluster practice session a few weeks ago. "Most of you have wives and kids to support. You haven't got much time in this game, you know. You'd better make up your minds that you're going to go all-out now and make your money while you still can. I hope you understand that."
Bernard (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, who was standing near the back of the group with his dark eyes fixed on the ice, understood very well. But not because he was young. He had heard it all many times before, and he knew all about the supposedly fleeting nature of a hockey career. A 35-year-old veteran of 14 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, he had scored more goals than all but four players in the history of the game, and he was now a rookie on the lowliest club in the National Hockey League.
Two years ago Boom Boom figured he had gone as far as he could go as a hockey player, and he decided to quit while he was still near the top. Then things began to go wrong. His plans for a coaching career didn't work out, and businesses outside hockey didn't appeal to him. A few months ago Geoffrion let it be known that he might consider making a comeback as a player. The Rangers, who need all the help they can get, eagerly paid the $30,000 waiver price and $25,000-a-year salary it took to get Geoffrion. So this fall the former Montreal hero was at the New York club's Kingston, Ont. training camp, battling young kids for the puck and trying to find out just how much of his ability is still there.
Many players have found hockey a very hard game to quit. Some retire and then change their minds; others just go on, afraid even to mention retirement, trying to steal a few extra years with aging legs and remembered skills. A few old players have enjoyed the kind of success Geoffrion is hoping for. Gordie Howe may not be the skater he once was, but at 38 he is still a genuine superstar. Ted Lindsay, Gordie's old teammate, returned to the Detroit ice at 39, after four years away from hockey, and helped carry the Red Wings to a championship. Allan Stanley at 40 is an enduring mainstay of the Toronto defense, and ageless (some say 46) Johnny Bower remains one of the game's top goalies.
Others have been less fortunate, unable to keep up the pace yet unable to quit the game. Doug Harvey, once the greatest defenseman ever to play in the NHL, now slides grimly through the minor leagues at 41, plagued by money problems and doubts but unwilling to attempt some other career.
Geoffrion, who is neither as broke as Harvey nor as remarkably skilled as Gordie Howe, was never comfortable away from hockey. He once invested in a restaurant-motel-nightclub operation, but he soon sold out (with a modest profit) and looked for a spot in the only business he really knows or likes.
"I guess a lot of players have found out the same things," he said recently, in the deep voice that led him to consider a career as a singer until Boston Defenseman Leo Boivin damaged his vocal cords with a cross-check to the throat in 1962. "You get tired of all the traveling, and you think you'll be happy away from the game. Then you stay home awhile, and you miss it. Anyway, I had to find some job, didn't I?"
Geoffrion was happy for a while as coach of the Quebec Aces in the American Hockey League and would have remained in that job if he had been given a choice. He wasn't. "My teams led the league for two years," he said. "But we lost the league playoffs, and the attendance wasn't good. One day last spring I walked into the office and they said, 'If someone offers you a job, better take it.' I know the press releases said I resigned. But I'll tell you I was fired. I would have liked to find another coaching job, but there were none around that looked good."
The job that always looked best to Geoffrion was that held, apparently in perpetuity, by Coach Toe Blake of Montreal. "But I guess Blake feels the same way about hockey as a lot of the players," says Boom Boom. "He doesn't want to quit." The best the Canadiens could offer was a job coaching one of their junior teams. "I thought they would give me a shot at something better than that," he said. "I've done a lot for them over the years. But I'm a professional, and I've got to face whatever happens. It was hard for me to leave Montreal, where I lived all my life. But I'll just forget it."
He might have forgotten his grievances more quickly in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs are consistent winners and where Coach Punch Imlach made it clear that Geoffrion would be welcome as a player. But under the NHL's waiver system the Rangers had first call.
"I told Francis that I had a bad back, a bad shoulder and a bad knee," said Geoffrion. "And I told him," said Francis, "that, no matter what he had, he wouldn't get past us in the waivers." So Geoffrion, whose mighty shots helped Montreal to seven first-place finishes and six Stanley Cups in 14 years, joined a team that has struggled into the playoffs only four times in the last 16 years. He moved his family from their house in Montreal, where hockey players are idolized, into an apartment in Glen Oaks, Queens, where most of the shoppers in the local supermarket think playing hockey means staying home from school.
To the Rangers, a team of chronic losers, Boom Boom brought a new and revolutionary point of view. "This club can win," he announced as soon as he arrived at Kingston. "It has good young players, but they don't believe in themselves. In Montreal in the old days we used to be amazed by the Rangers. They would beat themselves before they stepped on the ice. They went into a game expecting to lose. We've got to change that. If we just believe in ourselves, we can make the playoffs this year."
On the first day of camp, Geoffrion approached Vic Hadfield, the big blond forward, in the Kingston locker room. "How many goals did you score last year?" he asked. Hadfield, a fighter on the ice but a good-natured comic off it, is one of the most popular Rangers. Vic said he had scored 16. "Sixteen!" roared Geoffrion, his eyes flashing around at the other players. "You're big and strong and you're 26 years old, and you still only score 16 goals? You should score 30. What are you doing, dogging it?" The remark, with its stream of French-Canadian oaths, was not lost on the rest of the Rangers. "They need the needle," Geoffrion said later. "I want to make them fight me, fight each other, and mostly fight those other guys who are trying to get the money that we should be getting."
Geoffrion has been known to respond dramatically to needling. Jacques Plante, the brilliantly eccentric Canadien goalie who himself wound up as a Ranger, discovered this when he told a reporter that his aging former teammate had slowed down and lost his powerful shot. In his next game against Plante, the Boomer blasted two goals past Jacques and assisted in two more. "If people could get me going that way," he said recently, "I guess I can do the same thing to these guys."
During the Rangers' first workout, an eager rookie named Bobby Ash checked Geoffrion hard in front of the net. Boom Boom yelled, raised his stick and opened a deep cut over Ash's eye. "He was in my way," he explained simply. He apologized to Ash later, but he never implied that other Rangers shouldn't take similar action.
As the season of 1966-67 gets under way, the Rangers once again look like a good bet to finish last. But the Geoffrion spirit, added to the all-out scrambling of players like Hadfield and Reg Fleming, has clearly enlivened the New York bench, if not the New York ice. If nothing else, the team may lead the league in yelling. But Geoffrion emphasizes that he didn't come to New York just to be a cheerleader. He also wants to help the team score goals, and that part of his job hasn't been as easy. He found out very early in training that his legs are not in as good shape as his voice.
Before the season began, Ranger fans wishfully compared Geoffrion's comeback to Ted Lindsay's, hoping he might spark the team to the playoffs the way Lindsay did the 1964-65 Red Wings. "But you can't compare me with Lindsay," says Geoffrion. "Ted was working out with Detroit for a long time before he came back. And he was a free skater—he could move effortlessly, getting into full stride any time he wanted to. Me, I was never a free skater. It takes me a few strides to get my speed, and I'm not really very fast, anyway. Naturally, that makes it much harder for me than for Lindsay."
Geoffrion still appears to have the powerful shot that gave him his nickname 19 years ago when he was a junior player. But he has not been happy with his ability to make use of it. "Timing is what counts," he said. "Reflexes. I see my openings but I miss my chances by just a split second or so. That's what I've got to correct. The shot won't do much good if I can't get the timing back."
It came back for a moment in one exhibition game in Rochester, a game that showed as much about the problems of Geoffrion and the Rangers as anything that happened in training. The puck skidded loose in front of the net, and Boom Boom got to it first; with a quick wrist shot he drilled the puck into the net for what was probably his most satisfying goal of the exhibition season. The Rochester Americans had been his major rivals when he coached Quebec in the AHL, and the small crowd had come to see the home team torment the Boomer once more. They booed him all evening, and when he scored he raised his arms and skated around the ice in the traditional hockey gesture of triumph and contempt for an unfriendly crowd.
It was a good moment, a moment that made people recall many crucial goals of the past—goals scored in hostile rinks against top teams. It hardly mattered that this time the opposition was minor-league and the goalie was a bald 35-year-old journeyman named Bobby Perreault. For a moment, the sense of victory was there. Then it faded all too quickly. The Rangers, playing their fourth game in five nights, tired badly and lost 5-3. The Rochester rooters made it clear that, in their opinion, Bernie Geoffrion had had it, and by the end of the debacle the Boomer felt very old indeed. "It was a terrible performance," Francis said after the game. "But it may be for the best. It sets things up for a very tough practice tomorrow."
Hockey practices are never fun; this particular one was almost beyond endurance. After an hour and a half, the Rangers were still engaged in grueling one-on-one drills. The weary Geoffrion took the puck and charged at Defense-man Jim Neilson. He faked once, wheeled around Neilson and flicked a hard wrist shot into a corner of the net. For an instant the fire was there again, and he raised his stick and yelled, "Hooray. That's how to do it." Harry Howell, who is 33 and didn't feel too strong himself at that point, kidded Geoffrion as he skated slowly back up ice. "Nothing like that old experience, huh, Boomer?"
He didn't get an answer. Geoffrion was already down on one knee, panting heavily and wiping the sweat off his swarthy face with his left arm. "Yeah," he finally muttered, forcing a grin. "Tr√®s fatigué."
When the practice neared its end, there were wind sprints; Geoffrion trailed most of the players as they skated, and he fell to his hands and knees between sprints to catch his breath. He was the last man off the ice at the end of the session.
"I'd be crazy not to admit how tough it is," he said. "I feel awful. Stiff all over. I came to camp in good shape. I weighed 181, six pounds less than when I retired. I hoped that would help. But now it gets tougher all the time." He spoke softly, drawing deep breaths after each phrase. Slowly he began to unwind the tape that holds a hockey uniform together around the legs. Then he looked up at the questioner and narrowed his eyes. "But don't think I won't make it. Somehow, I will."
Young Bryan Campbell, another Ranger hopeful, was sitting across the room. Like everyone else, he was concerned with his private aches. "I feel like I'm 40," he said. "Maybe I should have been a lawyer or something."
Geoffrion heard and reacted. "How old are you?" he demanded. Campbell said he was 22. "Twenty-two goddam years old and you feel bad? How the hell do you think I feel? A lawyer? You better be happy you're here. Where else could a guy like you make this kind of money? A 40-year-old lawyer, ha! You bums ought to be ashamed. You think you're gonna win while you're feeling sorry for yourselves?" Again the guttural voice exploded with curses and taunts. Campbell smiled sheepishly and tried to look properly penitent while the others laughed, and Geoffrion had done another job for the Rangers. The mood changed in the room. Suddenly they were talking like winners.
"Hey, Boomer," said Rod Gilbert, the 25-year-old forward who is probably the team's most legitimate star, "I read where you were supposed to be my idol when I was a kid. Well, I got news for you. From now on I'm going to be your idol."
Gilbert was thinking just the way Geoffrion and Francis would like all the Rangers to think; but he—or anyone else—will have a long way to go to match Boom Boom's remarkable career. Geoffrion joined the Canadiens when he was 19 and scored 30 goals in his first full season. He never slopped working on his shots and developed a repertory so effective that he became a star on a team loaded with much faster skaters. In 1961 he became one of three players ever to score 50 goals in a season. His dark good looks made him a natural idol in hockey-crazy Montreal, and his explosive temper made him one of the game's most colorful figures.
"Temper?" he asks now. "I don't think mine was ever too bad. I used to be moody—I wouldn't talk to anyone when I was going bad. But my wife [the former Marlene Morenz, daughter of another Canadien star, the late Howie Morenz] changed that. Of course, I do hate to lose, like anybody else."
Whether the trouble was temper or just dismay, the records show that Boom Boom was often in deep trouble. In 1953 he was suspended for seven games for swinging a stick at Ron Murphy's head and fracturing his jaw. Earlier that season he was fined $250 for checking Referee Frank Udvari into the boards. In 1963 he was suspended five days for "throwing his stick like a spear" at Referee Vern Buffey. The official record is explicit on the outcome of the incident: "The referee successfully deflected the stick with his hands but was struck on the chest with one of the gloves" that followed it.
As a coach, Geoffrion didn't mellow at all. He was heavily fined twice during his tenure at Quebec, once for "not controlling his players" and again for "abusing an official." The first offense came when several Quebec men climbed off the bench into the Rochester stands to attack some fans, while their coach shouted at them in French and waved his arms in gestures that were not interpreted as efforts to restrain them. The other came when a Baltimore timekeeper neglected to stop the clock the second the whistle blew. Boom Boom raced quickly across the ice and punched him.
There is certainly a good bit of hockey showmanship in such acts; but with Geoffrion it is clear that they come from the heart. Hockey is a kind of war to him—an unrelenting and consuming effort to "get the money from that man in the other uniform" in the only kind of fight for survival that he knows or cares about.
"Of course, I'm 35 now," says Geoffrion, "and maybe I'm losing some of my drive. Anyway, I don't let the fans bother me the way they used to. I used to worry about what they yelled. Now I say to hell with them. They can pay their $7 for a seat and do whatever they damn well like. Their money pays my salary."