There is something about a hockey puck zinging in at 80 mph that brings out the expressiveness in goalies. Consider New York's Eddie Giacomin on the opposite page. His is the face of a man who has just been sapped from behind. In fact, he has made a lovely save on a high, hard Boston shot. The puck has bounced off Giacomin's chest to a spot above his left shoulder, etching that grimace in transit. Giacomin, for years a minor league goalie, was not always so expert. Only a year ago he and the Rangers were equally frightful—and the team was last. Suddenly he has become one of the better goalies—and the Rangers have emerged from a 25-year slump as prime contenders. On ensuing pages are more studies of Giacomin in action and the story of how a gambling coach has transformed the team and thus turned the National Hockey League race upside down.
FRANCIS FORGES AN UP TEAM IN A DOWN TOWN
We're No. 1!" The chant began far up in the balcony on the 49th Street side of Madison Square Garden, where the kids pay a dollar and a half to glimpse only part of the hockey rink from a bad angle. For a moment the words echoed strangely through the upper tiers of the old arena. Maybe a few cynics down in the loge seats even started to snicker. The New York Rangers No. 1? Twenty-five years had passed since they finished first in the National Hockey League, and five years since they placed even as high as fourth. Their fans had become conditioned to awaiting the annual collapse that occurs sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. No. 1? Skeptics could have been pardoned for laughing.
But nobody laughed, and the chant spread through the Garden. On the ice the Rangers were routing the champion Montreal Canadiens. And in the newspapers the NHL standings showed clearly, if implausibly, that the Rangers were in first place. So 15,925 people forgot about their apprehensions, shook off the frustrations of the Yankees and Mets, the Giants and Jets and joined in the chorus to the once-bedraggled, last-place team that had suddenly emerged as New York's only winner.
They haven't stopped yelling yet. The cries that began in that December game with Montreal still fill the Garden, even after Ranger defeats. It is past midseason and there has been no collapse. "We can hear the chants," says Harry Howell, who has toiled valiantly, but usually in futility, through more than 1,000 games as a Ranger defenseman. "After 14 years in this town it's great to hear the fans so happy, but, come to think of it, they're no more excited than we are."
The excited mood of the Rangers begins with a onetime goalie, Emile (The Cat) Francis. Two years ago Francis became general manager of the weakest organization in the entire NHL. A year later he compounded his troubles by firing the popular Red Sullivan and making himself coach. He set out to rebuild the Rangers' chaotic system of scouts and farm clubs. At the same time he knew he had to improve his team immediately; he did not dare wait for the long-range tinkering to produce players of quality. As this season approached he appeared to be in serious difficulty. The farm system was better, but it had no rookies ready for the Rangers.
Francis refused to write off the season. First of all, he gambled that Boom Boom Geoffrion, one of the Canadiens' alltime heroes—but 35 now and two years retired—could make a contribution, and that three veterans from other clubs would help. To get some improvement from his undistinguished returning players, Francis praised them, berated them, conned them and, most important, offered them money. The Rangers now have a package of incentive-bonus clauses as lucrative as any in hockey. For example, most of the players will get extra cash if they hold opponents to fewer than 200 goals this season. Money talked sweet and clear. The Ranger defense that allowed 261 goals last season gave up only 80 through the first half of this one.
There are other bonuses. Rod Gilbert (see cover), the team's most effective goal-getter through midseason—and, indeed, the league's—will draw extra pay if he gets 25 goals. "He has a bonus clause for 40 goals, too," snaps Francis. Gilbert, who has recovered from two serious back operations to become the best right wing in hockey, probably will get the 40.
To Francis, however, bonuses are no guarantee of competence. "They make some men more aggressive, and they've helped our checking," he says. "But don't forget we have a lot more depth and ability, too. If you don't have that, a million dollars isn't going to make you win."
Behind Gilbert and Howell, the team's steadiest defenseman, everything has fallen into place for Francis. Geoffrion has brought the winning spirit he absorbed in Montreal and the incomparably heavy, hard shot that won him his nickname. The team's other ex-Canadiens, Phil Goyette and Don Marshall, have reacquired that spirit and are having their best year. Orland Kurtenbach, a 30-year-old journeyman drafted from Toronto, has joined Vic Hadfield and Reg Fleming to give the once-meek Rangers as much muscle as anyone in the league. The defense is the best New York has seen in a decade, largely because of the dramatically improved Arnie Brown, whose exuberant rushes typify the mood of the whole club.
But the most exciting—and probably the most excited—of all the Rangers is Eddie Giacomin, the 27-year-old goal-tender who was on his way to the minor leagues at this time last season. During the fall training season, when he was battling doggedly just to stay with the Rangers, someone nicknamed Giacomin "Lucky." He doesn't remember who gave him the name. Whoever it was, he was clearly attuned to the black humor that life in last place can produce. For Giacomin had been both very good and very bad during his eight-year professional career; he had never been lucky until this season. It was only after six grim years with the weak Providence Reds that he was given his first big chance in the major league last season. Francis was hailing his club for its "new look"—and Giacomin had the newest look of all. He wandered daringly away from the net, he made some heroic saves and he even captured the fans' enthusiasm for a while. Then the Rangers collapsed, and sodid he. He was taunted and booed, and after 36 games the dark-eyed, intense goalie retreated to the minors.
"Looking back on it," he says with a slight shudder, "it could have been worse. I did learn a lot, and I played some good games. You expect your first year to be exceptionally good, because the opposing players haven't learned your style yet. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way for me."
"We were really pretty unfair to Eddie," says Ranger Publicist John Halligan. "We were boosting the team for its new look, and we actually had the same old club—except for him. So he became the lone symbol of the fans' hopes. It. put tremendous pressure on him."
"But despite the pressure and all the things that went wrong," says Francis, "Eddie never gave up. He kept working on his weaknesses."
Francis has worked diligently with Giacomin for two seasons. It would be a fitting part of the Ranger story to report that the coach's enduring faith finally made Eddie a star. It didn't turn out that way. Francis' faith did not endure through the opening of this season, and Giacomin needed a striking change in his luck to get another chance in New York. When training camp ended he had lost the goalie job to Cesare Maniago, a lanky veteran whose main distinction was yielding Bobby Hull's record-breaking 51st goal last March.
But Maniago injured his back, and Giacomin got to start the season after all. He was shelled 6-3 by Chicago and sent back to the bench. Then Maniago managed to equal Eddie's record for ineptitude by giving up four goals in the first 25 minutes in Toronto. Giacomin got another chance—and failed again.
As Giacomin and the Rangers floundered, Francis began a frantic series of phone calls to Toronto in an effort to get the Maple Leafs' second-string goalie, the proven veteran Terry Sawchuk. When the talks fell through, Giacomin wasn't even sure he would get another chance. But in November, during a routine game with the Boston Bruins, Giacomin got the last opportunity he would need to become a regular. Early in the second period a Bruin slap shot hit Maniago in the face. Giacomin replaced him. The Rangers were leading 3-1 after two periods, but Giacomin looked a bit unsteady. In the Ranger dressing room Francis told Maniago he would be going back into the game for the final period. Sitting alone on the bench in front of his locker, Cesare shook his head. "My mouth still hurts," he said. "I'd better not play tonight."
Francis looked intently at Maniago. The room was quiet. Hockey players live by a harsh rule of honor, which dictates that when you are capable of dragging yourself onto the ice you try to play. Francis was never a great goalie, but he was always a gritty one; he had never broken the rule. Now he was looking at a man who wanted to break it. Suddenly the Rangers' goaltending situation was no longer a matter of the relative ability of two men. Francis' mind was made up for him. He waved Giacomin onto the ice. Maniago has not played since.
Giacomin was awful that night. The Bruins tied the game with two late goals, and the fans showered Eddie with garbage as he left the ice. It may have been his worst game, but it hardly mattered. The crowd's demonstration only made Francis more determined to help Giacomin make it. "You're my goalie," he told him, "and nobody's going to stop you from becoming a good one." The confidence he gained from that remark may have been the first big step Giacomin made as a goalie this year. "Confidence is certainly half the battle," he says. "You can only get it from experience and from knowing that somebody like Emile has faith in you."
The next steps for Giacomin were slower and more painful. His habit of wandering was widely mentioned as his main problem, but it proved to be one of his lesser worries. "It worked in the minors," Eddie explains, "and it took me awhile to realize it wouldn't work as well up here. I also went through a reverse stage, where I was so self-conscious I would never move. I'd stay glued to the net and hurt myself just as much. Last year I resisted Emile's advice. This year I figured I'd better listen to him. Now I still move around some, but I do it carefully."
Giacomin's other faults were more basic—so basic, in fact, that they were astonishing in a goalie with eight years of experience. He didn't always keep his stick on the ice. He often failed to hold the post, i.e., stand firmly against the side of the net from which the shot was coming. And he used his legs and pads very well but much too often—shots that should have been caught and tossed aside were bouncing off his pads onto the sticks of charging forwards.
"He needed a lot of work," says Francis, "but his hands and legs were so quick that I was sure he could use them to overcome these errors." Giacomin was aware, however, that he didn't have time to get that experience in games. He had to learn very fast, and the only way to learn fast enough was to take a gamble that few goalies would ever try. "I told all the guys—even The Boomer—to go all-out and fire their best shots at me in practice," he says. "After all, if I don't practice stopping Gilbert or The Boomer how am I going to expect to stop Bobby Hull?"
On Nov. 30 in Chicago, Hull himself took a pass at the blue line, faked once and rushed at the goal. From just 12 feet in front of Giacomin he fired the hardest wrist shot in hockey. Giacomin dived sideways and the puck skidded off his pads and out of trouble. He went on to shut out the Black Hawks 5-0 in what he feels was his most satisfying game of the season.
Things have been going well ever since for Giacomin and all the amazing Rangers. Eddie has become a sound, dependable goaltender and, for the first season in his career, he has been lucky, too. While bouncing pucks skid by opposing goalies they always seem to bounce up into Eddie's glove.
"I have been getting some breaks," he says. "But I've also got the confidence to recover when I make a mistake. I don't let a fluke goal bother me anymore. And, of course, it's great to have the fans behind me. They made it pretty rough last year."
Giacomin's own players didn't help much last year either. Now, whenever he is asked about his success, he is quick to praise the entire team. No longer must he scramble frantically as an erratic defense allows the other team to take as many as seven straight shots at him; no longer must he live in constant fear of breakaways by opposing forwards.
The Rangers now have defensemen who defend steadily, forwards who check vigorously and penalty killers—Marshall, Kurtenbach, Fleming and Bob Nevin—who are the equal of any. Many players will collect that under-200-goal bonus, and Francis will be happy to pay it.
When he speaks of the new Rangers, Francis always emphasizes their defensive work, and he usually begins with Arnie Brown. A promising rookie two years ago, Brown was overweight and ineffective last season. Even the hockey-wise Howell, playing alongside him, couldn't compensate for Brown's mistakes and lack of speed. But last fall Arnie came to camp 15 pounds lighter, and in one of the season's first games he made a menacing gesture toward the Garden balconies and said, "I'm gonna show those guys that they can't boo me out of this league."
Now Brown draws cheers every time he steps on the ice. His former tormentors praise him, and Brown concedes that the praise is merited. Interviewed on radio, he was asked about the pleasures of playing with Howell. "Sure, Harry's great," he blurted, "but what about me? Haven't you noticed how I've been playing? I think I deserve some of the credit for what this club has done." Indeed he does.
Howell characteristically prefers to direct attention away from himself and the other defensemen. "We've been able to play our positions well because the forwards" are doing their jobs. All we need is one forward back-checking when the other team comes toward our blue line and we can stand up and keep them away from the net."
This year Howell has often had the rare luxury of more than one man back-checking in front of him. All the forwards check well, and several of them deal out real punishment. Hadfield and Fleming have always been rugged body-checkers. This season they have been joined by an even bigger and tougher man, Kurtenbach, who has finally found himself after 11 seasons as a pro. "With the Leafs last year I was used only to kill penalties," he says. "I guess that checking practice made me a much more complete player, although I'll admit I didn't like it."
The idea of playing for New York was even less appealing. "I came up in the Ranger organization," Kurtenbach says, "and I never liked it. I never got a real good chance, and I never made any money. After I was traded to Boston I got a $3,500 raise. That should give you an idea of how the Rangers were paying me."
But that was in the days before Francis got his hands on the Ranger purse strings. Now Kurtenbach is well satisfied with his salary and ecstatic over the surprising prospect of playoff money. Essentially a defensive center, he has also set up many goals with good passes. He is so strong that he rarely gets pushed away from a loose puck. His strength also has earned him a reputation as the league's best fighter; he recently knocked out 6'3", 205-pound Bert Marshall of Detroit with a right hook that opened a 20-stitch cut in Marshall's mouth.
All this strength and defense has made life much easier for the Ranger scorers. Each of the three forward lines has a different style, and each has used that style to get hot during a critical period of the season. Marshall, Goyette and Nevin use finesse and score on precise pass plays and superior stickhandling. The Geoffrion-Fleming-Ingarfield line relies largely on Geoffrion's mighty shots. The third line depends mainly on Gilbert, the most spectacular scorer New York has seen in years.
Throughout most of the season Gilbert played with Hadfield and Kurtenbach, but lately he has been rejoined by Jean Ratelle, a shifty winger who has recovered from a back operation similar to Rod's and who has played alongside Rod since they were amateurs. Ratelle and Kurtenbach have different styles, but it hardly seems to matter to Gilbert. As long as someone can get the puck to him, he can score. After 36 games he led the NHL with 20 goals, and, at 26, he seems sure to become one of the best forwards of all time.
A year ago he was not nearly so confident of his future. He left the Rangers in midseason to undergo the second of two spinal-fusion operations. "When I lay down on that hospital bed," he recalls, "I had doubts about ever making it back. I had felt so much pain last year and gotten so depressed about it that I could hardly get myself to care what happened anymore. But once the operation was over all I could think about was playing again. Now I'm in better shape than ever before."
"Better than ever" is a phrase you hear constantly around the Ranger team. They have all but forgotten the dreary seasons of the past. When they first started winning, Francis began answering questions with a half-facetious, "Satisfied? No, I won't be satisfied until we're in first place." Having held first over an impressive span, they appear capable of staying near the top through the year. "Now I won't be satisfied until we win the Stanley Cup," says Francis. He still sounds slightly facetious, but the fact that he can talk in such terms at all is indicative of the Rangers' strength.
Recently reporters recalled some of Eddie Giacomin's darker days. "Stan Mikita used to kill you," someone said. "Does he still give you the most trouble of any shooter?" Giacomin's eyes brightened, and his mouth curled in a wondering smile. "You know," he said softly, "it's been quite a while since anybody has given me too much trouble."