Rod Gilbert adjusted the knot in his custom-made tie, combed his long dark hair and buttoned his double-breasted burgundy sports jacket. A black eye, the mark of one of teammate Vic Hadfield's slap shots, detracted little from his striking good looks; a painful bruise on the back of his leg—from another Hadfield shot—could not keep Gilbert from smiling. "You're going to have to start scoring without my help," he said to Hadfield. "I'm going to stop standing in front of the net when you shoot."
"When I shoot," said Hadfield, "the safest place to be is right in front of the net."
Gilbert laughed as he walked past Hadfield and out of the New York Ranger dressing room. He could hardly have been in a better mood. The Rangers were winning, Rod was fighting for the National Hockey League scoring title, and a stunning dark-haired girl was waiting for him. Beautiful girls have long been a part of Gilbert's life, but the victories and the personal glory are new and pleasant additions. "I've never enjoyed a season more," he said. "In other years the last few weeks of the season got to be a drag. Now time is going by so fast that I can hardly keep track of the games."
Those who do keep track know that the Rangers, led by Gilbert and his longtime friend and linemate, Jean Ratelle, are playing the best hockey in the league. In their last 17 games they have won 11, tied four and lost only two, a streak that has carried them into second place in the East Division behind the Montreal Canadiens. They are still in a tight race with Boston and Chicago, and some New York fans, conditioned by years of disappointment, point out that even a mild slump could drop the Rangers back into fourth. But the club is playing so well now that first seems just as possible as fourth, and second—a height New York has not attained in 10 years—appears very likely.
At midseason, many Ranger followers would have been happy to settle for fourth. The Rangers were near the bottom of the division and losing steadily to the other established clubs. In fact, they would have dropped deep into last place if they had not managed to win almost every game from the expansion teams. As bad as they looked, however, the Rangers had one important asset. Emile Francis, the general manager and coach, had built a team with depth, and he had managed to maintain that depth while the expansion draft was severely depleting the reserves of every other club except Montreal. As the long season progressed, that one factor changed the complexion of the East Division race.
Detroit and Toronto were the first to collapse as older stars weakened and no new ones arrived to replace them. Boston, the early leader, fell back largely because of injuries to one man, Bobby Orr. And Chicago, with the best individual stars but possibly the least depth of all, was forced to place a huge burden on Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull; the Black Hawks may well tire through the final weeks and the playoffs, as they have often done in the past.
The Canadiens, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fast and talented young players, were the first to take advantage of the problems of the other teams. In three weeks they spurted from last to first and began to pull away. The Rangers took a little longer to get going and, while they may not be able to catch Montreal, their own streak has been almost as impressive.
Strangely, the New York resurgence may have begun with what seemed like a crushing blow. On the night of January 10 in Chicago the Rangers, who were finally beginning to play well, faced the Hawks, who had won nine home games in a row. Midway in the first period, Hadfield raced into a corner for the puck, somehow lost his balance and plunged headfirst into the boards. He lay still for several minutes, then was carried off on a stretcher as a pall settled over the game. An hour later the players' worst fears—a head injury—were alleviated; but they also found that Vic had a broken right shoulder and would be lost for at least a dozen games.
An injury to a top-scoring threat and rugged fighter like Hadfield can hurt any team; it could have been especially damaging to a struggling fifth-place club. Francis knew that if he could not put an adequate replacement on the line with Gilbert and Ratelle, he would lose much of his scoring strength; he gambled that little Camille Henry could do the job. Henry was once a prolific scorer, but he is now 35 and he missed all last season after a dispute with the Black Hawk management. Francis had taken a chance by bringing him out of retirement, and he took an even bigger one by asking him to fill in for Hadfield.
Henry scored two goals that night to gain a 3-3 tie with the Hawks and went on to play very well while Hadfield was out. More important, it was his presence that seemed to bring Gilbert and Ratelle out of a long slump. "Cammy did a great job," says Ratelle, "and he made us change our style. He was slower and smaller than Vic, so Rod and I had to set up more plays and go into the corners more to get the puck." Once they began digging and hitting, Gilbert and Ratelle also began scoring. "Cammy helped a lot," says Gilbert, "and we were getting into our best condition at that time, too. We really started to go."
Francis had waited a long time for Rod and Jean to finally go. The two kids from Montreal arrived at Francis' junior team in Guelph, Ont. nine years ago and soon convinced the coach that they would be stars in the NHL. But both have been hampered by injuries—Gilbert has undergone two serious back operations and Ratelle one—and both have always fallen short of their potential. This year they were reunited on a regular line for the first time since they played at Guelph. All the injuries and slumps were supposed to be behind them; they were ready to become everything Francis had hoped for.
Instead they flopped. As they failed to score during more and more early-season games, people understandably began to wonder about them. Was Ratelle, who after all had scored only 58 goals in parts of seven seasons in the NHL, really that good to begin with? Could Gilbert play hockey and still keep up his heavy East Side social schedule? The doubts remained until Henry came off the bench to replace Hadfield. Playing with Camille, Rod and Jean started clicking; and when Hadfield returned the three of them matured into one of the NHL's most powerful lines. During one recent 15-game stretch, the two combined for 22 goals and 32 assists. Gilbert and Ratelle are challenging Mikita and Hull for the scoring leadership; Hadfield, who has the hardest and most unpredictable shot on the line, would be close to them if he had not missed 15 games with his shoulder injury. "With two big shooters like Vic and Rod," says Francis, "I think it's one of the most exciting lines that ever played."
It is also an unusual line. For one thing, it does not spend a disproportionate amount of time on the ice. "That's one big advantage of having three balanced lines," Francis insists. "When you have two other lines that you can count on to hold the opposition on even terms, you don't have to put too much pressure on your big line." Gilbert agrees: "One thing that has helped us get stronger toward the end of the year is the way Emile has saved us. He has so many other good players that he doesn't have to use us too much and tire us out." If Billy Reay of Chicago had the depth to offer similar rests to Mikita and Hull, the Hawks might be far ahead of the league. But only Francis—and Toe Blake of Montreal—have that depth, and it is they that are finishing strongest.
Off the ice, the Rangers' big scorers are not nearly as close as the members of other top lines, such as Chicago's Scooters. Gilbert spends much of his free time, along with Bob Nevin, another unmarried Ranger, in the dating bars on Second Avenue and the liveliest spots on the road. Ratelle is a quiet family man who keeps to himself on most road trips. Hadfield, the club practical joker, gets along well with his French line-mates despite his well-known feud with every Frenchman who ever played for Montreal, but he does not hang around with Gilbert or Ratelle.
The contrasts among the three men come through in almost everything they say. Ratelle speaks most comfortably in French; in English he manages a mumbled, garbled, partly Gallic dialect that inspires Hadfield to remind him often, "Jean, how many times do I have to tell you, move your nose before you talk." Hadfield's own voice is loud and clear, with a wide range of variations and orchestrations—faked voices on telephones are among his favorite stunts. He once called teammate Earl Ingarfield in western Canada, impersonated a Boston executive and almost convinced Earl that he had been traded and should begin driving across the continent to Boston. Recently he kept the volatile Boom Boom Geoffrion on the phone for a half-hour "interview" by imitating a newspaperman.
Gilbert speaks both English and French smoothly and articulately. Presumably he would handle Mongolian with equal dexterity if the right Mongolian stewardess appeared in Mr. Laffs' pub some night after a game. "Sure I go out a lot," he was saying after a 6-1 rout of Detroit last week. "I'm a single guy. What do you expect me to do, sit home? I'm a sociable type, and I like to meet people. I know that when I was going badly, people said it was because I go out too much, but that's not true. I'm going out just as much now as I did when I wasn't scoring. The people who criticize me when they see me someplace don't realize that it's my way of relaxing. Some guys like to sleep, I like to chase girls."
"We don't have curfews except on the night before a game," says Francis. "On those nights I expect the players to be in bed by 11. On the other nights they're free to go out but, believe me, if they overdo it I'll know. You don't have to be a detective to see when a guy is out of shape. That hasn't been the case with Rod and Nevvy. Going out didn't cause Rod's slow start. He held out and missed two weeks of training camp; that hurt more than anything."
"I've talked with the coach about this subject," Rod says, concluding his speech on the matter with a flourish. "He understands that I would never do anything to jeopardize the team. My teammates know that, too. I have a lot of fun in life, but my responsibility to them comes first." The next morning Gilbert and Nevin missed a team bus.
The bus was taking the Rangers to West Point, N. Y. for an exhibition game. It left at the ungodly hour of 10 a.m. The other Rangers who live on Long Island, about 40 minutes away by train, all made it to the bus. Gilbert and Nevin, who live on the East Side, about 10 minutes away by cab, just missed it. They grabbed another cab, chased the bus 40 blocks and finally hailed it down. As they boarded, Francis grumbled something about a fine. "Fine them $200 each," quipped Donnie Marshall, "and we'll whack it up and make this trip worth our while."
"What happened?" asked a reporter.
"We couldn't find a cab for an hour," Nevin tried, not very hopefully. Francis growled at him. Gilbert looked the reporter in the eye and said, with a perfectly straight face, "I must admit I overslept. I couldn't get to sleep for half the night, because I was so tensed up about the game."
A few players stifled laughter, and the bus fell silent. A moment later Ron Stewart called out, "Hey, coach, aren't you gonna give Nevvy back his $2.50 for the cab fare?" This time the players did break up, and Francis joined them. The Rangers are laughing often these days. They don't seem to feel the pressure of the close race, because they are too busy enjoying all the good things that are happening to them.
In addition to the dramatic rise of Gilbert and Ratelle, New York has been pleasantly surprised by Defensemen Jim Neilson and Rod Seiling. Neilson, a willing but awkward plodder for five years, is suddenly doing everything right; he probably ranks second only to Orr among NHL defensemen, and he is a lot less prone to injury. Seiling, too docile in past trials with the Rangers, has become aggressive and often brilliant. Behind them, Eddie Giacomin has overcome a shaky start and regained his best form in the goal. "The sign of a great goalie is whether he can make the big save," Francis said. "On that basis, Eddie is tops."
Francis himself undoubtedly rates that title as far as the Madison Square Garden management is concerned. When he was made general manager four years ago, Francis was faced with the challenge of rebuilding a pitiful organization and producing a winner in time for the opening of the new Garden. The Garden opened in the middle of the present streak; the timing was perfect even if the arena is not. In fact, even the most fastidious spectator may forgive the Garden for his obstructed view as long as the Rangers keep winning. Willie Laughlin, a season-ticket holder and avid fan, rationalizes the situation: "If I lean forward in my seat and act very nice to the usher so he'll keep his head from blocking my view of the goal, I figure I can manage to miss only 20% of the action in any game. And I've resigned myself to it, because you have to figure that 80% of the kind of hockey the Rangers are playing now is a lot better than 100% of the kind we used to get."