The hockey teams of New York and Boston are worlds apart in style, but the moody Rangers and the rugged Bruins have two aims in common. The first is to vault past Montreal in the National Hockey League. The second is to maim one another. Sometimes it is a little difficult to tell which goal is the more important. For years the talentless Bruins and Rangers exchanged stitches merely for the entertainment of their violence-prone fans—at one time it got so fierce that the Rangers' president put a bounty on the head of Boston's Ted Green—but now that they can skate, shoot and check just like big-league teams they are looking beyond the emergency wards to wonderful, impossible things like Stanley Cups.
Last week, hard behind Montreal in the standings, the teams met for their first massacre of the season, and the big, bad Bruins gave the Rangers a big, bad beating, both on the ice and on the scoreboard. Did this mean that the Bruins now must be considered the one team with a chance of catching the Canadiens? By no means. In the volatile world of hockey a team can be magnificent one night and appalling the next. Those disgusting Rangers were the same men who had whipped the Canadiens in a brilliant game the previous Sunday, those masterful Bruins the same patsies who seem to have terrible trouble with the expansion division. It is the fans' hope that the race for the pennant will continue to be as tight in March as it was last week, and their prayer that Boston and New York will have a little something left, after their private war, with which to pursue the chase.
For the first few minutes of Saturday's game in Boston there was nothing to bring forth the "gutter language" of the galleries that later was to dismay the gentleman from The New York Times. The teams sparred casually, working to establish control of the tempo of play.
Then it happened. Dave Balon of the Rangers hit one of the Bruins with his stick. Defenseman Green—Terrible Teddy, as he is known in New York—went after Balon and knocked him down. Reggie Fleming, the Rangers' interim policeman in the absence of tough Orland Kurtenbach, who is out with a back injury, cruised to the scene. Don Awrey, another Boston defenseman, grabbed Fleming and the two of them became locked in a pushing match. Green got to Balon with a few more punches, and soon the dispute was over.
December 2, 1968
But it was in that melee that the Bruins took charge of the game and sapped the Rangers' will to win. Big forwards like Ken Hodge, Eddie Shack and Johnny Bucyk crashed into New York players again and again. The Rangers never retaliated, and soon their attack collapsed completely as their usually crisp passing game deteriorated into a series of icing violations. With the Boston forwards roaming at will, and with Bobby Orr, the best defenseman of them all—and possibly of all time—controlling play from the blue line, the Bruins methodically beat down the Rangers 5-1. Only the superior goaltending of New York's Eddie Giacomin prevented the Bruins from doubling the score.
So the Bruins won Round 1, and at the same time they tied the Rangers for second place. At the end of the week, as the race reached the quarter pole, the Bruins and Rangers were only a point behind the Canadiens. It is an interesting fact that all three teams had favorable schedules during the season's first 18 games. Each played expansion teams 10 or more times, Montreal losing only once and New York twice. But Boston blew three games to the expansionists. In the next three weeks the schedule offers some respite for Toronto, Chicago and Detroit—teams which might conceivably make their own passes at the Canadiens. But if they do so it will be over stern resistance from New York and Boston.
This stretch especially will test the mettle of the Rangers and their rookie coach, Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion. Geoffrion, who has much respect for money, believes that all opponents should be treated as stickup men out to take your life savings. That is the way he played for Montreal and New York, and he finds it difficult to accept the idea of the Rangers not being keyed up for every game. "We played against Montreal at home last week," he said, "and we could not have played a better game. Before it started I came into the dressing room and could tell right away that they were up. Really up. Then we win and go into first place.
"So a couple of nights later we play against Los Angeles. My guys should be up just by thinking about the game they played against Montreal. But I go into the dressing room before the game, and I can tell you they're not ready to play. And look what happened. I got to speak to them before the third period. I won't tell you what I tell them. That is my secret. But we score three goals and we win."
Part of the reason for the Rangers' inconsistency has been the season-long slump of their most productive line—one with Jean Ratelle at center and Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield at the wings. As of now Ratelle has eight goals, Gilbert seven and Hadfield only five—a marked drop from their early performance a year ago. "You cannot blame a center [Ratelle] when a line has a slump," Gilbert said. "You blame the wings. We are supposed to put the puck into the net. We are not doing that." Both Gilbert and Hadfield have had more than their share of shots on net (Gilbert 73 through mid-November, Hadfield 64), but the puck refuses to go in. "Rod is taking too much time to get off his shot, and he is bringing his stick up too high," said Geoffrion, once one of hockey's most feared goal scorers. "He's got to use his wrists more." Hadfield winds up for his shot, too. Gilbert, the team's boulevardier, is optimistic. "You get into slumps like this," said Rod, "and then you come out of them with two or three goals in a game."
Fortunately for the Rangers, their second line, with veteran Phil Goyette at center and Bobby Nevin and Don Marshall on the wings, has responded during the Ratelle line's out-to-lunch hiatus. Nevin, in fact, was at the top of the goal-scoring list for a time, and as the week ended he had 13. He always has been one of the best two-way players in hockey; only now, however, is he getting the recognition he deserves. "I'm not doing anything different," says Nevin, who scored 28 goals last year. "But I don't kill penalties anymore, so I've got a little more strength every time I go out on the ice."
Nevin and Gilbert share a two-bedroom Manhattan bachelor apartment on East 65th Street, right in the middle of the First Avenue Combat Zone where stewardesses, secretaries, nurses and models pursue males, particularly male athletes. Gilbert and Nevin are pursued with considerable intensity. One thing is certain: no girl need worry if a Ranger should get sore at her. As the Boston game demonstrated, the Rangers seem to have forgotten how to hit. Opponents stand around the crease and harass Giacomin, getting very little attention from the Ranger defensemen. Harry Howell, the 36-year-old who is the only remnant of the old Rangers, is still their best defenseman, but no heavy. The three others, Jim Neilson, Arnie Brown and Rod Seiling, have improved; if they ever play up to their true abilities week in, week out, Eddie will have all the protection he needs. Fortunately again for New York, Giacomin minimizes the team's defensive deficiencies with his superb play in goal. And in one respect he is unique. In this era of platooning, Giacomin is the only full-time goalie still playing in the NHL; all other teams now rotate a pair.
The present-day Rangers for the most part are the product of one man: General Manager Emile Francis. When Francis replaced Muzz Patrick in 1964, he immediately decided to change the image of the Rangers. "We had players like Andy Bathgate and Camille Henry scoring well for us," he said, "but we were missing the playoffs anyway. I wanted to clean out what we had and start all over." Then he went to work to construct the team New York has now, leading the Rangers into the playoffs two straight years.
Last year, with the problems of expansion added to the advent of the universal player draft, serving as general manager and coach became too much for Francis. Having talked Geoffrion out of retirement and onto the Rangers two years before, he now asked him to be coach.
"Before someone can give orders he's got to be able to take them," Francis said. "Bernie did everything I told him when he played for me. He also was a winner all those years in Montreal, and a coach has got to be a winner."
Geoffrion has brought some pizzaz to Madison Square Garden, which certainly needs it. He wears blue suede shoes with his custom-made suits and custom-made shirts. His jet-black hair is neatly styled. He speaks in a Gallic croak that can't always be quoted but certainly makes for ears-open listening.
After the Rangers beat Los Angeles last Wednesday, people were asking him what he said to snap the team from its lethargy. "A secret," he told them. Someone asked if he had used four-letter words. Geoffrion put on a who, me? face and said, "I am Catholic."
Geoffrion works the Rangers hard but does not overawe them. A few weeks ago Hadfield phoned Geoffrion and posed as a newspaperman needing an interview. Hadfield questioned Geoffrion for 25 minutes, then said, "Thanks, coach," and broke up.
"I got news for Hadfield," Geoffrion says now. "I will be on my toes from now on."
If he keeps the players on their toes, they will be well paid. Geoffrion and Francis believe in the bonus system, and every player—even the Ranger trainers—has at least one bonus clause in his contract. Of course, there would be bonuses for Boston, too, if the Bruins just happened to beat out the Rangers, the Canadiens and all the others—certainly a possibility for any team with that much firepower. Boston has only one real weakness: in goal. Gerry Cheevers is impenetrable when he is on, but occasionally he turns cold. Ed Johnston, Boston's other goaltender, suffered a severe head injury four weeks ago when he was struck on the temple by a deflected shot in a pregame warmup. He will practice this week, but may not play for a while. The Bruins, who once had Bernie Parent and Doug Favell of Philadelphia as their goalies of the future, now are trying to trade for a competent major league spare.
Still, the Bruins have Bobby Orr to control play about 35 minutes of each game, and that is a towering advantage. At the start of the season it was feared that Orr had not recovered from the three operations on his knees of the last two years. Obviously he has; as Rod Gilbert said after the game in Boston, "That Orr. He seems to skate faster now than he did before. And he has got a few new moves." The Bruins' defense is better, too. Green is a solid defender. Don Awrey and Dallas Smith are strong, tough and durable, and this year young Gary Doak has given the Bruins the best fifth defenseman in the league.
Generally the mark of a solid scoring team is reflected in the caliber of the centers. The Bruins have three outstanding ones—Phil Esposito, Fred Stanfield and Derek Sanderson—who scored at least 20 goals apiece last year and look better than ever. Sanderson, who was Rookie of the Year last season, has a terrible temper, which Coach Harry Sinden has managed to control somewhat. But already he is one of the league's best face-off specialists, and against the Rangers he beat Ratelle consistently.
Whether the Bruins will consistently beat the Rangers is debatable, but what a war it promises to be.