As this cockeyed hockey season glides into March it is apparent that New York is in serious danger of losing the last of its great failure symbols, the Rangers (see cover). The town that gave you the throbbing real-life stories of the Knicks, the Jets and the Mets is watching over the Rangers with a pride mingled with astonishment and some apprehension, for if ever there was a club capable of pulling an el foldo in the spring of the year, it has been the Rangers. Beginning in the 1940s, when Fiorello LaGuardia was still mayor, the Rangers compiled a record of futility unmatched in major league hockey. For two decades they were incontestably the worst team in the NHL.
But last weekend the new, space-age Rangers were on top in the NHL's East Division, where they had strutted since way back in November, and were locked in a furious race with the Boston Bruins for the division championship. The Bruins had moved into a first-place tie with New York after a fortnight in which the Rangers lost their two best defensemen. The veteran Jim Neilson, who twisted a knee, was due back momentarily, but sophomore Brad Park, a slick puck-carrier and heavy hitter, was probably out for the rest of the season with a fractured right ankle. Question No. 1 as the Rangers faced Thursday's showdown with the Bruins on Boston ice was whether a team so maimed could regain its momentum.
Another question was puzzling the hockey world—whatever happened to the mighty Montreal Canadiens? As they scuffled along five points behind the Rangers in third place, Coach Claude Ruel offered to quit. Rumors were flying that the Canadien dynasty was dying. Maybe so, maybe not.
Beyond dispute, though, was the fact that the Rangers have become a very fine team—and that due entirely to the heart and mind of a single man, Emile Percy Francis, the general manager and coach. Not since Vince Lombardi revived those corpses in Green Bay has one man done so much for one team.
For a New York sports figure Francis is strangely inconspicuous. Not much taller than a parking meter, he dresses with no distinction and avoids the hum of Manhattan whenever he can, preferring the anonymous life of a Long Island suburb. He presides over a team almost equally lacking in New York glitter. The closest thing the Rangers have to a swinger is Rod Gilbert, a deeply side-burned forward who makes the discoth√®que scene but is not exactly a Rocket Richard on the ice. The leading scorer is a mouthful of Czech consonants, Walter Tkaczuk, who doesn't have enough clout to get the Madison Square Garden PA man to pronounce his name right. He is "ka-shook" at home but "tay-chuck" on Seventh Avenue.
Francis himself is the son of a French mother and a Welsh father and the survivor of a goal-tending career rich only in mediocrity. During 14 years he played with a dozen teams, but in only 95 NHL games, giving up 355 goals for a 3.74 average. Even so, somebody nicknamed him The Cat for his quickness.
The only thing big-league about Francis was his courage. On one occasion Francis took the ice for the Black Hawks with a dislocated left shoulder strapped up in a leather brace. When a shot whistled in, Francis could not raise his hand up far enough to glove the puck, which split his nose down the middle and knocked out five teeth.
When the little goalie at last hung up his pads, his only claim on history was having introduced the trapper glove ("A gen-u-ine George McQuinn-model first baseman's mitt") to the goaltending profession. It was not until 1961 that Francis joined the Ranger organization—as coach and general manager of the Guelph (Ont.) Juniors. Three years later he was appointed general manager in New York.
What Francis found in the old Garden was a Ranger team so puny in size that almost any opponent could intimidate it. Francis started rebuilding with players like Orland Kurtenbach, Wayne Hillman and Reggie Fleming. They weren't the slickest men around, but they were mean. He also dealt for the future, sending the aging Andy Bathgate, New York's alltime scoring leader, to Toronto for three young players—Rod Seiling, Arnie Brown and Bob Nevin—who are Ranger regulars even today. Given an open checkbook by President Bill Jennings, Francis set about rebuilding a tumbledown farm system and increased the number of full-time scouts from four to eight, part-timers from 18 to 52.
In December of 1965, with the team in last place, Red Sullivan was fired as coach and Francis took over. He led New York into the Stanley Cup playoffs with a fourth-place finish in 1966-67, and into second—only four points behind Montreal—in 1967-68. After that season Jennings persuaded Francis that handling both the bench and the front office was too onerous for one man. Boom Boom Geoffrion was appointed coach, and the Rangers started well in the fall of 1968. But by January they were in last place again. On January 17, Geoffrion collapsed from an attack of ulcers. Francis stepped in and coached the team to a third-place finish.
Today he says New York is not in the market for any more coaches—and Jennings agrees. "It took me a while to appreciate Emile as a coach," Jennings says. "For the longest time I had him figured strictly as a GM type. But he really wants to coach, and he's proved there isn't a better coach anywhere. As far as I'm concerned, he can handle both jobs for the rest of his life."
Who's to argue? Francis works like a Georgia mule. When the Rangers are in New York he leaves home at 8 in the morning and usually does not return until 11 or 12 at night, the last hour or two depending on the whims of the whimsical Long Island Rail Road.
If there is no game at night there is practice in the morning, which means Assistant Trainer Jim Young picks Francis up and chauffeurs him the 20 miles to the New Hyde Park arena. After practice, Young then drives his boss (Young drives so Francis, briefcase on his knees, can work) to his desk in the city. On the road Francis flies 75,000 miles a year to handle the team, to scout and keep an eye on minor league operations. "If New York is in here for a game on Thursday night, you can bet Emile will be in Omaha on Wednesday watching his farm club," says Scotty Bowman, coach of the St. Louis Blues. "Emile has everything at his fingertips."
As a coach Francis has reoriented the Rangers' way of thinking. "You really can't appreciate what he's done unless you played here before he came," says Forward Vic Hadfield, who did. "You have no idea how hard it is to play night after night, just knowing you're going to lose. Oh, once in a while maybe we'd play great for one or two periods; we might even be ahead going into the third period. But then the other club would come out and play well for 10 or 12 minutes and cancel out everything good we'd done for 40. Lose a few like that and you get discouraged."
The other day Francis settled back on one of the Rangers' charter flights and reflected on those early days. As usual he looked pale and overworked, but his eyes were alive and intense. "The first thing we had to do," he said, "was knock all of the excuses out of the hat. There were so many excuses for losing in New York. The city, the commute, the anonymity. Anonymity! Hell, who wants to be recognized if he's a loser, anyhow? I sure as hell don't. If I'm a loser I don't want anybody to know who I am. We told them to just start winning and they'd be recognized soon enough."
"Everything," says Don Marshall, one of the Rangers' few old heads, "used to be all helter-skelter, with guys skating all over and nobody knowing where anybody else was. When Montreal traded me to New York I was just sick, because I knew it would be like that. Nobody wanted to play in New York. Under Francis, though, things changed. He brought in a system, and it's not that much different from what they do in Montreal. Now when you get the puck you usually have an idea where everybody is; you don't have to go around looking for them. You can still play your particular style—just so long as you stay within the system."
Francis says there are no tricks to the "system"; what it amounts to is just good, sound positional hockey being executed by good players. "Games are won in your opponents' end and lost in your own," he says. "When I took over, the Rangers were losing because they were making too many mistakes in their own end. They were giving up as many as 250, 260 goals a year. The secret of making the playoffs is keeping that number down around 200."
Among Francis' many gifts is an appreciation for raw talent. In need of a goalie, he found Ed Giacomin in Providence, R.I. and wound up paying the equivalent of $100,000 in players for him. Then 25, Giacomin had never stopped a shot in the NHL and his first year in New York was a flop; one night the fans showered him with garbage. Giacomin was sent down to the minors but was back in the Garden again the following year, pumped up with confidence by Francis. ("You're my goaltender, and nobody is going to stop you from becoming a good one.") Giacomin went on to lead the Rangers into the playoffs with a fine 2.61 goals-against average, a league-leading nine shutouts and a place on the All-Star team. He has never since failed to make that team, and the Rangers have allowed only 189, 183 and 196 goals the last three years while finishing fourth, second and third.
The lone pre-Francis holdover among the defensemen is Neilson, a dark-eyed 200-pounder who has become an All-Star under Francis' guidance. Rod Selling and Arnie Brown are solid performers, but it will take all of Francis' ingenuity to fill the gap left by the loss of Park. So far the jury is out on fill-ins Larry Brown and Mike Robitaille.
Up front, New York's biggest sticks until recently have been on the line of Hadfield, Gilbert and Jean Ratelle. A big, cheerful blond who possesses a heavy slap shot, Hadfield is a solid 20-goal man on the left side, while Ratelle has become perhaps the league's smoothest center. Because of his exceptional French-Canadian good looks, mod dark hair and burns, Rodrigue Gabriel Gilbert ("Roger Bear" or "Joe Bear" to the kids who write him) has been the team's No. 1 lady-killer, but now he is engaged to a Thai brunette and plans to marry in the spring. As a player, however, despite five seasons in which he has scored 24 goals or more, Gilbert has never achieved the greatness New York expected from him.
The yoke of superstar-to-be now rests on the broad neck of Walter Robert Tkaczuk, who centers the highest-scoring line in hockey. While Hadfield, Ratelle and Gilbert haven't exactly slumped (56 goals, 92 assists), they have been overwhelmed by the combination of Tkaczuk, Dave Balon and Billy Fairbairn (73 goals, 110 assists). Big, bull-strong and, says Gordie Howe, "so determined," Tkaczuk was signed for the Rangers by Scout Lou Passador (the man who landed Alex Delvecchio for Detroit and Ralph Backstrom and Jacques Laperriere for Montreal). Tkaczuk has become the Rangers' foremost scorer (25 goals, 45 assists) in his second year. Moreover, he is developing in the Jean Beliveau style—the strong, quiet performer a team looks to when things are their stickiest.
Tkaczuk's partners, Balon and Fairbairn, could not be more different from one another. Bushy-haired, brown-eyed and tough as a $1 steak, Fairbairn seems a cinch for Rookie of the Year, while until this season Balon was considered no more than a journeyman player. In 10 years in the NHL, playing for New York, Montreal, Minnesota and New York again, Balon was basically a 10- to 15-goal man. He always was a worker, however, and this year he has found linemates with whom he fits perfectly.
You will not find a dime's worth of glamour in Fairbairn, either. He is just a good, honest, two-way workman. "What I like about him," says Oakland Coach Freddie Glover, "is the way he wants that biscuit. If he's got it, he's tickled. If he hasn't, he's going to get it. Whether it's in his end or mine, he's going to get it." Fairbairn's only complaint in New York so far is the steady diet of pork chops he gets while sharing an apartment with Park, who cooks for both. "My friend," says Park, "you will say you enjoy pork chops, or you will starve."
Players like Fairbairn, Park and Tkaczuk are typical of the youth, speed and size Emile Francis is nurturing in the New York farm system, now the envy of the league. "Nobody can afford to let down on us for a minute," says Denis Ball, the Rangers' director of the farm system. "They all know what we've got down on the farm."
"They've seen it in training camp, and that's important," says Francis. "They know we were winning in training camp when we were going with a lot of the kids."
Now that he has succeeded in stimulating Montreal-style hunger among his regulars, Francis takes pains not to overdo. "I work very hard at treating our players fairly," he says. "Since I ask for a first-class performance from them, they go first class. There are no prima donnas around here; everybody is treated alike. To me, there's only one time you don't treat players alike, and that's at contract time."
One thing he never does, says Francis, is create a position for a player; each must earn his own job. Francis cites the case of Orland Kurtenbach, the tall, 195-pound center of his third line. A regular two years ago, Kurtenbach spent all of last season recuperating from a back operation. The Rangers missed him, especially for his peace-making talents. When Kurtenbach checked into the Rangers' Kitchener, Ontario training quarters last September, he fully expected to win his old job back. The big center was slow getting in shape, though, and a young, Finnish-born center named Julia Widing won the position instead. Kurtenbach spent much of the first half of the season watching from the stands.
"Kurt went through the very same thing two years ago—only he was the one who was playing then," says Francis. "That year Jean Ratelle came to camp and led us in scoring in the preseason games. If anybody had a job sewed up, Ratelle did. But then we found out he had to have a back operation, and he wasn't ready to play until the season was half over. Kurt, meanwhile, had stepped in and done a helluva job, and when Ratelle came back the club was in second place. Now, do I bench Kurt in favor of Ratelle? Not on your life. Ratelle had to wait until he could win a spot, or somebody slowed down or got hurt. This kid, Juha Widing, is only 22. We've had him since he was 16, and all along we told him if he worked hard he'd be in New York someday. Now that he's here, we tell him if he keeps on working hard, he'll stay. It would be pretty rotten if I sat him down just because I wanted to work somebody else in the lineup, wouldn't it? Kurt probably knows this better than anyone else."
It was on a warm fall morning in Kitchener that Kurtenbach, then trying to play himself into condition, checked the list to see who was going to play where that day. Three teams—New York, Omaha and Buffalo—were living together, and buses departed the Holiday Inn each morning for rinks in the area. Kurtenbach had already played seven straight days and halfway expected a day off; the list, however, showed him playing for the eighth and ninth days in a row. That is a lot of hockey, even for a man trying to find his legs.
Kurtenbach went to see Emile Francis about it. "Coach," Kurtenbach said, somewhat uneasily, "I just checked the list."
"Yes, Kurt, what about it?"
"Well, I've already played seven days in a row...."
"...and I see you've got me down for two more."
"That's nine games in a row."
"Yes, what about it?"
"Well, I was wondering if perhaps there had been some mistake...."
"I understand," said Emile Francis. "But, Kurt, you know as well as I do that around here, we don't make mistakes."