Suddenly everyone in New York loved the Rangers. Slicked-up admen on Madison Avenue talked as if they had invented the game of hockey, just as they did when they discovered football and basketball. Country-clubbers up in Westchester County dropped Rod Gilbert's name more often than Martha Mitchell's. Commuters on the Long Island Railroad accidentally tripped conductors with the hockey sticks they were taking home to their children. "Think New York doesn't like a winner?" said Bob Nevin, the captain of the team.
Fun City's love-in with the Rangers started last week, moments after the Knicks were eliminated from the basketball playoffs by the Baltimore Bullets. "We were the only ones left," Nevin said. "The people had to be with us." And so they were. When the Rangers skated onto the ice at Madison Square Garden last Thursday night for the third game of their semifinal Stanley Cup series with the Chicago Black Hawks, the crowd reacted as though Willis Reed had just dunked Lew Alcindor through the basket. Even Nevin, who is not popular in New York because he is an artistic player rather than a brawler, received an ovation. "I know at least six people cheered for me," he said later, "because I left six tickets for them."
But the loudest cheers were reserved for the line of Vic Hadfield, Jean Ratelle and Gilbert. Hadfield was showered with more than 50 hats that night after he scored the three-goal hat trick to lead the aroused Rangers past the Hawks 4-1. Gilbert got the other goal and Ratelle assisted on all four as New York took a 2-1 lead in the series. Never mind that Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, hockey's forgotten superstars, crashed the love-in on Sunday afternoon as they powered the Hawks to a 7-1 victory and a 2-2 tie in the series; New York had not enjoyed an ice caper so much since 1964 when one Murph the Surf heisted the Star of India from the Museum of Natural History. After all, it was the first time in 21 years that New York had advanced beyond the opening round of the Stanley Cup, and there were optimists in town who could visualize not only the defeat of Chicago but Montreal, too, and possession of the cup itself, a trinket New York has not fondled since 1940.
Not that it would be easy. Chicago, too, has been cupless for awhile—since 1961—and Bobby and Stan were looking for their due. Both have been stripped of their electrifying individual styles by the Black Hawk management, which prefers two-way hockey to the star system. Now Hull simply skates his wing, up and down, up and down, and rarely makes those rink-long dashes that so excite a crowd.
"I suppose that if I wanted to persist and play my old game I could, but I owe something to the other players," he says. "This way the load is spread around. And in a way it's easier for me. Right now I figure the most important thing in any game is not to have any goals scored against my line."
Mikita, meanwhile, plays despite severe muscular problems in his lower back. Against the Rangers he has been used in every important faceoff, most of which he has won. He has been on the power play and killed penalties in addition to centering his regular line for Dennis Hull and Cliff Koroll. And he is determined to be a pain to the Rangers and their new true loves.
Win or lose, the Rangers have to count their blessings. For Hadfield, Ratelle and Gilbert, an opening sudden-death victory in Chicago plus the one at home were rare and beautiful experiences. "We were ready this year," Hadfield said. "In other years we always had to close fast during the regular season to get a good position in the playoffs. That stretch drive seemed to sap us, and when the playoffs came we all had a letdown. But this year we knew we couldn't catch Boston for first place and we knew that Montreal couldn't catch us for second. So the last three weeks of the season we just prepared for the cup. We didn't have a day off, not even one."
Hadfield, Ratelle and Gilbert have formed New York's No. 1 line for more than five years. In previous playoffs the Rangers depended too heavily on them for goals, and when they did not produce in quantity, due to close-checking by rivals who knew that if they stopped them they would stop New York, the Rangers invariably lost. "There was great pressure on us," said Gilbert. "If we didn't do it, we would let the whole team down. Now it is different, and it is better for us." What is different is the fact that New York now skates three strong lines, each of which can help with the attack, if not exactly carry it. "To beat us you must stop all the lines, not just one," Gilbert says. Relieved of this score-or-else burden, the Hadfield-Ratelle-Gilbert line can play more relaxed hockey.
Hadfield is the Rangers' official team prankster, while Ratelle is considered the strong, silent type and Gilbert is something of a boulevardier on Manhattan's East Side. Before a recent cup game Hadfield eased the tension in the Rangers' dressing room by employing Coach Emile Francis as a victim.
"When he is about to start his pre-game speech Emile walks around and picks up scraps of tape and puts them in the garbage can," Hadfield explains. "All I did was stick string to a piece of tape." When Francis reached down for the tape, Hadfield yanked the string. Francis almost did a full face-down onto the floor. "We were all tight that night," Hadfield said, "and Emile appreciated the gag, I'm sure."
Until this season Hadfield was better known for his pranks than his hockey accomplishments. Big as players go—6', 185 pounds—he used a stick with a severe curve. He would get the puck at center ice, skate a few strides and then wind up for a slap shot. The puck, naturally, would take off like a Jack Nicklaus nine-iron shot. Occasionally Hadfield would hit the net, but more often his shot would land in the stands. "The curved stick made me shoot more than I should have," Hadfield said. "Basically, my game is in the corners. I've got to be aggressive in the corners and get the puck out to Jean and Rod. But with the curved stick I became a shooter instead."
Hadfield now has abandoned the hooked blade for a nearly straight one. "I've discovered, rather late in life, unfortunately, that there is more to hockey than shooting," he says.
Unlike Hadfield, Jean Ratelle rarely says much about anything, but he is outspoken and indignant when people suggest that the Rangers have choked at cup time because they have lost in the first round four straight years. "When you put the facts down—the injuries and all that—it does not come down to choking," he says. "Writers say we choked because they don't have anything else to write about."
While Hadfield and Ratelle live the quiet family life in the Rangers' commune in Long Beach, a suburb on Long Island, Gilbert, a bachelor, contributes to the pulse of the swinging East Side and always sports Pierre Cardin's latest creation—it was a canvas suit last week. For years it was hoped that Gilbert would be the savior of the Rangers, the team's Y.A. Tittle or Joe Namath or Willis Reed, but the burden proved too heavy for him. "When you are a last-place club, like we were, you'd better talk about someone," says Emile Francis. "So we talked about Rod."
As Gilbert remembers: "There was great pressure. I was tabbed too high. I'm not an Orr or a Hull or a Howe. I'm not strong enough. I kept asking people to accept me for what I am, but they wouldn't do it. They wanted the superstar."
Gilbert never became the superstar, but this year was a good one for him. "I scored 30 goals—my best ever," he says, "and I worked my wing well. That's all I wanted to do in the first place. Sure, I read the clippings and had some odd thoughts that I could score 40 or 45 goals. But I was never really made for that. Besides, I know Francis. He won't let you go wild. He loves to win."
Sure. Just like New York loves winners. But then maybe Chicago loves winners, too.