Stop people on the streets of New York and ask them about Brad Park, and the answers will sometimes be confusing. Brad Park is a playground in the Bronx. Brad Park is a botanical garden over in Brooklyn. Brad Park is a garage near the 59th Street bridge. But mention that name on Ste. Catherine Street in Montreal or on Boylston Street in Boston. "Brad Park," goes the response, "is Bobby Orr disguised as a New York Ranger."
Which is by way of introducing the notion that New Yorkers ought to get with it. Look at the Jets, Giants and Knicks. Winning, they aren't. Two of the town's heroes, Joe Namath and Willis Reed, have knees; another, Fran Tarkenton, has a larger handicap, his teammates. Meanwhile Park's Rangers have been flying. Baby-faced but brash, the 23-year-old defenseman has emerged as the Orr-style leader the Rangers have lacked in their lineup since, oh, before World War II—and Ching-a-ling Johnson isn't much help today. Like Orr, Park operates from the right defense position although he is a left-handed shot (a tricky switch, something like being a left-handed shortstop in baseball), and—again like Orr—he controls the tempo of a game. "Park does for us what Orr does for Boston," confirms Emile Francis, the tigerish little coach and general manager of the Rangers.
What Park has done for the Rangers so far this season is lead them recklessly past the struggling Bruins and the Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens to the top in the NHL's East Division. Last week he was routinely first-rate as the Rangers defeated Detroit and played tie games with Toronto and Pittsburgh, the latter a contest they would have won if their forwards had converted only one of the three clear breakaways they had on Goaltender Roy Edwards as the result of Park's perfect passes.
Although he would be a celebrity in 13 other NHL cities, Brad understands why many in New York might register his name as a place where you get mugged rather than that of a man who gets paid for mugging his peers. "New York always has been a basketball town," he says. "Look at the newspapers. Willis Reed this. The Knicks that. Basketball is spread across the top of the sports pages. Heck, all hockey ever gets is a little space down at the bottom. And besides, when do I go into New York anyway?"
Unlike Orr, a bachelor who has a lavish apartment in downtown Boston, Park leads the life of a suburban husband. "I drive into New York for our games," he says, "and when they're over I drive right back home again. Other than that, I hardly ever go in."
Park, like all the Rangers except Rod Gilbert—who sometimes has been a better swinger off ice than on, but is wielding a mean stick this season—lives 60 driving minutes from Manhattan in Long Beach, a summer community on the south shore of Long Island. Francis, who doesn't want his muscular moths fluttering around the lights of Manhattan, discovered Long Beach about five years ago and promptly established his own hockey commune there. Then, recognizing that New York commuting can be more hazardous than any hockey game, Francis arranged for the team to hold all practice sessions at a rink in New Hyde Park, a 20-minute drive from Long Beach, rather than in Madison Square Garden.
Arriving home from practice one day last week Park was greeted by Gerry (his wife and first cousin) and by his Irish Setters, Quincey and Mike. While Gerry was in the kitchen preparing chili, Brad peppered her with questions. "Any mail?" he asked. "Did the bank call about the mortgage? What about the furniture—will they deliver it on time?" The Parks own one house in their native Toronto, and now they want to buy a two-bedroom bungalow in Long Beach across the street from the one owned by Walt Tkaczuk, the Rangers' strong center. "One of the real advantages of the house," Brad said, "is the grass. There's not too much of it to cut."
After finishing two bowls of chili and four pieces of toast, Park declined a hamburger and began to play with Quincey. "You know," he said, "except for Emile, hockey would be a real drag. He makes it real easy for us, thank goodness. We practice out here. Why, he even takes us to the hotel when we fly home from a Saturday night game and have to play on Sunday."
The Park-Francis relationship has not always been that chummy. Brad was named with Orr to the league's first All-Star team for the 1969-70 season—his second year in the NHL—and when he sat down with Francis to negotiate his new contract he expected a generous helping of Madison Square Garden's money. "Emile was an s.o.b., that's what he was," Park says. "But, hey, that's what he had to be then, and I respected his position. I learned then that there's a big difference between what you want and what you get." Surely the second-best defenseman in the NHL would receive the second-highest salary, right? "Huh," Park says. "Maybe I got half of what Orr got the year before he signed his $200,000 contract."
Park failed to make the first All-Star team last season, but he bristles at the suggestion that he had a bad year. "What's a bad year?" he queries, making his baby face look severe. "The trouble with hockey now is that all defensemen are compared to Orr. Does a defenseman have to score 20 or 30 goals and get 1,000 assists to be good? Heck, no. I think I had a good year for a defenseman last season. The Rangers allowed the fewest goals in the league and won the Vezina trophy. That means the defensemen must have played pretty damn well."
Park believes New York finally has a team that will be able to withstand the pressure from both Montreal and Boston—i.e., one that will not perform the classic Ranger swan dive in late winter. "Emile has handpicked this club," he says, "and for the first time we have a third line that can score."
Like the Redskins' George Allen, Francis believes that, when it comes to winning, youth is wasted on the young—Park being the rule-proving exception. Realizing he could not win the cup with a kid line, Francis traded for veterans Bruce MacGregor, Bobby Rousseau, Pete Stemkowski and Ted Irvine. MacGregor, one of hockey's best defensive forwards, scored the tying goal at Pittsburgh while the Rangers were playing shorthanded. Another reasonably mature Ranger, Rod Seiling, 26, is the team's top defensive defenseman. Unlike Park, he seldom makes a rush.
At the same time, the Rangers' first line, with Jean Ratelle centering for Gilbert and Captain Vic Hadfield, has been the most productive in the league. By week's end it had 20 goals and 26 assists in 11 games. Its slick passing combinations had rudely befuddled rival goaltenders and defensemen. Hadfield threaded such a perfect pass to Gilbert at the Detroit goal mouth last week that Rod had time to miss his shot—he actually whiffed—before firing the puck into the net on the second swing. "We've been playing together for almost seven years now, longer than any line in the NHL," notes Hadfield. "We always seem to know where the other guy is."
While charging past Montreal and Boston during October, the Rangers recorded some un-Rangerlike accomplishments. For instance, they scored eight goals against Montreal in one game. They beat Boston—in Boston—where they have been known to falter. And they checked the Black Hawks—the Hull brothers, Stan Mikita, etc.—so closely one night that Chicago managed only one shot on goal in the third period of a 3-1 game.
If Park and the Rangers can continue their superlative play, they may even get some recognition in New York, although Brad fears it will be at least 20 years before hockey attains basketball's popularity.
"They just don't know who the hockey players are," he says. "One night Rod Gilbert was the masked mystery guest on What's My Line?, and he stumped the panel. Then he took off his mask. Wouldn't you know? He still stumped the panel."