As the New York Rangers, hockey's wealthiest losers, piled one humiliating defeat on another in the first half of this season, spending more time checking the Dow-Joneses than the Espositos, Orrs and Cournoyers, their beleaguered Goaltender Eddie Giacomin had a thought. "What we ought to do," Giacomin suggested acidly, "is call Henry Kissinger and get him to stop the bombing in our zone." Coincidence or not, Henry the K, fresh from settling an international crisis of another sort, strolled into Madison Square Garden the other day for a closeup inspection of the Rangers as they played the Los Angeles Kings.
For once Dr. Kissinger was too late. Emile (Cat) Francis, the dictatorial little general manager of the Rangers who believes the best diplomacy is a well-placed kick alongside the wallet and a mouthful of invective, had already put at least a temporary halt to the bombing by firing Larry Popein, the man he had picked as coach only a few months before, and replacing him with General Manager Francis. It was the third time Francis had personally fired and replaced a Ranger coach in midseason—and it was undoubtedly the last. "I'm not saying that Emile will coach until he has two heart attacks," said William M. Jennings, president of the Rangers, "but I don't think we will undertake the hiring of a new coach again." Francis agreed. "The only change left now," he said, "would be for me to get out myself."
When the Cat returned to the Ranger bench three weeks ago, he inherited a team that seemed more concerned with the interest yield on tax-free municipal bonds—"We're getting what amounts to 13½%," said one player—than the pucks that were whizzing past Giacomin in record numbers. The Rangers are easily the highest-paid players in hockey, with a 20-man-team payroll of almost $2 million, twice the National Hockey League's average. Defenseman Brad Park makes the most—$250,000 a year. This is the highest salary in the entire NHL, and it is by no means Park's sole income. There are performance bonuses, playoff pools and nonhockey loot. Vic Hadfield, Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle, who make up the so-called GAG Line (for Goal-a-Game), all earn more than $175,000 a season, while Giacomin, Walt Tkaczuk, Rod Seiling and Jim Neilson are in the $125,000-$l 50,000 range. Only one Ranger regular makes less than the NHL's average wage of $55,000. But poor Popein. His salary as a rookie coach was reportedly $35,000, mere tipping money for his players.
The Rangers were healthy and wealthy, but so unwise as to play like butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, and they faced the chilling prospect of finishing in fifth or sixth place in the East and missing the Stanley Cup playoffs. "Let's face it, the money had to make them a little complacent," says Glen Sather, a fiery left wing whom Francis had exiled to St. Louis. Not that the Rangers ever finished in first place, mind you (not since 1942, anyway) or won the cup (not since 1940, before most of the present players were born), but for the last seven years they had always played well enough to extend the season by a week or two and provide the Garden management with the playoff money that converts red ink to black.
Like most hockey teams, the Rangers normally must make the playoffs in order to turn a profit on the year's operations. Last season was an exception because they received $857,000 as their share of NHL expansion fees, and this year the Rangers will begin collecting installment payments on the $4 million indemnification fee the New York Islanders agreed to pay them for infringing on their territory. According to Jennings, each playoff game in the Round Building, which is what he calls the Garden, nets approximately $100,000, so last season's four games brought the Rangers $400,000. Peanuts, you say? Well, consider this. In the last fiscal year the Round Building produced gross revenues of some $42 million but returned only $100,000 to the parent Madison Square Garden Corporation. Thus if the Rangers had not made it into the playoffs, the Garden would have operated in the red.
Little wonder, then, that Jennings and Francis decided to jettison Popein. "I'm going to crack down on these guys," Francis promised when he took over after a woeful 7-2 loss in Buffalo. "We'd better make the playoffs—and you can underline the word better." The Cat's anger registered. "We know if we don't start producing now," Park admitted, "someone else will be leaving—and it won't be Emile."
Francis gets the Rangers' full respect and attention because he alone makes player trades and he decides how much money they should be paid. "Popein couldn't scare us," said Left Wing Steve Vickers. Since his return Francis has positively frightened the Rangers to seven victories and two ties in 10 games, including a win and a tie in last weekend's series with the Minnesota North Stars. Vickers must be terrified of the Cat. Last season's top rookie when he scored 30 goals, Vickers had not scored in Popein's final 15 games as coach and, in fact, had spent much of his time at the end of the bench. In his first official act as coach, Francis reunited Vickers with his old linemates, Tkaczuk and Right Wing Bill Fairbairn, and in 10 games Vickers scored five goals. More important, the Rangers have taken a secure hold on third place behind Boston and Montreal in the East and seem assured of another playoff appearance, if not the cup itself.
Still, the early-season problems of this haughty team reinforced a belief, long and widely held, that it can—or will—play its best only for the Cat. "It's a human thing," says Gilbert. "Francis understands us and we understand him. It's really his team because he brought us all together. He can relate to us and we can relate to him. The Cat knows how to project his thoughts and ideas to us. He can tell us we're playing awful and do it in a way that doesn't make us mad." Says power-play specialist Bobby Rousseau: "Coaches are like servants today. They've got to do more than just coach. They've got to know what to say to the players—and how to say it." Popein clearly could not handle that part of the job. "There was no communication between us, no life at all," says Left Wing Ted Irvine.
That Francis hired Popein in the first place is traceable to the Cat's organization-man mind. "He had been with us in the organization for five years," Francis says, "and it was only fair that I gave him the first opportunity. I also thought he was the perfect man for the job, and I didn't figure he would have any problems whatsoever." As coach of the minor league Rhode Island Reds last season, however, Popein had angered both players and management by his inability, or reluctance, to communicate. Francis should have known this, but his chief failing as a general manager is that he places too much trust in the opinions of a small number of assistants and scouts who are strictly yes-men. "If Francis had been able to follow Popein around for a week or two, I'm sure he would have discovered what we all knew," says another NHL general manager. "Popein was not the man to coach the Rangers."
There was trouble from the start. In the first week of the season Popein had a run-in with Gilbert, an extremely valuable man, benching him because he arrived 30 minutes late for a routine strategy meeting. "When the Cat was coach," Gilbert says, "those meetings were always at noon. Larry had changed the time to 11 o'clock, but no one ever told me. In fact, I got to the Garden at 11:30 and figured I was a half hour early." Popein's handling of l'affaire Gilbert did not sit well with the Rangers. "It's a very touchy thing that could cause problems," Park said at the time. "Rod's one guy who doesn't miss meetings."
The Rangers had spiritless practice sessions, and their game plans seemed something borrowed from a peewee league. "One night when we played the Flyers," says one Ranger, "Larry spent 20 minutes before the game telling us that he wanted us to fire the puck down our right side and make [Philadelphia defense-man] Moose Dupont handle it. He had coached Moose in Omaha, and he knew that Moose panics when he touches the puck. I don't think it was a very good idea in the first place, but what happened was that Dupont didn't even play in the game."
Throughout this time Francis remained secluded in his office or traveled to the hockey hinterlands on scouting trips. "I figured that if I wasn't around too much," he says, "Larry would have a better chance. If I had been around, people would have said that I was calling the shots, so I stayed away." But three months into the season the Cat was back. (Popein, meanwhile, has stayed on New York's payroll as a scout. When last seen he was in Albuquerque observing the Six-Guns of the Central Hockey League.)
Besides improving the Rangers' performance and, potentially, management's cash flow, Francis also has established a shaky detente between the players and their critical Garden fans—the beer-drinking hardhats in the $4.50 balcony seats with their binoculars, as well as the noisy junior executives ensconced in the $10.50 expense-account box seats with their plastic cups of extra-dry vodka martinis. This was a task worthy of Kissinger for, quite understandably, the capacity crowds the Garden attracts to every game get terribly upset when they try to equate Ranger salaries with Ranger diligence and skill.
"Those bums are the Cat's Fat Cats," said an auto mechanic in the back row of the balcony one night recently. "This is the last time for me. If they don't win it all now, I'll start taking the wife to the movies instead of riding the subway down here for nuthin'." A buttoned-down advertising type sitting with his wife in the promenade section said, "Listen, the firm plans to cut back on free tickets, and unless the Rangers win the cup I certainly won't spend my own money to watch them next season. All things considered, it would cost us at least $2,000 out of our own pockets to see the Rangers all year. For that we could spend a month in the Bahamas, not just the two weeks we do now. You know what? I'm willing to bet that the Islanders win the Stanley Cup before the Rangers." Perhaps a rival NHL general manager put it best when he said, "The Rangers certainly could do what they're doing or not doing with a cast of lower-priced players."
Naturally, the New York players vigorously deny that they are overpaid. "Why do people criticize us because we make $200,000 a year?" Ratelle asks. "Why don't they criticize the Knicks? Some of their players make $200,000, too." The answer, or course, is that the Garden's basketball team, unlike the Rangers, have won two world championships in the last four seasons. Hadfield, the captain of the Rangers, understands why the fans are upset about the team's annual failure to finish in first place and/or win the cup, but he defends the salaries. "I can't insult the intelligence of the fans," Hadfield says. "Man for man we should be a hard team to beat, and we haven't won anything yet. But don't call us fat cats. We happen to be playing at a time when all salaries are getting out of hand, and we have to take advantage when we can."
Hadfield, practicing what he preaches, has become practically a skating conglomerate. With more than three complete seasons left on his $175,000-a-year contract with the Rangers, he has homes in Long Beach, N.Y. and Oakville, Ontario, and in partnership with former Ranger Andy Bathgate owns the Indian Wells Golf and Tennis Club in Burlington, Ontario. "It cost us more than $500,000 to buy the land and build the course," Hadfield says. "We bought the land about four years ago and let it sit until we paid it off. People get themselves in trouble when they borrow to buy and borrow to develop at the same time. Then we borrowed to build the 18-hole golf course. Eventually we'll mark out 12 to 15 one-acre lots at the golf course and build homes on them." Hadfield also operates two truck and car rental franchises in the Burlington area, owns part of a hockey equipment company in partnership with Rod Gilbert and endorses products ranging from television sets to cameras to hockey games. He has also written a book, Vic Hadfield's Diary: From Moscow to the Playoffs. (The Moscow chapter must be brief, since Hadfield abandoned Team Canada after its first game in Russia in that rousing 1972 series.) Contemplating his net worth, Hadfield says, "I don't classify myself as a millionaire. Not yet. Remember, I made only $8,000 my first year in the NHL back in 1961, and it took me 10 years to reach $50,000. It's just recently that hockey players have started to make big money."
For his part, the president of Brad Park Enterprises, Inc. insists that the grumbles of the critics never bother him. "There are only two people I have to please," Park says, "me personally, and the Cat. Don't get me wrong, though. I'm not saying that I'm worth what they're paying me. Still, I'm getting it, and I don't feel guilty. I've never given myself time to feel guilty, because I'm so happy."
Park, who owns a hockey school outside Toronto and three houses, tries to keep himself and his family on a $25,000 annual expense budget and invest most of the rest of his income in municipal bonds. "I'm out of the stock market completely," he says. "I have this thing in my mind that the stock market is a bad place to be."
Oddly enough, the man primarily responsible for the rich but muddied status of Park, Hadfield and the other Rangers is Nick Mileti, who happens to own the Cleveland Crusaders of the World Hockey Association. Eighteen months ago Mileti applied for one of the two expansion franchises that will join the NHL next season, but he lost out to a Kansas City syndicate that included young Jeff Jennings, a son of the Ranger president. Miffed, Mileti phoned WHA President Gary Davidson and bought a franchise in the new league for some $4 million less than Kansas City paid for admission to the NHL.
Figuring he had a $4 million paper profit to play with, Mileti began a financial assault on the Rangers. He got in touch with Park, Hadfield and Gilbert immediately and offered them long-term contracts for more than $1 million apiece. At the time they were making about $50,000 a year. Mileti realized that even if the three New York players did not jump to Cleveland, they would force Jennings and Francis to open the Garden's vault. "Nick is like Emile," Park says. "He levels with you. I came very close to signing with him, too. In fact, I eventually signed with the Rangers for less money than I would have gotten in Cleveland."
Back in New York, Jennings and Francis quickly perceived what Mileti was doing to them. "It was apparent," Jennings says, "that he was going for the Rangers' throat in three directions. We had to make a fast decision. Did we want to be a contending team, or be struggling again at the bottom? We knew we could not give our fans a winner if we lost Park, Hadfield and Gilbert." So the Rangers anted up, starting with Park, whose salary leaped forthwith to $250,000. "We were well aware that once we signed Park everyone else on the team had to be appropriately increased, too," Jennings says. Indeed, by the time Jennings and Francis had finished negotiating and renegotiating player contracts—one player renegotiated twice—the Ranger payroll had more than doubled from $750,000 to almost $1.75 million en route to its present level.
When the NHL's other owners heard details of Park's lucrative contract, they screamed foul. They reportedly had decided not to compete in dollars with the WHA for playing talent. Subsequently Bernie Parent, Derek Sanderson, Gerry Cheevers, Bobby Hull, J.C. Tremblay, Jim Harrison and other top NHL players jumped to the WHA when their teams displayed no inclination to double or triple salaries. "The Rangers," said Toronto Owner Harold Ballard, "are trying to buy the Stanley Cup."
In the last 33 years the Rangers have spent close to $100 million attempting to buy the $47.50 cup that Lord Stanley donated to the NHL, but they have always come away from the playoffs empty-handed. It still may take Henry the K to get it for them.