In addition to scoring an average of 57 goals a year for Boston, Phil Esposito kept the Bruins' locker room stocked with rabbits' feet, four-leaf clovers and other talismans to ward off injury. Last week, sidelined by a sprained ankle after a startling trade had suddenly made him a New York Ranger, the superstitious Esposito hobbled into his new locker room in Madison Square Garden and pronounced the place deficient in good-luck charms. Indeed, he sensed evil forces at work. "It's the Ranger uniform," Esposito said, cowering at the sight of red-white-and-blue jerseys hanging all around. "It's like there's a jinx on it or something."
Don't laugh, Esposito isn't the only one to suspect his new club might be bewitched. Frantically trying to reverse their worst start in 12 years, the Rangers had purged themselves of some of their most cherished names in several trades, collecting in return a No. 1 draft choice and three new players including Esposito, the NHL's leading goal scorer for the last six seasons. But the Rangers' team jinx seemed to be working overtime; the three newcomers have yet to be suited up and ready to play all together in a single game and the club has barely struggled out of the Patrick Division cellar with a 7-10-2 record. Consequently, the most immediate effect of the drastic housecleaning was the trepidation it created among the players who remained. "The guys are all asking, 'Who's next?' " complained Rod Gilbert, one of the few familiar faces still around. "How can we concentrate? We're numb."
The cause of all the insecurity was a 10-day upheaval that Ranger General Manager Emile (the Cat) Francis set in motion late last month. Vowing to make changes "come hell or high water," Francis first dispatched Gilles Villemure, the team's longtime backup goalie, to Chicago for Defenseman Doug Jarrett. Then he sent the flamboyant center, Derek Sanderson, off to St. Louis for a first-round draft choice. Next to go was Eddie Giacomin, the Rangers' No. 1 goaltender for 11 years; he was waived to Detroit for $30,000. Francis then got together with the Bruins, who were having troubles of their own, for the shocker in which Brad Park, the Ranger captain and All-Star defenseman, was dealt to Boston along with 14-year veteran Center Jean Ratelle and minor league Defenseman Joe Zanussi for Esposito and Defenseman Carol Vadnais.
The momentous trade jolted Ranger and Bruin fans alike, but Boston sensibilities were partly soothed by Bobby Orr's simultaneous recovery from knee surgery. In New York emotions remained as frazzled as they had been a week earlier when Giacomin came back to Madison Square Garden as a Detroit Red Wing for the first time. Then, a crowd of 17,500 had greeted the tearful Giacomin with chants of "Eddie, Eddie" and lustily booed the Rangers as Eddie-Eddie helped whip the home team 6-4. A different kind of humiliation followed last week in St. Louis when the irrepressible Sanderson scored a last-minute goal (his fifth in six games since being traded to the Blues) that sealed a 5-3 victory against his old teammates. Sanderson scooped up the puck and, eyes flashing, slipped it into the New York bench. "That's for the Cat," he said, referring to Francis. "It's to thank him for trading me."
While the ex-New Yorkers were rubbing it in, the Rangers had embarrassingly little to show in return. No sooner did Jarrett arrive than he reinjured a knee, sidelining him at least until Thanksgiving. Then Vadnais balked at coming to New York, raising a rather fundamental objection—he thought he had a no-trade agreement with the Bruins. When he finally appeared last week at Madison Square Garden, Vadnais was guilty of defensive lapses that let in two goals, the second of which enabled the Chicago Black Hawks, down at one point 3-1, to salvage a 4-4 tie.
Esposito was standing in street clothes beside the Ranger bench, gamely cheering on his new teammates. His amulets had done a good job of warding off the evil eye in Boston, as he had missed just five games in eight years, but there they did not have to contend with the Rangers' jinx. In Esposito's second appearance wearing a New York uniform, a 3-1 loss to the Kings in Los Angeles, a jarring body check at the boards by Frank St. Marseille sent the massive center crumbling to the ice in pain, his right ankle badly sprained. The injury caused Esposito, none too happy about the trade to begin with, the further hardship of missing the next three games. "I was shocked and hurt by the trade, and I'm still not used to it," he said. "It would be easier to adjust if I were playing. My job is to score goals, and I can't do it if I'm not on the ice."
For the Rangers, who last won the Stanley Cup in 1940, the frustrations were hardly unusual. As the front-office boss and ofttime coach for the past decade, Francis molded Park, Ratelle & Co. into a strong team, but subsequent near-misses for the NHL championship led to charges that the thin Cat—Francis is a wiry 145 pounder—had bred a bunch of fat cats. As the fans clamored for changes, Francis snatched promising Forwards Wayne Dillon and Pat Hickey from the World Hockey Association this past off-season, but hopes for prosperity under new Coach Ron Stewart dimmed almost as soon as the NHL began its 80-game schedule, the clincher being successive routs by the Buffalo Sabres (9-1), the neighboring Islanders (7-1) and the Philadelphia Flyers (7-2).
On the morning after the Philadelphia game Francis angrily upbraided the Rangers at a team meeting and then took the unprecedented step of placing the entire club on 72-hour recallable waivers. The trading binge that followed amounted to an admission of failure by Francis. "Something had to be done," the Cat said last week, sipping coffee in his Ranger office. "But it was tough. The guys traded were my friends. I've known some of them a long time."
Seeking commiseration, Francis could have found it in Boston, which won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972, only to be weakened by bad drafts, defections to the WHA and advancing age. "There was a time when I would have told you I couldn't possibly ever trade Espo," said Bruin General Manager Harry Sinden, who had coached the 1970 squad. Besides disposing of the popular Esposito, Sinden was bringing in an old Bruin-baiter, Park, who once characterized Boston players as "a bunch of spoiled children."
Joining the Bruins on a West Coast trip, Park and Ratelle scored a goal apiece in a 6-3 win over the California Seals. Orr, rejoining the team on the same trip after his fourth knee operation, claimed to still be lacking his "skating legs," but proceeded to record nine assists and two goals in five games as the Bruins improved their record to 9-6-2.
Orr and the new Bruins made their home debut last Thursday night before a near-capacity 14,648 and handed the hapless Minnesota North Stars their third straight shutout, 6-0. Orr scored an unassisted goal and further dazzled the crowd with a slick backhand pass that enabled Dave Forbes to score on a two-on-one rush. Generally, Orr and Park played different shifts, but the two offensive-minded defensemen are teamed as pointmen for what could rapidly become a potent power play. Sinden says his new man-advantage unit is "worth a goal a game for us." Park, booed in his last days as a Ranger, hustled and hit, prompting one fan to bellow, "Hey, Paahk, welcome to Baahstun!"
If similar sentiments went largely unvoiced in New York, it was because Esposito, newly named the Ranger captain, was so slow in returning to action. Playing without Esposito Saturday night in Minnesota, the New York Strangers, as some were calling them, beat the North Stars 5-2. The next evening, back at the Garden for a rematch with Detroit and Eddie-Eddie, Esposito was cheered as lustily as he once had been booed when he finally came on the ice at the start of the second period. Still not fully recovered, he saw only limited duty, but the inspired Rangers went on to score three goals as Giacomin's former understudy, John Davidson, recorded his first NHL shutout.
As the Rangers surged, Francis' wheeling and dealing somehow seemed at once precipitous and long overdue. All the turmoil scarcely promised a Stanley Cup, but Esposito, for one, holds out hope for a winning season. "We've got a lot of good young players," he insists. "All we need is confidence." That plus the assortment of good luck charms Esposito has ordered sent down from Boston.