Carol Vadnais stood at the open window of his second-floor motel room in New York's suburban Westchester County the other morning, and busily threw clothes into the parking lot below. As monogrammed shirts, tailored slacks and custom-made sports coats floated earthbound, they were hurriedly gathered up and put into a car by Vadnais' waiting roommate, Dave Maloney, the New York Ranger captain. Not long ago an onlooker might have feared the worst from such a scene. Were the Rangers, who have not won the Stanley Cup in 38 years, finally being run out of town by their suffering fans?
No, Vadnais was merely dropping his cleaning out the window to Maloney to spare himself a trip down the stairs. The Rangers not only intend to stick around a while—until the laundry comes back, anyway—but under Fred Shero, their new coach and general manager, they rank with the Atlanta Flames as the surprise of the young NHL season. They even have stirred fears among rivals that the man who coached the Philadelphia Flyers to the top might soon do the same in New York.
That would be quite an achievement. As the Rangers stumbled to three straight last-place finishes in the Patrick Division, the word that best characterized their performances was "lackluster." Hockey's highest-paid team, they were called the New York Strangers and the worst team money could buy. Compounding the Rangers' problems, the New York Islanders won the Patrick Division title last season, in only their sixth year in the NHL. "The Islanders are a gutty team," said one New York fan. "No one has ever called the Rangers gutty. Gutless maybe." And the faithful became faithless. Madison Square Garden was no longer sold out for Ranger games, and the fans who did show up booed their fallen heroes mercilessly.
This season the Rangers started out conservatively, then reeled off a seven-game winning streak that included victories over Toronto and Montreal—at the Forum, no less. The streak was the Rangers' longest in four years. By the end of last week their 9-3-3 record was the second best in the NHL.
The most encouraging aspect of the surge is the way it has been fashioned. Last season the Rangers boasted talented young players like Left Wing Pat Hickey and Defenseman Ron Greschner, who scored 40 and 24 goals, respectively, as New York ranked a respectable sixth among 18 NHL clubs on offense. But inept goaltending and an utter distaste for body checking left the club in 12th place defensively. So there are the Rangers now, leading the league with a stingy 2.47 goals-against average. Goaltenders John Davidson, Wayne Thomas and Doug Soetaert have performed like All-Stars, thanks in part to the zealousness with which New York defensemen have been clearing the puck in front of them.
"If the goaltender on this club stops the first shot," says a grateful Davidson, "chances are the other team won't get another. They used to get one or two more every time."
The improved play of the Ranger defensemen, who as a group tend to be mobile but not overly big or aggressive, can be traced to a straightforward plea from Shero to "play your game but toughen up a little." To help them withstand the rougher going, Shero has rotated six defensemen instead of the four or five used by most teams. As one result, Maloney, who at 22 is the NHL's youngest captain, has been playing even more tenaciously than before, and the 23-year-old Greschner, a slick puck-handler previously known only for his offensive skills, has emerged as an all-round star.
The Rangers have also received a lift from those celebrated newcomers. Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, the swift-skating Swedes who last summer signed two-year contracts with New York for around $1 million apiece, making them hockey's highest-paid performers. The linemates had been goal-producing sensations for Winnipeg in the WHA, and while they haven't burned up the NHL, they have not exactly lost their scoring touch, either. Nilsson, a rosy cheeked center, leads the Rangers with six goals, while Hedberg, blond and bowlegged at right wing, has three goals and is tied with Greschner for the team lead with nine assists. "But what has helped most is their honesty," Shero says. "They go into the corner for the puck and take the body, and they don't care who's coming. And if they're supposed to go in front of the net, they go."
Shero refuses to make too much of the strong start. "It's too early to tell how good we are," he says. "Maybe we've just been lucky." But his players feel that there is nothing fluky about their improved play. "Before, there were only about six or seven teams we could usually count on legitimately beating," says Maloney. "Now I'd say the number is 12 or 13."
If the Rangers are indeed for real, nobody will be happier about it than Sonny Werblin, the impresario who 11 months ago took over as president of Madison Square Garden Corp., the parent company of the Rangers as well as the NBA Knicks. Werblin is best known in sports for having turned the bumbling New York Titans into the Super Bowl champion Jets—notably by signing Joe Namath to a three-year contract for a then shocking $400,000—and, more recently, for having made a winner of New Jersey's Meadowlands sports complex. With the Rangers, Werblin faces another stern test. "If they don't make the playoffs every year and go pretty far, they don't meet the payroll," Werblin says. "It's as simple as that."
Although the Rangers sneaked into the playoffs for the first time in three years as a wild-card team last spring, they were eliminated, predictably, by Buffalo in Round 1, which is hardly what Werblin means by "pretty far." Life on the Rangers had been unsettled much of the season. One source of turmoil was the heavy-handed way General Manager John Ferguson hounded and humiliated Rod Gilbert, New York's alltime scoring leader, into retirement. Another was the drug bust of flashy young Right Wing Don Murdoch, which eventually resulted in the NHL suspending him for at least the first 40 games of this season. As the Rangers struggled with these and other crises, Werblin lost all confidence in the management team of Ferguson and Coach Jean-Guy Talbot.
"The Rangers were even more undisciplined than the Titans were in the early years," Werblin says. "Ferguson and Talbot didn't seem to know what the problem was. That's because I think they were the problem."
Werblin's solution was to spend a lot of Madison Square Garden's money. Some of it went to win the bidding war for Hedberg and Nilsson, who put themselves on the NHL market as a package, à la Koufax and Drysdale. "They weren't the best hockey players in the world," Werblin says, "but they were the best available hockey players and we needed them." Rival owners complained that the Rangers upset the game's salary structure with their payoff to the Swedes, but Werblin replied, "I heard that talk when I signed Namath, but it was good for pro football. This is the same thing. The NHL needs television revenues, and if New York has a strong team, Madison Avenue will become cognizant of the sport. That happens to be axiomatic."
Werblin next went after Shero, who at the time was under contract to Philadelphia—or so it was thought; Werblin insists that Shero wasn't legally bound to the Flyers. However, NHL President John Ziegler saw fit to remind the Rangers of the rules against tampering, and after signing Shero to a reported $250,000-a-year, five-year contract, the Rangers gave the Flyers a first-round draft choice as compensation.
None of this was necessarily any more important, though, than Werblin's less ballyhooed success in finding the Rangers a new practice rink. The team had been practicing and, for the most part, living, in Long Beach, a forlorn—in the winter—resort town on Long Island that is handy to Kennedy Airport but little else. Because Manhattan was an arduous 75-minute drive away, even Ranger home games seemed like road trips. Determined to get the Rangers out of what he called "Islander territory" and into the mainstream of New York City, Werblin switched team practices to a rink in Hawthorne, a Westchester County suburb that is a mere 45 minutes from Broadway. Several players have since moved from Long Beach to Manhattan, and others have settled in Westchester.
Some of the Rangers think the wholesale uprooting will help make them more harmonious, which they haven't always been. As Maloney explains it, "The guys were just too close together in Long Beach. If somebody went out for a beer, the next day everybody knew it. Whenever you have 20 guys, you'll have cliques, but maybe out there the cliques got too dominant. Now we're living in a more normal situation, and I think things will be better."
As he leads the Rangers out of the NHL's depths—or at least out of Islander territory—the tough-minded Shero admits to an uncharacteristic attack of sentiment. After all, he was a Ranger defenseman in the late '40s, and he coached in the New York organization for 13 years. Inexplicably, Emile Francis, who was the Rangers' general manager from 1964 to 1976 and also coached the team much of that time, never offered Shero the one job he always wanted: coach of the Rangers. So, tired of waiting, Shero went to Philadelphia in 1971, and coached the Flyers to Stanley Cup championships in 1974 and 1975.
In his eagerness to return to New York, Shero at first told the Flyers he didn't want to coach anymore. Then, when Werblin offered him the combined job of GM-coach, he said that, well, what he meant was that he didn't want to just coach. Some of the Flyers accused Shero of duplicity, and he says in a wounded tone, "If you're afraid to accept a better job, there's something wrong with you." It has not helped matters that while the Rangers have put together the NHL's second-best record, the Flyers have barely climbed above .500.
Shero's inexperience as a general manager has, at times, been painfully apparent. He hurriedly tried to appoint his own man, Mickey Keating, as coach of the New Haven Nighthawks on the mistaken assumption that the Rangers owned the minor league team. He just as quickly had to back off when he learned that the Rangers merely had a working arrangement with New Haven, which was very happy, thank you, with the coach it had, Parker MacDonald. On another occasion, Shero expressed interest in signing free agent Defenseman Dave Hutchison, who played last year for Los Angeles (and subsequently signed with Toronto), without realizing, astonishingly, that NHL rules require compensation in such cases.
"Compensation?" he asked Hutchison's agent.
"Yes, if you sign Hutchison, you'll have to offer a player to George Maguire in return."
It also turned out that Shero didn't know the name of Los Angeles' general manager.
Shero is on familiar ground, of course, as coach. In Philadelphia he acquired the detested nickname of "the Fog," partly because of his enigmatic personality but also because his keenly analytical approach to hockey was beyond the ken of most of his fellow coaches. A believer in the team aspects of what too often has been a free-lancing game, Shero scrawled the words UNITY AND HARD WORK IS OUR Mono on the blackboard when the Rangers showed up for training camp. He also patiently introduced his new team to his vaunted "system," a set of deceptively simple guidelines showing players how to position themselves on the ice during various situations.
"Fred makes you understand what's expected of you and where you should be in relation to your teammates," says Mike McEwen, a rarely used defenseman during the Ferguson era but a regular under Shero. "For instance, he's taught me that even when I've got the puck, I should put myself in the best defensive position. He makes hockey seem simple: just hit the other guy, bump him, get in his way. And he makes our practices interesting."
Shero let his feelings about the importance of team play be known one day when a New York Times reporter came around to do a story on Hedberg and Nilsson. New York's three-month-old newspaper strike had just ended, and one might have expected the welcome mat to be out for journalists. Forget it. The two Swedes had been deluged with interview requests during a recent road trip, and Shero, who had just had four front teeth extracted, began growling through the gap, "Why don't you leave them alone? Everybody wants to talk to the stars. Talk to the other guys. The last guy on the bench is just as important."
To their credit, Hedberg and Nilsson have held up well under the media blitz. They have obligingly provided questioners with their impressions of New York (Nilsson, a devotee of the stage, pronounced the Broadway theater "great"), and they take pains to speak English to each other whenever, as sometimes will happen in the Big Apple, a non-Swede is around. And it was with an apologetic air that they said they hoped to improve their play. "I think I could be passing and backchecking a little better," Hedberg said. He was careful to add, "But we're winning, so it's not important."
As Hedberg, Nilsson and the Rangers' other young stars move into the limelight, it is almost possible to overlook Phil Esposito, whose five goals this season have increased his NHL career hoard to 639, second only to Gordie Howe's 786. Acquired three years ago in a controversial trade with Boston, Esposito was promptly appointed New York's captain, earning him the resentment of teammates who thought Gilbert deserved the honor. Largely for that reason, Esposito was never comfortable in the role, and when Shero arrived, the 36-year-old Esposito resigned the captaincy and was succeeded by Maloney. Esposito claims to be unburdened, and he acts it. During practice last week, the gregarious center spied TV sportscaster Marv Albert and yelled, "Hey, why don't you recommend me as a summer replacement at the station?" At the time he put forward this job application, Esposito was in the middle of a rink-length rush.
Esposito has slowed down in recent years, and he has had to contend lately with unwelcome rumors that he will be traded. "Not long ago I would have been happy to play somewhere else," he says. "But now this club has the potential to win the Stanley Cup in the next year or two, and I'd like to be part of it."
The Rangers' early-season success heartens, in particular, Vadnais, the fellow who threw his clothes out the motel window. An ex-Bruin who came to the Rangers in the same deal as Esposito, the 33-year-old Vadnais is the only graybeard in the youthful defensive corps. He had come in for a lot of derision the last couple of years from the Garden crowds, but this season the booing has pretty much stopped. "When I make mistakes I'm a natural target," Vadnais says with a shrug. "What are the fans going to do, blame a 22-year-old kid? But when we win they forget the mistakes fast. I'll tell you, it's nice hearing cheers for a change."
Vadnais may even stick around after his laundry comes back.