Oh, You Kids, You

Rookies Brian Leetch and Tony Granato have given the New York Rangers the lift they very much needed
January 30, 1989

Finding a good bagel is never a problem, and the nightlife is tough to beat. But New York City is no place to break into the NHL. Ranger general manager Phil Esposito, a compulsive swapper, hates to go to lunch until he has at least discussed a multiplayer deal. Short-fused coach Michel Bergeron likes rookies the way W.C. Fields liked children: parboiled and fricasseed. The tabloids are merciless, and the fans would boo Mother Teresa.

So, let's see how this year's crop of Ranger rookies is muddling through.

"Great," says 20-year-old defense-man Brian Leetch, whose 44 points are second among NHL fledglings. "I love it here."

"An exciting and positive experience," says teammate Tony Granato, 24, who leads the league's first-year players in goals and overall scoring, with 31 goals and 50 points.

And the gushing has only begun. "I love these guys," bubbles Bergeron, who certainly can be excused for being enthusiastic. Last season, to his mortification, the Rangers were one of only five NHL clubs to miss the playoffs. As of Sunday, despite a raft of injuries and distractions, the Blueshirts were in first place in the Patrick Division, three points ahead of the Penguins, and their 26-15-7 record was third-best in the league.

Granato and Leetch, good friends and 1988 U.S. Olympic teammates with markedly different personalities and playing styles, have made the difference. In a tie and a victory, respectively, over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 14 and 15, the Super Rookies, as they have been dubbed by the New York Daily News, combined for 11 points and six goals. Last week Granato had a hat trick in a 6-4 win over Chicago, a goal and an assist in a 5-0 win over St. Louis and a goal and an assist in a 5-4 overtime win over Vancouver.

"The great part is that we didn't have to give anyone up for Brian and Tony," says goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, whose razor-sharp play has also helped put the Rangers among the NHL elite. "It's like the stork brought them."

With his breathtaking offensive skills, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Leetch, a first-round pick who played a year at Boston College before competing in the Olympics, gives the Rangers an attacking defense-man from the Denis Potvin and Paul Coffey mold—in effect, a fourth forward, which seems to be a prerequisite for Stanley Cup teams of the '80s. And he even seems to be justifying the comparisons being made between him and Bobby Orr. "I saw Orr at the same age, and I put Brian in the same breath with Orr," says Esposito. "I've never done that with anyone."

Granato, meanwhile, is the surprise of the season. A sixth-round pick in 1982 who played four years at the University of Wisconsin, he is a scavenging, relentless digger who fills any forward position Bergeron needs him to play. Granato kills penalties and annoys opponents to distraction, thereby drawing a passel of penalties. Granato reminds Esposito of Johnny (Pie) McKenzie, one of his Bruin teammates from the '60s and '70s, who was, says Espo, "the most aggravating little bastard that ever played the game."

Leetch was put on 2½ weeks of forced rest on Dec. 8 when a slap shot broke his left foot. Although the Rangers' power play went to the dogs in his absence, Leetch's injury might have been a blessing. Bergeron had been leaving him on the ice for 30 to 35 minutes a night—"I had to do it; we had injuries," says the coach—causing Leetch to become leg-weary.

In just his third game back from the fracture, Leetch put on a virtuoso display, setting up three Ranger goals to lead New York past the Blackhawks 4-1. "I know there are a lot of rookies, but Brian is the rookie of the year," Bergeron said after the game.

Two nights later Bergeron had to amend his pronouncement. Granato's third-period breakaway goal gave the Rangers a 5-4 come-from-behind victory over Hartford after Granato had set up the game-tying goal with a crunching check on Whaler Sylvain Cote. Said Bergeron: "For the first time in the history of hockey, there should be two rookies of the year."

"But rookies wear loud ties and ask the trainer dumb questions," says Vanbiesbrouck. "These guys don't act like rookies."

Leetch's adolescence ended abruptly in December 1987, when coach Dave Peterson appointed him captain of the U.S. Olympic team. Once terrified to deliver a speech before his sixth-grade class in Cheshire, Conn., Leetch quickly got accustomed to lights and microphones, but can live without them. Granato, who was married last summer, is the eldest child in a family of eight living in Downers Grove, Ill., a bedroom community west of Chicago. He is more outgoing than Leetch, and his feistiness has tended to discourage any Ranger who might have entertained ideas about hazing him.

But every so often, the rookie in Leetch and Granato surfaces. After the Rangers' 6-5 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Oct. 29, Granato was hanging his head for having missed two checks, each of which led to a Flyer goal. "I was worried about playing in the next game," he says. The concern was understandable; young players who displease Bergeron often find themselves benched or, worse, plying their craft in the International Hockey League.

But Bergeron gently told Granato to forget about the game, saying Granato was bound to make mistakes and shouldn't worry about them. The next night Granato scored four goals as New York walloped Pittsburgh 9-2.

Bergeron can overlook Granato's goofs because of the intensity with which he makes them: Granato always appears to be playing for his life. He combines excellent speed and a quick, 3 hard shot with fierce tenacity. Goons, goalies, 160-pound Swedes—Granato hits anyone and everyone in an opposition sweater. His hitting, perhaps even more than his goal-scoring, has earned him the rabid affection of the "blueseaters," as the charmingly primitive denizens of Madison Square Garden's least expensive section are known. "Tony the Tiger," they call him, although Ranger defenseman Dean Kennedy insists that "he reminds me more of a weasel."

Granato arrived at the Rangers' preseason camp with fire in his belly, unburdened by anyone's expectations but his own. "I was playing for my hockey life," he says. "If I didn't make it this year, I wasn't going to get another chance."

The Rangers did have an eye on him, though. After the Olympics, while Leetch stepped directly into the Rangers' lineup. Granato reported to the club's Denver affiliate. There he scored 22 goals and had 18 assists in 30 games.

But the Rangers' brain trust had one question—the same one voiced by every scout who has appraised Granato: Can he play in the NHL at his size? The Rangers' bio sheet on Granato says he goes 5'10", 185 pounds, easily a 10-pound exaggeration.

As Vanbiesbrouck puts it, though. "What good is size if you don't use it? I know a lot of 6'4" guys who don't have half Tony's heart."

Will Granato's abrasive style catch up with him? "You know what they say: Live by the sword,..." says New Jersey defenseman Ken Daneyko. "You can't really fight a guy that small without looking stupid, so a lot of guys will leave him alone. But one of these days someone's going to snap on him. Tomas Sandstrom was one of the dirtiest players in the league until [the Flyers' Dave] Brown cross-checked him. Now he's clean as a whistle."

Granato is nowhere near the stick expert Sandstrom is, but he is no choirboy, either. And Daneyko's message is lost on him. "My style of play has always been head-on," he says. "You can't back down from a guy just because he's big and strong."

Unlike Granato, Leetch did not have the luxury of sneaking up on the NHL. As the Olympics wound down last February, Bergeron publicly counted the hours until Leetch would be joining the Rangers. "It would be nice to give him a week or two off. but we need him right away." Bergeron said. The Olympic flame had scarcely been extinguished when the Ranger coach had Leetch in a Ranger sweater.

The antidote for depression is work, which is why Leetch was happy to keep playing after the sorry finish in the Olympics. "It was tough after Calgary," he says. "It was over so quick, and we hadn't come close to what we'd wanted to do. It was good for me to go right to New York. That way I didn't have time to sit back and dwell on the Olympics."

After the Rangers missed the playoffs, because they had two fewer wins than New Jersey, Leetch's disappointment was muted: "I felt worse for the guys who had been there all year." He had 14 points in his 17 games with the Rangers and answered a question that had come up during the Olympics. The U.S. team had finished a sorry seventh, mainly because its defense was in constant disarray. Everyone knew Leetch could rush the puck, but could he play NHL-caliber defense?

Though slightly unsteady at first, he adjusted well. "I'm not going to outmuscle too many people," he says, "so I do what I can to angle them, slow them down, knock the puck off their stick, anything I can to throw them off."

His interminable season over at last, Leetch settled down for a long summer's nap on Cape Cod, where he shared a house with some old Boston College chums. "For the first month," says Leetch. "I just slept."

In camp last September, the presence of former Canadiens star Guy Lafleur deflected much of the media attention Leetch would have received. "I was grateful for that," he admits. "I'm not good at being a very high-profile guy. It was nice just to be Brian Leetch for a while."

Ever since his high school days (he scored 40 goals in 28 games in his senior year at Avon Old Farms, a tony Connecticut prep school) Leetch has been burdened with the Coffey and Orr comparisons, but he has tried to shrug the matter off. "I expect a lot out of myself, but I don't apply so much pressure that I'm tight out there," he says. "The game is still fun for me."

Still, beneath his mellow exterior, one senses in Leetch a steely resolve to maximize his great gifts. Though he will not turn 21 until March 3, he goes about his job with a discipline and gravity that are excruciatingly adult. He lives in Greenwich, Conn., in the home of a friend from college. It is not exactly life in the fast lane.

Says Leetch, "I haven't gone to any plays or museums or anything. But now that I have a girlfriend, maybe I'll start doing some more civilized things."

It is ironic, and a little amusing, that after Esposito's 40 trades over the past 2½ years, of all the hockey hessians he has assembled, the two most important Rangers of 1988-89 are likely to be rookies Espo didn't even draft.

"Phil's a businessman," says Jack Leetch. Brian's father. "I'm sure he'd trade Brian or Tony tomorrow if he thought it would get the Rangers closer to the Stanley Cup."

Trade Brian or Tony? That possibility shrinks with each game the Super Rookies play. As Vanbiesbrouck says, "I can't remember what the team was like without them."

PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO...because the ever-scrappy Granato (far left) was there to stuff in the rebound. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOThis Leetch shot meant double trouble for Pittsburgh... PHOTOANTHONY NESTEIn pre-Olympic games, Granato (top) and Leetch (bottom) made the Soviets see red. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO[See caption above.] PHOTOANDY FREEBERGFor Granato (left) and Leetch, simple pleasures such as video baseball are enough.

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