Search

GUTS, THEN GLORY Ranger general manager Neil Smith made the tough choices that finally brought a championship to New York

June 22, 1994
June 22, 1994

Table of Contents
June 22, 1994

POINT AFTER
  • 96
Departments

GUTS, THEN GLORY Ranger general manager Neil Smith made the tough choices that finally brought a championship to New York

NEIL SMITH WAS DRIVING TO LONG ISLAND FOR a New York Ranger game
against the New York Islanders in early March when the scan button on
his radio settled on WFAN, the local all-sports station. Smith, the
Ranger president and general manager, doesn't usually tune in to
jock-around-the-clock radio -- ''Mostly I listen to FM because Howard
Stern doesn't comment on our trades,'' he says -- but on this
particular Saturday afternoon he was transfixed as a caller declared
that Smith didn't have the guts to make a deal that would ensure the
Rangers the 1994 Stanley Cup.
On March 21 in Calgary, as Smith kept dialing the phone in his
hotel room, making the deals that brought Stephane Matteau and Brian
Noonan from the Chicago Blackhawks, that moved Mike Gartner to the
Toronto Maple Leafs for playoff-wise Glenn Anderson, that rescued
Craig MacTavish from the Edmonton Oilers, there was a small voice in
the back of his head, the voice of Jim from Plainview or Vinnie from
Paramus or whoever it was. ''No damn guts, huh?'' Smith thought, as
he made five deals in the hours before the NHL trade deadline.
You're not paying attention if you question Smith's fortitude,
because visible proof of it stands behind the Ranger bench in the
person of Mike Keenan. A general manager has to feel confident,
secure, good in his own skin, as the French say, to hire the dynamic
but difficult Keenan, who brought with him not only a formidable
coaching record but also experience as a general manager. Keenan is,
to say the least, a control freak. If Smith were an insecure general
manager looking over his shoulder instead of looking to his
franchise's future, he might have passed. But Smith showed moxie, not
only by hiring Keenan in April 1993 but also by turning over 20% of
the No. 1 team in the NHL with his deadline trading. He did it all
while wearing his Islander 1982 Stanley Cup ring, which, around
Madison Square Garden, takes the most guts of all.
''When I was playing hockey, I was tall and skinny, relatively
weak although skilled,'' says Smith, an International Hockey League
defenseman in the Islander system from 1978 to '80. ''I'm sure I was
called a wimp behind my back. All my life I heard that a guy my size,
6 ft. 2 in., 190, had to play more physically. I always had to prove
to people I had guts. Maybe it explains the way I am now.''
Grabbing leftwinger Adam Graves from the Oilers as a restricted
free agent in 1991 when he was going to cost the Rangers compensation
(which turned out to be Troy Mallette) showed some of Smith's true
grit, and his acquisition in '92 and '93 of players like Esa Tikkanen
and Steve Larmer with big numbers both on their contracts and their
personal odometers was a bold stroke, but the most nervy deal Smith
probably ever made was for a '75 Buick Electra. He negotiated the
price down from $2,200 to $1,800 by waving 18 $100 bills at the
owner. When he discovered later that day that the odometer had been
tampered with, Smith called the former owner and threatened to
complain to the Nassau County district attorney. The panic-stricken
woman said Smith could have his money back if he didn't go to the
authorities, but Smith said he would be willing to forget the
matter if she would, say, knock another $800 off the price.
''I drove to the house with my girlfriend and told her to wait in
the car, that if I wasn't out in five minutes, to get the cops,''
Smith says. ''Hey, maybe somebody was waiting for me with a gun. That
took guts. Or stupidity.''
But Let's Make a Deal Neil got the wheels on his terms, just as he
often gets things his way. While chants of ''1940! 1940!'' echoed
through NHL rinks, Smith, who was named the New York general manager
in 1989, had his own mantra: Get one free, get another one free. His
mother, Marg Cater, taught him that the 11th Commandment was Thou
shalt not buy retail. ''She was the supreme bargain hunter, and it
was a real source of pride,'' Smith says. ''Never buy anything that
didn't have the sale sticker. The ultimate triumph was not only
getting the sale price -- but a discount on top of that.''
Now Smith has his shoe guy and his suit guy and his electronics
guy. A BMW dealership once lent him a motorcycle for nine months,
which is not startling because athletes and even team executives
often reap the perks of their positions. What makes this a Neil Smith
deal was that BMW paid for the insurance. ''It always seems that when
Neil's in Canada with the scouts, he says he's got only U.S. money
and that when he's in the States, he's carrying only Canadian
money,'' says Ranger assistant general manager Larry Pleau. ''My
favorite story is about the time we were driving, and he told me to
pay for the tolls because he was wearing new jeans. He said the
pockets were too tight, he couldn't get his hand in.''
Before he became the Ranger boss, the last time Smith had tried
his luck in the big city, almost a decade earlier, he had been making
$10,000 selling pocket vanity mirrors. This time the prospects were
hardly brighter. Smith was 35, the youngest general manager in the
NHL, an unknown except perhaps to the 15,000 people in Glens Falls,
N.Y., where he had been general manager of the Adirondack Red Wings
of the American Hockey League. When he arrived in New York, Smith had
less than two months to hire a coach, hire assistant coaches, hire
two trainers, replenish half the scouting staff and find an assistant
general manager, a minor league affiliate and a training-camp site.
''The Rangers were a joke,'' Smith says. ''They were a Broadway
show, not a hockey team. They just seemed to be one of those
franchises that could never / win. They didn't do things the hockey
way. They did it the Broadway way.''
Smith's inclinations were to build through the draft -- he had
forged a reputation as an astute scout with the Islanders and the
Detroit Red Wings -- but after a half century of frustration, Ranger
fans were not about to wait even a New York minute for a winner.
Smith cleaned out the gang of Corey Millen-type smurfs the Rangers
seemed to favor before he arrived on the scene and replaced them with
bigger players. He brought Mark Messier in as the cornerstone in 1991
and complemented him with six former Oilers who were part of
Edmonton's Stanley Cup dynasty, from '84 to '90. When questioned by
organization people about his eastern branch of the Oiler alumni
association last year, Smith replied, ''Who should I get? Sharks and
Senators?'' And he cherry-picked players who were having contract
problems with other teams, including Graves, Messier, Kevin Lowe,
Glenn Healy and Steve Larmer.
Of course, Smith also has scored in the draft, breaking a barrier
in 1991 when he took Alexei Kovalev with the 15th pick overall,
thereby making Kovalev the first Russian ever chosen in the first
round. As he walked to the podium in Buffalo that day, Smith carried
the team jersey and cap traditionally given to draftees even though
he knew Kovalev was not in the building. If Smith had gone up without
the garb, NHL people would have assumed he was drafting the Russian.
He wanted to keep them guessing until the last second, just one more
detail in a life devoted to details.
This is how the man thinks: Smith assigned Sergei Nemchinov number
13 because he realized Russians don't have the same superstitions as
North Americans. He gave Greg Gilbert number 17 because Gilbert wore
it when he played on the Islanders' Stanley Cup-winning teams in '82
and '83, and ''if you look at that number at a certain angle from the
top of the Garden,'' says Smith, ''it looks like number 7, Rod
Gilbert's number. Same name on the back.'' Smith handed number 21 to
Sergei Zubov in '92 because he knew Zubov would be going to
Binghamton and the same number was available there.
Is worrying about this stuff healthy?
''I've spent every minute of my life the last five years trying to
make the Rangers into the old Islanders, the Oilers, the Canadiens,''
Smith says. ''I wanted the city to kick this 1940 thing. I told all
the people I hired: Don't do it for me, do it for the logo.''

This is an article from the June 22, 1994 issue

BOX: HOW THE RANGERS WERE BUILT

Here's how Smith acquired all the players, save Brian Leetch and
Mike Richter, who won the Cup for the Rangers

JUNE 15, 1985
MIKE RICHTER
Second-round draft choice, 28th overall

JUNE 21, 1986
BRIAN LEETCH
First-round draft choice, ninth overall

JUNE 16, 1990
SERGEI ZUBOV
Fifth-round draft choice, 85th overall

JUNE 16, 1990
SERGEI NEMCHINOV
Twelfth-round draft choice, 244th overall

MARCH 5, 1991
JOEY KOCUR
Trade from Detroit with Per Djoos for Kevin Miller, Jim Cummins
and Dennis Vial

JUNE 9, 1991
ALEXEI KOVALEV
First-round draft choice, 15th overall

SEPT. 3, 1991
ADAM GRAVES
Signed as a free agent

OCT. 4, 1991
MARK MESSIER
Trade from Edmonton for Bernie Nicholls, Steven Rice and Louie
DeBrusk

NOV. 12, 1991
JEFF BEUKEBOOM
Trade from Edmonton for David Shaw

MARCH 9, 1991
JAY WELLS
Trade from Buffalo for Randy Moller

DEC. 11, 1992
KEVIN LOWE
Trade from Edmonton for Roman Oksyuta and a third-round draft
choice

MARCH 17, 1983
ESA TIKKANEN
Trade from Edmonton for Doug Weight

APRIL 17, 1993
MIKE KEENAN
Signed 5 1/2 months after being fired as G.M. by Chicago

JUNE 24, 1993
DOUG LIDSTER
Trade from Vancouver for John Vanbiesbrouck

JUNE 25, 1993
GLENN HEALY
Trade from Tampa Bay for a third-round draft choice

JULY 29, 1993
GREG GILBERT
Signed as a free agent

SEPT. 9, 1993
ALEXANDER KARPOVTSEV
Trade from Quebec for Mike Hurlbut

NOV. 2, 1993
STEVE LARMER
Three-way trade from Chicago (via Hartford) for Darren Turcotte
and James Patrick

MARCH 21, 1994
GLENN ANDERSON
Trade from Toronto for Mike Gartner

MARCH 21, 1994
CRAIG MACTAVISH
Trade from Edmonton for Todd Marchant

MARCH 21, 1994
STEPHANE MATTEAU
Trade from Chicago with Brian Noonan for Tony Amonte

MARCH 21, 1994
BRIAN NOONAN
Trade from Chicago with Stephane Matteau for Tony Amonte