No matter what develops in the National Hockey League as the recognized power teams from Montreal and Detroit gain momentum, the 1955 season has already provided some startling surprises. The very fact that overall attendance is up signals the advent of some expert and exciting hockey in all six NHL cities. But the top surprise of all for the past six weeks has been the amazing showing of the New York Rangers, a team almost unanimously expected to finish last, and yet a team which, after its first 17 games, confounded nearly everyone by standing in second place with eight wins and three ties.
The man who has been largely responsible for a new exuberance among long-suffering New York hockey followers is the Rangers' 41-year-old rookie coach—French-Canadian Phil Watson. A fiery little individual, he is the same Phil Watson who used to center a line by Bryan Hextall and Lynn Patrick in the prewar days when the Rangers enjoyed some of their most glorious achievements, such as reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs almost as a matter of course.
As one of the league's two rookie coaches ( Montreal's Toe Blake is the other), Watson can hardly afford to be too optimistic or prophetic about where his young Ranger club will finish. "I'll tell you," he said recently, "about these first six weeks. It hasn't been my coaching or my brains that has won for us. We've just been awfully lucky in avoiding serious injuries. I think, sure, we're a good hockey club, but not the best. Montreal is the best and Detroit should finish second. Then there'll be one hell of a fight for the last two playoff spots. I've never finished last in my life, and I don't intend to this season."
Since he signed on, as the seventh coach in the 30 years the Rangers have been members of the NHL, Phil Watson has acquired the reputation of being something of an ironfisted ruthless tyrant who yells at his boys with all the terrifying authority of a drill sergeant at Marine boot camp. "Actually," says Watson, "the press is unfair in calling me a slave driver. I'm a driver, yes, but I'm a driver only because I want to win so badly. I've got my ideas on how to run a hockey club, and one of them is that the players have got to be thinking hockey 24 hours a day. The only way I can enforce this idea is to be a strict disciplinarian: longer and harder practice sessions, a midnight curfew, no beer drinking and automatic $100 fines for the first offense in breaking any of the rules." It is a tribute to Watson's persuasive powers that he has as yet found no occasion to fine anyone.
Furthermore, on their showing thus far it is apparent that the Rangers have acquired much of the fire and drive which Phil demonstrated during his dozen seasons as a Broadway Blue-shirt. Aside from the ever-present threat that Watson may dispatch them to the farm club in Providence for showing even the faintest disinterest in their trade, Ranger players find themselves working the new season under a new ultimatum: each man is allotted a certain number of goals which Watson not only expects, but orders him to score. In the first six weeks of the season the New Yorkers happily showed the management that they didn't mind this ultimatum. They led the entire league in scoring. As players like Ron Murphy, Wally Hergesheimer, Dave Creighton and Andy Bathgate began to find the scoring range both at home and on the road, Watson discovered that his defense, which had been tagged as the league's worst, was gaining just the sort of confidence required in front of spunky little Goalie Lorne Worsley. It has all added up to a Ranger team skating with a purpose and cleverly executing plays which Watson himself demonstrates with a personal touch during the morning workouts. "I yell at them, sure, but I yell encouragement," says Watson. "I impress on them that they owe it to the public to win. Hockey has no place for sentiment. I don't give a damn if the public hates me as long as my players respect me. If they respect me they'll produce. When they produce, New York will win its share of games. That's all I care about."