"I told Francis that I had a bad back, a bad shoulder and a bad knee," said Geoffrion. "And I told him," said Francis, "that, no matter what he had, he wouldn't get past us in the waivers." So Geoffrion, whose mighty shots helped Montreal to seven first-place finishes and six Stanley Cups in 14 years, joined a team that has struggled into the playoffs only four times in the last 16 years. He moved his family from their house in Montreal, where hockey players are idolized, into an apartment in Glen Oaks, Queens, where most of the shoppers in the local supermarket think playing hockey means staying home from school.
To the Rangers, a team of chronic losers, Boom Boom brought a new and revolutionary point of view. "This club can win," he announced as soon as he arrived at Kingston. "It has good young players, but they don't believe in themselves. In Montreal in the old days we used to be amazed by the Rangers. They would beat themselves before they stepped on the ice. They went into a game expecting to lose. We've got to change that. If we just believe in ourselves, we can make the playoffs this year."
On the first day of camp, Geoffrion approached Vic Hadfield, the big blond forward, in the Kingston locker room. "How many goals did you score last year?" he asked. Hadfield, a fighter on the ice but a good-natured comic off it, is one of the most popular Rangers. Vic said he had scored 16. "Sixteen!" roared Geoffrion, his eyes flashing around at the other players. "You're big and strong and you're 26 years old, and you still only score 16 goals? You should score 30. What are you doing, dogging it?" The remark, with its stream of French-Canadian oaths, was not lost on the rest of the Rangers. "They need the needle," Geoffrion said later. "I want to make them fight me, fight each other, and mostly fight those other guys who are trying to get the money that we should be getting."
Geoffrion has been known to respond dramatically to needling. Jacques Plante, the brilliantly eccentric Canadien goalie who himself wound up as a Ranger, discovered this when he told a reporter that his aging former teammate had slowed down and lost his powerful shot. In his next game against Plante, the Boomer blasted two goals past Jacques and assisted in two more. "If people could get me going that way," he said recently, "I guess I can do the same thing to these guys."
During the Rangers' first workout, an eager rookie named Bobby Ash checked Geoffrion hard in front of the net. Boom Boom yelled, raised his stick and opened a deep cut over Ash's eye. "He was in my way," he explained simply. He apologized to Ash later, but he never implied that other Rangers shouldn't take similar action.
As the season of 1966-67 gets under way, the Rangers once again look like a good bet to finish last. But the Geoffrion spirit, added to the all-out scrambling of players like Hadfield and Reg Fleming, has clearly enlivened the New York bench, if not the New York ice. If nothing else, the team may lead the league in yelling. But Geoffrion emphasizes that he didn't come to New York just to be a cheerleader. He also wants to help the team score goals, and that part of his job hasn't been as easy. He found out very early in training that his legs are not in as good shape as his voice.
Before the season began, Ranger fans wishfully compared Geoffrion's comeback to Ted Lindsay's, hoping he might spark the team to the playoffs the way Lindsay did the 1964-65 Red Wings. "But you can't compare me with Lindsay," says Geoffrion. "Ted was working out with Detroit for a long time before he came back. And he was a free skater—he could move effortlessly, getting into full stride any time he wanted to. Me, I was never a free skater. It takes me a few strides to get my speed, and I'm not really very fast, anyway. Naturally, that makes it much harder for me than for Lindsay."
Geoffrion still appears to have the powerful shot that gave him his nickname 19 years ago when he was a junior player. But he has not been happy with his ability to make use of it. "Timing is what counts," he said. "Reflexes. I see my openings but I miss my chances by just a split second or so. That's what I've got to correct. The shot won't do much good if I can't get the timing back."
It came back for a moment in one exhibition game in Rochester, a game that showed as much about the problems of Geoffrion and the Rangers as anything that happened in training. The puck skidded loose in front of the net, and Boom Boom got to it first; with a quick wrist shot he drilled the puck into the net for what was probably his most satisfying goal of the exhibition season. The Rochester Americans had been his major rivals when he coached Quebec in the AHL, and the small crowd had come to see the home team torment the Boomer once more. They booed him all evening, and when he scored he raised his arms and skated around the ice in the traditional hockey gesture of triumph and contempt for an unfriendly crowd.
It was a good moment, a moment that made people recall many crucial goals of the past—goals scored in hostile rinks against top teams. It hardly mattered that this time the opposition was minor-league and the goalie was a bald 35-year-old journeyman named Bobby Perreault. For a moment, the sense of victory was there. Then it faded all too quickly. The Rangers, playing their fourth game in five nights, tired badly and lost 5-3. The Rochester rooters made it clear that, in their opinion, Bernie Geoffrion had had it, and by the end of the debacle the Boomer felt very old indeed. "It was a terrible performance," Francis said after the game. "But it may be for the best. It sets things up for a very tough practice tomorrow."