You're young," Coach Emile Francis told his perennially flagging Rangers after a lackluster practice session a few weeks ago. "Most of you have wives and kids to support. You haven't got much time in this game, you know. You'd better make up your minds that you're going to go all-out now and make your money while you still can. I hope you understand that."
Bernard (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, who was standing near the back of the group with his dark eyes fixed on the ice, understood very well. But not because he was young. He had heard it all many times before, and he knew all about the supposedly fleeting nature of a hockey career. A 35-year-old veteran of 14 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, he had scored more goals than all but four players in the history of the game, and he was now a rookie on the lowliest club in the National Hockey League.
Two years ago Boom Boom figured he had gone as far as he could go as a hockey player, and he decided to quit while he was still near the top. Then things began to go wrong. His plans for a coaching career didn't work out, and businesses outside hockey didn't appeal to him. A few months ago Geoffrion let it be known that he might consider making a comeback as a player. The Rangers, who need all the help they can get, eagerly paid the $30,000 waiver price and $25,000-a-year salary it took to get Geoffrion. So this fall the former Montreal hero was at the New York club's Kingston, Ont. training camp, battling young kids for the puck and trying to find out just how much of his ability is still there.
Many players have found hockey a very hard game to quit. Some retire and then change their minds; others just go on, afraid even to mention retirement, trying to steal a few extra years with aging legs and remembered skills. A few old players have enjoyed the kind of success Geoffrion is hoping for. Gordie Howe may not be the skater he once was, but at 38 he is still a genuine superstar. Ted Lindsay, Gordie's old teammate, returned to the Detroit ice at 39, after four years away from hockey, and helped carry the Red Wings to a championship. Allan Stanley at 40 is an enduring mainstay of the Toronto defense, and ageless (some say 46) Johnny Bower remains one of the game's top goalies.
Others have been less fortunate, unable to keep up the pace yet unable to quit the game. Doug Harvey, once the greatest defenseman ever to play in the NHL, now slides grimly through the minor leagues at 41, plagued by money problems and doubts but unwilling to attempt some other career.
Geoffrion, who is neither as broke as Harvey nor as remarkably skilled as Gordie Howe, was never comfortable away from hockey. He once invested in a restaurant-motel-nightclub operation, but he soon sold out (with a modest profit) and looked for a spot in the only business he really knows or likes.
"I guess a lot of players have found out the same things," he said recently, in the deep voice that led him to consider a career as a singer until Boston Defenseman Leo Boivin damaged his vocal cords with a cross-check to the throat in 1962. "You get tired of all the traveling, and you think you'll be happy away from the game. Then you stay home awhile, and you miss it. Anyway, I had to find some job, didn't I?"
Geoffrion was happy for a while as coach of the Quebec Aces in the American Hockey League and would have remained in that job if he had been given a choice. He wasn't. "My teams led the league for two years," he said. "But we lost the league playoffs, and the attendance wasn't good. One day last spring I walked into the office and they said, 'If someone offers you a job, better take it.' I know the press releases said I resigned. But I'll tell you I was fired. I would have liked to find another coaching job, but there were none around that looked good."
The job that always looked best to Geoffrion was that held, apparently in perpetuity, by Coach Toe Blake of Montreal. "But I guess Blake feels the same way about hockey as a lot of the players," says Boom Boom. "He doesn't want to quit." The best the Canadiens could offer was a job coaching one of their junior teams. "I thought they would give me a shot at something better than that," he said. "I've done a lot for them over the years. But I'm a professional, and I've got to face whatever happens. It was hard for me to leave Montreal, where I lived all my life. But I'll just forget it."
He might have forgotten his grievances more quickly in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs are consistent winners and where Coach Punch Imlach made it clear that Geoffrion would be welcome as a player. But under the NHL's waiver system the Rangers had first call.