Francis had waited a long time for Rod and Jean to finally go. The two kids from Montreal arrived at Francis' junior team in Guelph, Ont. nine years ago and soon convinced the coach that they would be stars in the NHL. But both have been hampered by injuries—Gilbert has undergone two serious back operations and Ratelle one—and both have always fallen short of their potential. This year they were reunited on a regular line for the first time since they played at Guelph. All the injuries and slumps were supposed to be behind them; they were ready to become everything Francis had hoped for.
Instead they flopped. As they failed to score during more and more early-season games, people understandably began to wonder about them. Was Ratelle, who after all had scored only 58 goals in parts of seven seasons in the NHL, really that good to begin with? Could Gilbert play hockey and still keep up his heavy East Side social schedule? The doubts remained until Henry came off the bench to replace Hadfield. Playing with Camille, Rod and Jean started clicking; and when Hadfield returned the three of them matured into one of the NHL's most powerful lines. During one recent 15-game stretch, the two combined for 22 goals and 32 assists. Gilbert and Ratelle are challenging Mikita and Hull for the scoring leadership; Hadfield, who has the hardest and most unpredictable shot on the line, would be close to them if he had not missed 15 games with his shoulder injury. "With two big shooters like Vic and Rod," says Francis, "I think it's one of the most exciting lines that ever played."
It is also an unusual line. For one thing, it does not spend a disproportionate amount of time on the ice. "That's one big advantage of having three balanced lines," Francis insists. "When you have two other lines that you can count on to hold the opposition on even terms, you don't have to put too much pressure on your big line." Gilbert agrees: "One thing that has helped us get stronger toward the end of the year is the way Emile has saved us. He has so many other good players that he doesn't have to use us too much and tire us out." If Billy Reay of Chicago had the depth to offer similar rests to Mikita and Hull, the Hawks might be far ahead of the league. But only Francis—and Toe Blake of Montreal—have that depth, and it is they that are finishing strongest.
Off the ice, the Rangers' big scorers are not nearly as close as the members of other top lines, such as Chicago's Scooters. Gilbert spends much of his free time, along with Bob Nevin, another unmarried Ranger, in the dating bars on Second Avenue and the liveliest spots on the road. Ratelle is a quiet family man who keeps to himself on most road trips. Hadfield, the club practical joker, gets along well with his French line-mates despite his well-known feud with every Frenchman who ever played for Montreal, but he does not hang around with Gilbert or Ratelle.
The contrasts among the three men come through in almost everything they say. Ratelle speaks most comfortably in French; in English he manages a mumbled, garbled, partly Gallic dialect that inspires Hadfield to remind him often, "Jean, how many times do I have to tell you, move your nose before you talk." Hadfield's own voice is loud and clear, with a wide range of variations and orchestrations—faked voices on telephones are among his favorite stunts. He once called teammate Earl Ingarfield in western Canada, impersonated a Boston executive and almost convinced Earl that he had been traded and should begin driving across the continent to Boston. Recently he kept the volatile Boom Boom Geoffrion on the phone for a half-hour "interview" by imitating a newspaperman.
Gilbert speaks both English and French smoothly and articulately. Presumably he would handle Mongolian with equal dexterity if the right Mongolian stewardess appeared in Mr. Laffs' pub some night after a game. "Sure I go out a lot," he was saying after a 6-1 rout of Detroit last week. "I'm a single guy. What do you expect me to do, sit home? I'm a sociable type, and I like to meet people. I know that when I was going badly, people said it was because I go out too much, but that's not true. I'm going out just as much now as I did when I wasn't scoring. The people who criticize me when they see me someplace don't realize that it's my way of relaxing. Some guys like to sleep, I like to chase girls."
"We don't have curfews except on the night before a game," says Francis. "On those nights I expect the players to be in bed by 11. On the other nights they're free to go out but, believe me, if they overdo it I'll know. You don't have to be a detective to see when a guy is out of shape. That hasn't been the case with Rod and Nevvy. Going out didn't cause Rod's slow start. He held out and missed two weeks of training camp; that hurt more than anything."
"I've talked with the coach about this subject," Rod says, concluding his speech on the matter with a flourish. "He understands that I would never do anything to jeopardize the team. My teammates know that, too. I have a lot of fun in life, but my responsibility to them comes first." The next morning Gilbert and Nevin missed a team bus.
The bus was taking the Rangers to West Point, N. Y. for an exhibition game. It left at the ungodly hour of 10 a.m. The other Rangers who live on Long Island, about 40 minutes away by train, all made it to the bus. Gilbert and Nevin, who live on the East Side, about 10 minutes away by cab, just missed it. They grabbed another cab, chased the bus 40 blocks and finally hailed it down. As they boarded, Francis grumbled something about a fine. "Fine them $200 each," quipped Donnie Marshall, "and we'll whack it up and make this trip worth our while."
"What happened?" asked a reporter.