As this cockeyed hockey season glides into March it is apparent that New York is in serious danger of losing the last of its great failure symbols, the Rangers (see cover). The town that gave you the throbbing real-life stories of the Knicks, the Jets and the Mets is watching over the Rangers with a pride mingled with astonishment and some apprehension, for if ever there was a club capable of pulling an el foldo in the spring of the year, it has been the Rangers. Beginning in the 1940s, when Fiorello LaGuardia was still mayor, the Rangers compiled a record of futility unmatched in major league hockey. For two decades they were incontestably the worst team in the NHL.
But last weekend the new, space-age Rangers were on top in the NHL's East Division, where they had strutted since way back in November, and were locked in a furious race with the Boston Bruins for the division championship. The Bruins had moved into a first-place tie with New York after a fortnight in which the Rangers lost their two best defensemen. The veteran Jim Neilson, who twisted a knee, was due back momentarily, but sophomore Brad Park, a slick puck-carrier and heavy hitter, was probably out for the rest of the season with a fractured right ankle. Question No. 1 as the Rangers faced Thursday's showdown with the Bruins on Boston ice was whether a team so maimed could regain its momentum.
Another question was puzzling the hockey world—whatever happened to the mighty Montreal Canadiens? As they scuffled along five points behind the Rangers in third place, Coach Claude Ruel offered to quit. Rumors were flying that the Canadien dynasty was dying. Maybe so, maybe not.
Beyond dispute, though, was the fact that the Rangers have become a very fine team—and that due entirely to the heart and mind of a single man, Emile Percy Francis, the general manager and coach. Not since Vince Lombardi revived those corpses in Green Bay has one man done so much for one team.
For a New York sports figure Francis is strangely inconspicuous. Not much taller than a parking meter, he dresses with no distinction and avoids the hum of Manhattan whenever he can, preferring the anonymous life of a Long Island suburb. He presides over a team almost equally lacking in New York glitter. The closest thing the Rangers have to a swinger is Rod Gilbert, a deeply side-burned forward who makes the discothèque scene but is not exactly a Rocket Richard on the ice. The leading scorer is a mouthful of Czech consonants, Walter Tkaczuk, who doesn't have enough clout to get the Madison Square Garden PA man to pronounce his name right. He is "ka-shook" at home but "tay-chuck" on Seventh Avenue.
Francis himself is the son of a French mother and a Welsh father and the survivor of a goal-tending career rich only in mediocrity. During 14 years he played with a dozen teams, but in only 95 NHL games, giving up 355 goals for a 3.74 average. Even so, somebody nicknamed him The Cat for his quickness.
The only thing big-league about Francis was his courage. On one occasion Francis took the ice for the Black Hawks with a dislocated left shoulder strapped up in a leather brace. When a shot whistled in, Francis could not raise his hand up far enough to glove the puck, which split his nose down the middle and knocked out five teeth.
When the little goalie at last hung up his pads, his only claim on history was having introduced the trapper glove ("A gen-u-ine George McQuinn-model first baseman's mitt") to the goaltending profession. It was not until 1961 that Francis joined the Ranger organization—as coach and general manager of the Guelph (Ont.) Juniors. Three years later he was appointed general manager in New York.
What Francis found in the old Garden was a Ranger team so puny in size that almost any opponent could intimidate it. Francis started rebuilding with players like Orland Kurtenbach, Wayne Hillman and Reggie Fleming. They weren't the slickest men around, but they were mean. He also dealt for the future, sending the aging Andy Bathgate, New York's alltime scoring leader, to Toronto for three young players—Rod Seiling, Arnie Brown and Bob Nevin—who are Ranger regulars even today. Given an open checkbook by President Bill Jennings, Francis set about rebuilding a tumbledown farm system and increased the number of full-time scouts from four to eight, part-timers from 18 to 52.
In December of 1965, with the team in last place, Red Sullivan was fired as coach and Francis took over. He led New York into the Stanley Cup playoffs with a fourth-place finish in 1966-67, and into second—only four points behind Montreal—in 1967-68. After that season Jennings persuaded Francis that handling both the bench and the front office was too onerous for one man. Boom Boom Geoffrion was appointed coach, and the Rangers started well in the fall of 1968. But by January they were in last place again. On January 17, Geoffrion collapsed from an attack of ulcers. Francis stepped in and coached the team to a third-place finish.