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As the New York Rangers, hockey's wealthiest losers, piled one humiliating defeat on another in the first half of this season, spending more time checking the Dow-Joneses than the Espositos, Orrs and Cournoyers, their beleaguered Goaltender Eddie Giacomin had a thought. "What we ought to do," Giacomin suggested acidly, "is call Henry Kissinger and get him to stop the bombing in our zone." Coincidence or not, Henry the K, fresh from settling an international crisis of another sort, strolled into Madison Square Garden the other day for a closeup inspection of the Rangers as they played the Los Angeles Kings.
For once Dr. Kissinger was too late. Emile (Cat) Francis, the dictatorial little general manager of the Rangers who believes the best diplomacy is a well-placed kick alongside the wallet and a mouthful of invective, had already put at least a temporary halt to the bombing by firing Larry Popein, the man he had picked as coach only a few months before, and replacing him with General Manager Francis. It was the third time Francis had personally fired and replaced a Ranger coach in midseason—and it was undoubtedly the last. "I'm not saying that Emile will coach until he has two heart attacks," said William M. Jennings, president of the Rangers, "but I don't think we will undertake the hiring of a new coach again." Francis agreed. "The only change left now," he said, "would be for me to get out myself."
When the Cat returned to the Ranger bench three weeks ago, he inherited a team that seemed more concerned with the interest yield on tax-free municipal bonds—"We're getting what amounts to 13�%," said one player—than the pucks that were whizzing past Giacomin in record numbers. The Rangers are easily the highest-paid players in hockey, with a 20-man-team payroll of almost $2 million, twice the National Hockey League's average. Defenseman Brad Park makes the most—$250,000 a year. This is the highest salary in the entire NHL, and it is by no means Park's sole income. There are performance bonuses, playoff pools and nonhockey loot. Vic Hadfield, Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle, who make up the so-called GAG Line (for Goal-a-Game), all earn more than $175,000 a season, while Giacomin, Walt Tkaczuk, Rod Seiling and Jim Neilson are in the $125,000-$l 50,000 range. Only one Ranger regular makes less than the NHL's average wage of $55,000. But poor Popein. His salary as a rookie coach was reportedly $35,000, mere tipping money for his players.
The Rangers were healthy and wealthy, but so unwise as to play like butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, and they faced the chilling prospect of finishing in fifth or sixth place in the East and missing the Stanley Cup playoffs. "Let's face it, the money had to make them a little complacent," says Glen Sather, a fiery left wing whom Francis had exiled to St. Louis. Not that the Rangers ever finished in first place, mind you (not since 1942, anyway) or won the cup (not since 1940, before most of the present players were born), but for the last seven years they had always played well enough to extend the season by a week or two and provide the Garden management with the playoff money that converts red ink to black.
Like most hockey teams, the Rangers normally must make the playoffs in order to turn a profit on the year's operations. Last season was an exception because they received $857,000 as their share of NHL expansion fees, and this year the Rangers will begin collecting installment payments on the $4 million indemnification fee the New York Islanders agreed to pay them for infringing on their territory. According to Jennings, each playoff game in the Round Building, which is what he calls the Garden, nets approximately $100,000, so last season's four games brought the Rangers $400,000. Peanuts, you say? Well, consider this. In the last fiscal year the Round Building produced gross revenues of some $42 million but returned only $100,000 to the parent Madison Square Garden Corporation. Thus if the Rangers had not made it into the playoffs, the Garden would have operated in the red.
Little wonder, then, that Jennings and Francis decided to jettison Popein. "I'm going to crack down on these guys," Francis promised when he took over after a woeful 7-2 loss in Buffalo. "We'd better make the playoffs—and you can underline the word better." The Cat's anger registered. "We know if we don't start producing now," Park admitted, "someone else will be leaving—and it won't be Emile."
Francis gets the Rangers' full respect and attention because he alone makes player trades and he decides how much money they should be paid. "Popein couldn't scare us," said Left Wing Steve Vickers. Since his return Francis has positively frightened the Rangers to seven victories and two ties in 10 games, including a win and a tie in last weekend's series with the Minnesota North Stars. Vickers must be terrified of the Cat. Last season's top rookie when he scored 30 goals, Vickers had not scored in Popein's final 15 games as coach and, in fact, had spent much of his time at the end of the bench. In his first official act as coach, Francis reunited Vickers with his old linemates, Tkaczuk and Right Wing Bill Fairbairn, and in 10 games Vickers scored five goals. More important, the Rangers have taken a secure hold on third place behind Boston and Montreal in the East and seem assured of another playoff appearance, if not the cup itself.
Still, the early-season problems of this haughty team reinforced a belief, long and widely held, that it can—or will—play its best only for the Cat. "It's a human thing," says Gilbert. "Francis understands us and we understand him. It's really his team because he brought us all together. He can relate to us and we can relate to him. The Cat knows how to project his thoughts and ideas to us. He can tell us we're playing awful and do it in a way that doesn't make us mad." Says power-play specialist Bobby Rousseau: "Coaches are like servants today. They've got to do more than just coach. They've got to know what to say to the players—and how to say it." Popein clearly could not handle that part of the job. "There was no communication between us, no life at all," says Left Wing Ted Irvine.
That Francis hired Popein in the first place is traceable to the Cat's organization-man mind. "He had been with us in the organization for five years," Francis says, "and it was only fair that I gave him the first opportunity. I also thought he was the perfect man for the job, and I didn't figure he would have any problems whatsoever." As coach of the minor league Rhode Island Reds last season, however, Popein had angered both players and management by his inability, or reluctance, to communicate. Francis should have known this, but his chief failing as a general manager is that he places too much trust in the opinions of a small number of assistants and scouts who are strictly yes-men. "If Francis had been able to follow Popein around for a week or two, I'm sure he would have discovered what we all knew," says another NHL general manager. "Popein was not the man to coach the Rangers."
There was trouble from the start. In the first week of the season Popein had a run-in with Gilbert, an extremely valuable man, benching him because he arrived 30 minutes late for a routine strategy meeting. "When the Cat was coach," Gilbert says, "those meetings were always at noon. Larry had changed the time to 11 o'clock, but no one ever told me. In fact, I got to the Garden at 11:30 and figured I was a half hour early." Popein's handling of l'affaire Gilbert did not sit well with the Rangers. "It's a very touchy thing that could cause problems," Park said at the time. "Rod's one guy who doesn't miss meetings."