As the bus carrying the victorious New York Rangers pulled away from the Capital Centre in Landover, Md. and headed for the Baltimore airport one night last week, Ken Hodge shouted from a front-row seat, "So that's the first time the Rangers have ever beaten the Capitals down here, eh?" Then, from the back of the bus, Don (Murder) Murdoch hollered, "Hey, Hodge, don't live in the past."
Murdoch is an NHL rookie, a 20-year-old kid who played in Medicine Hat, Alberta last year, but he knows well that the Rangers' past is not worth talking about. Emile Francis' Fat Cats had the highest payroll in the game but never won anything. The jokes around Manhattan were that the blue in the Rangers' uniforms matched the players' bloodlines, that they threw around cheques rather than checks, and that the corners they frequented were on Park Avenue—not on the ice at Madison Square Garden. But all that is part of the sorry past.
Indeed, the only resemblance between the Fat Cats of Francis and the present Rangers of General Manager-Coach John Ferguson is that the feisty new Rangers also wear skates. Dismissed as "rebuilding" in preseason analyses, Ferguson's Rangers have lost only four of their last 21 games and are battling Atlanta for third place—and the last playoff position—in the Patrick Division, hockey's toughest. In fact, the Rangers have 42 points, which ties them for the seventh best record in the 18-team NHL, and if they were in the sickly Smythe Division, they would be comfortably in first place.
At the heart of Ferguson's Ranger revival have been Murdoch, a right-wing sniper who has scored 28 goals this season, more than anyone except Montreal's Steve Shutt or Guy Lafleur; Nick Fotiu, an enforcer from Staten Island who used to commute to the Garden by ferry; Ron Greschner, Dave Maloney, Mike McEwen and Dave Farrish, the youngest defense this side of Saskatoon; and Gilles Gratton, a nomadic goaltender who believes he is the reincarnation of a 16th-century Spanish soldier stabbed to death in battle.
When Ferguson replaced the fired Francis a year ago, the Rangers were demoralized, disorganized and en route to a) the worst defensive record in their 50-year history and b) no first-place finish or Stanley Cup for the 35th straight season. The U.S.S.R. Coach Konstantin Loktev perfectly assessed the Rangers' problems after the Soviets routed them 7-3 two weeks before Ferguson took charge. "The New York players," Loktev said, "all skate in a very heavy way."
What bothered Ferguson most about the Rangers he inherited was their pacifist posture on the ice. Hockey's best policeman-enforcer when he played for Montreal, Ferguson was appalled one night when the Rangers watched meekly as Atlanta's Curt Bennett knocked out Maloney in a one-punch fight. "I swore that would never happen again," Ferguson says. "Right after that game I went into the hallway, found Fotiu's agent and told him I wanted Nicky at our training camp in September for some respectability."
The WHA's New England Whalers gave Fotiu to Ferguson in return for two exhibition games against the Rangers in Hartford, and to put Fotiu's role into proper perspective, Ferguson assigned him the same No. 22 that Ferguson had worn for the Canadiens. A former New York Police Athletic League boxing champion, Fotiu has scored only one goal this season—but rival toughs now think twice before they start fights with any of his teammates.
"Fergy himself has been a shock to us, too," says Maloney, one of the three 20-year-old defensemen on the New York roster. "It was pretty dead around here before he arrived." Francis, for instance, rarely showed anger after a New York defeat, but Ferguson reacts to adversity by stomping clusters of Coke cans, hurling oranges, spouting expletives and airmailing towels in all directions. "Some guys laughed at Fergy, sure, but they're long gone now," Maloney says. "He's so intense, and it eventually wore off on the rest of us. He invokes fear and commands respect. What it all means, I guess, is that now we believe we can do things we never even dreamed about back in September."
Ferguson carefully plotted his course during the off-season. "First of all, I had to give the Rangers something they always lacked," he says. "A mean streak. To be a winner, a team, like an individual, must have some killer instinct. Second, we had to get in condition. When I helped coach Team Canada against the Soviet Union in 1972, I saw for the first time what conditioning really means. The Soviet players were in fantastic shape." Ferguson had new uniforms designed for the Rangers, and the sleek contours tend to make the players look brawnier than they are. He also discussed the Soviets' conditioning program with Dr. Edmund F. Enos, a Montreal educator who visits Moscow each June to study the latest advances in Soviet hockey technology, and prepared a routine designed to get the fat off the Fat Cats.
Then came Ferguson's most drastic change. "There were too many guys on the Rangers who had proved they could never play for a winner," he says, "so I made up my mind to go with the kids." He drafted superbly, taking Murdoch in the first round, Farrish in the second and McEwen in the third. All three became regulars, and Murdoch seems certain to be voted rookie of the year.