Although the Rangers sneaked into the playoffs for the first time in three years as a wild-card team last spring, they were eliminated, predictably, by Buffalo in Round 1, which is hardly what Werblin means by "pretty far." Life on the Rangers had been unsettled much of the season. One source of turmoil was the heavy-handed way General Manager John Ferguson hounded and humiliated Rod Gilbert, New York's alltime scoring leader, into retirement. Another was the drug bust of flashy young Right Wing Don Murdoch, which eventually resulted in the NHL suspending him for at least the first 40 games of this season. As the Rangers struggled with these and other crises, Werblin lost all confidence in the management team of Ferguson and Coach Jean-Guy Talbot.
"The Rangers were even more undisciplined than the Titans were in the early years," Werblin says. "Ferguson and Talbot didn't seem to know what the problem was. That's because I think they were the problem."
Werblin's solution was to spend a lot of Madison Square Garden's money. Some of it went to win the bidding war for Hedberg and Nilsson, who put themselves on the NHL market as a package, à la Koufax and Drysdale. "They weren't the best hockey players in the world," Werblin says, "but they were the best available hockey players and we needed them." Rival owners complained that the Rangers upset the game's salary structure with their payoff to the Swedes, but Werblin replied, "I heard that talk when I signed Namath, but it was good for pro football. This is the same thing. The NHL needs television revenues, and if New York has a strong team, Madison Avenue will become cognizant of the sport. That happens to be axiomatic."
Werblin next went after Shero, who at the time was under contract to Philadelphia—or so it was thought; Werblin insists that Shero wasn't legally bound to the Flyers. However, NHL President John Ziegler saw fit to remind the Rangers of the rules against tampering, and after signing Shero to a reported $250,000-a-year, five-year contract, the Rangers gave the Flyers a first-round draft choice as compensation.
None of this was necessarily any more important, though, than Werblin's less ballyhooed success in finding the Rangers a new practice rink. The team had been practicing and, for the most part, living, in Long Beach, a forlorn—in the winter—resort town on Long Island that is handy to Kennedy Airport but little else. Because Manhattan was an arduous 75-minute drive away, even Ranger home games seemed like road trips. Determined to get the Rangers out of what he called "Islander territory" and into the mainstream of New York City, Werblin switched team practices to a rink in Hawthorne, a Westchester County suburb that is a mere 45 minutes from Broadway. Several players have since moved from Long Beach to Manhattan, and others have settled in Westchester.
Some of the Rangers think the wholesale uprooting will help make them more harmonious, which they haven't always been. As Maloney explains it, "The guys were just too close together in Long Beach. If somebody went out for a beer, the next day everybody knew it. Whenever you have 20 guys, you'll have cliques, but maybe out there the cliques got too dominant. Now we're living in a more normal situation, and I think things will be better."
As he leads the Rangers out of the NHL's depths—or at least out of Islander territory—the tough-minded Shero admits to an uncharacteristic attack of sentiment. After all, he was a Ranger defenseman in the late '40s, and he coached in the New York organization for 13 years. Inexplicably, Emile Francis, who was the Rangers' general manager from 1964 to 1976 and also coached the team much of that time, never offered Shero the one job he always wanted: coach of the Rangers. So, tired of waiting, Shero went to Philadelphia in 1971, and coached the Flyers to Stanley Cup championships in 1974 and 1975.
In his eagerness to return to New York, Shero at first told the Flyers he didn't want to coach anymore. Then, when Werblin offered him the combined job of GM-coach, he said that, well, what he meant was that he didn't want to just coach. Some of the Flyers accused Shero of duplicity, and he says in a wounded tone, "If you're afraid to accept a better job, there's something wrong with you." It has not helped matters that while the Rangers have put together the NHL's second-best record, the Flyers have barely climbed above .500.
Shero's inexperience as a general manager has, at times, been painfully apparent. He hurriedly tried to appoint his own man, Mickey Keating, as coach of the New Haven Nighthawks on the mistaken assumption that the Rangers owned the minor league team. He just as quickly had to back off when he learned that the Rangers merely had a working arrangement with New Haven, which was very happy, thank you, with the coach it had, Parker MacDonald. On another occasion, Shero expressed interest in signing free agent Defenseman Dave Hutchison, who played last year for Los Angeles (and subsequently signed with Toronto), without realizing, astonishingly, that NHL rules require compensation in such cases.
"Compensation?" he asked Hutchison's agent.