SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
November 20, 1978
Even through cracked glasses, new Coach Fred Shero likes what he has seen of his New York Rangers, the longtime failure symbols who suddenly are winning
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November 20, 1978

A Revival Is A Smash Off Broadway

Even through cracked glasses, new Coach Fred Shero likes what he has seen of his New York Rangers, the longtime failure symbols who suddenly are winning

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"Yes, if you sign Hutchison, you'll have to offer a player to George Maguire in return."

"George Maguire?"

It also turned out that Shero didn't know the name of Los Angeles' general manager.

Shero is on familiar ground, of course, as coach. In Philadelphia he acquired the detested nickname of "the Fog," partly because of his enigmatic personality but also because his keenly analytical approach to hockey was beyond the ken of most of his fellow coaches. A believer in the team aspects of what too often has been a free-lancing game, Shero scrawled the words UNITY AND HARD WORK IS OUR Mono on the blackboard when the Rangers showed up for training camp. He also patiently introduced his new team to his vaunted "system," a set of deceptively simple guidelines showing players how to position themselves on the ice during various situations.

"Fred makes you understand what's expected of you and where you should be in relation to your teammates," says Mike McEwen, a rarely used defenseman during the Ferguson era but a regular under Shero. "For instance, he's taught me that even when I've got the puck, I should put myself in the best defensive position. He makes hockey seem simple: just hit the other guy, bump him, get in his way. And he makes our practices interesting."

Shero let his feelings about the importance of team play be known one day when a New York Times reporter came around to do a story on Hedberg and Nilsson. New York's three-month-old newspaper strike had just ended, and one might have expected the welcome mat to be out for journalists. Forget it. The two Swedes had been deluged with interview requests during a recent road trip, and Shero, who had just had four front teeth extracted, began growling through the gap, "Why don't you leave them alone? Everybody wants to talk to the stars. Talk to the other guys. The last guy on the bench is just as important."

To their credit, Hedberg and Nilsson have held up well under the media blitz. They have obligingly provided questioners with their impressions of New York (Nilsson, a devotee of the stage, pronounced the Broadway theater "great"), and they take pains to speak English to each other whenever, as sometimes will happen in the Big Apple, a non-Swede is around. And it was with an apologetic air that they said they hoped to improve their play. "I think I could be passing and backchecking a little better," Hedberg said. He was careful to add, "But we're winning, so it's not important."

As Hedberg, Nilsson and the Rangers' other young stars move into the limelight, it is almost possible to overlook Phil Esposito, whose five goals this season have increased his NHL career hoard to 639, second only to Gordie Howe's 786. Acquired three years ago in a controversial trade with Boston, Esposito was promptly appointed New York's captain, earning him the resentment of teammates who thought Gilbert deserved the honor. Largely for that reason, Esposito was never comfortable in the role, and when Shero arrived, the 36-year-old Esposito resigned the captaincy and was succeeded by Maloney. Esposito claims to be unburdened, and he acts it. During practice last week, the gregarious center spied TV sportscaster Marv Albert and yelled, "Hey, why don't you recommend me as a summer replacement at the station?" At the time he put forward this job application, Esposito was in the middle of a rink-length rush.

Esposito has slowed down in recent years, and he has had to contend lately with unwelcome rumors that he will be traded. "Not long ago I would have been happy to play somewhere else," he says. "But now this club has the potential to win the Stanley Cup in the next year or two, and I'd like to be part of it."

The Rangers' early-season success heartens, in particular, Vadnais, the fellow who threw his clothes out the motel window. An ex-Bruin who came to the Rangers in the same deal as Esposito, the 33-year-old Vadnais is the only graybeard in the youthful defensive corps. He had come in for a lot of derision the last couple of years from the Garden crowds, but this season the booing has pretty much stopped. "When I make mistakes I'm a natural target," Vadnais says with a shrug. "What are the fans going to do, blame a 22-year-old kid? But when we win they forget the mistakes fast. I'll tell you, it's nice hearing cheers for a change."

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