They hang from the roof at the Seventh Avenue end of Madison Square Garden, three lonely white banners with blue lettering and blue trim, each representing one of the New York Rangers' Stanley Cup championship seasons. They were put there two years ago as evidence of Ranger tradition, but the question might well be asked: what kind of tradition? The Rangers' three Cups were earned in 1928, 1933 and 1940; thus the flags seem to be hovering over the ice more like a shroud than a celebration. Forty years without a Stanley Cup is the longest such drought in National Hockey League history.
What's more, the Rangers have not finished an NHL season in first place in their league or division since 1942, two years before the center-ice red line was introduced. Every one of the 30 other major league baseball, football and hockey teams that has been in existence all of these last 38 years has finished in first place at least once since the Rangers—even the Chicago Cubs, who won the National League pennant in 1945.
But the Forty-Year Famine is not something the current Rangers can afford to fret over. As Ron Duguay, a Ranger for four seasons, puts it, "We have enough to worry about this year."
It certainly has not been a banner year. Injuries disabled a number of the best Ranger players and the rest displayed a shocking lack of industry as the team lost 14 and tied four of its first 22 games. Eight losses were by three goals or more. Fred Shero, who came to New York from Philadelphia two summers ago as the most celebrated coach of the era, lost his job after 20 games. Now the Rangers wait for the day when former U.S. Olympic Coach Herb Brooks will Concorde over from Switzerland, step behind their bench and do for the Rangers what he did for the U.S. at Lake Placid.
Shero officially resigned but was in truth dismissed by panicky Garden President David A. (Sonny) Werblin. Werblin apparently offered the coaching job to 38-year-old Center Phil Esposito, but Esposito wanted to be made general manager as well. No deal. Werblin finally was convinced that he should seek to free Brooks from his contract with a club team in Davos, Switzerland.
Craig Patrick, who joined the Rangers as director of operations this summer after serving as the Olympic team's assistant general manager and assistant coach, got in touch with Brooks, who was thirsting for a position in the NHL. Brooks has agreed in principle to come to New York, but he is committed to finish the season at Davos and probably will not join the Rangers until March. Until Brooks takes over, Patrick is the team's interim coach. Having a Patrick behind the bench in New York is nothing new: Craig's late father, Lynn, his uncle, Muzz, and his grandfather, Lester, all coached the team.
Patrick, 34, is New York's fifth coach in the last six seasons, prompting Defenseman Dave Maloney, the Rangers' 24-year-old captain, who joined the team in 1975, to say, "Every coach we've had since I've been here has been an interim coach." And the coaches' heads aren't the only ones to roll when the palace guard moves to throw the rascals out. Since 1974 the team has had four general managers and five assistant coaches.
"Look at the most successful teams in professional sports—the Dallas Cowboys, Montreal Canadiens, Baltimore Orioles—and they're all stable in the front office," Maloney says. "You have to question the sense of direction here."
Just two years ago the Rangers had climbed aboard the Upmobile. Shero came to New York as general manager-coach, delegated all his front-office duties to an old pal, Mickey Keating, and nearly all of his on-ice duties to his former Flyer aide, Mike Nykoluk. The team prospered. Freed from former GM-Coach John Ferguson's thumb, the Rangers reacted to Shero's laissez-faire approach as if it were an emancipation proclamation and stormed into the Stanley Cup finals, upsetting the Islanders, champions in the regular season, in the semifinals. That they ultimately lost in five games to Montreal hardly mattered; the Rangers had captured the hearts of New York hockey fans and the minds of Madison Avenue ad agencies.
But it all began to fall apart again last season. Shero suffered from a drinking problem. The players took advantage of Nykoluk, who was unable to command respect. Nearly every practice session became optional, with many players who did show up rushing to and from the rink by limousine. "There are so many other things to do in New York, sometimes players forget why they are here," said Center Ulf Nilsson. "Sometimes players seemed to think commercials were the most important thing, and they forgot why they got commercials in the first place. Hockey is No. 1, but it was No. 2 for some guys last season."