In just his third game back from the fracture, Leetch put on a virtuoso display, setting up three Ranger goals to lead New York past the Blackhawks 4-1. "I know there are a lot of rookies, but Brian is the rookie of the year," Bergeron said after the game.
Two nights later Bergeron had to amend his pronouncement. Granato's third-period breakaway goal gave the Rangers a 5-4 come-from-behind victory over Hartford after Granato had set up the game-tying goal with a crunching check on Whaler Sylvain Cote. Said Bergeron: "For the first time in the history of hockey, there should be two rookies of the year."
"But rookies wear loud ties and ask the trainer dumb questions," says Vanbiesbrouck. "These guys don't act like rookies."
Leetch's adolescence ended abruptly in December 1987, when coach Dave Peterson appointed him captain of the U.S. Olympic team. Once terrified to deliver a speech before his sixth-grade class in Cheshire, Conn., Leetch quickly got accustomed to lights and microphones, but can live without them. Granato, who was married last summer, is the eldest child in a family of eight living in Downers Grove, Ill., a bedroom community west of Chicago. He is more outgoing than Leetch, and his feistiness has tended to discourage any Ranger who might have entertained ideas about hazing him.
But every so often, the rookie in Leetch and Granato surfaces. After the Rangers' 6-5 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Oct. 29, Granato was hanging his head for having missed two checks, each of which led to a Flyer goal. "I was worried about playing in the next game," he says. The concern was understandable; young players who displease Bergeron often find themselves benched or, worse, plying their craft in the International Hockey League.
But Bergeron gently told Granato to forget about the game, saying Granato was bound to make mistakes and shouldn't worry about them. The next night Granato scored four goals as New York walloped Pittsburgh 9-2.
Bergeron can overlook Granato's goofs because of the intensity with which he makes them: Granato always appears to be playing for his life. He combines excellent speed and a quick, 3 hard shot with fierce tenacity. Goons, goalies, 160-pound Swedes—Granato hits anyone and everyone in an opposition sweater. His hitting, perhaps even more than his goal-scoring, has earned him the rabid affection of the "blueseaters," as the charmingly primitive denizens of Madison Square Garden's least expensive section are known. "Tony the Tiger," they call him, although Ranger defenseman Dean Kennedy insists that "he reminds me more of a weasel."
Granato arrived at the Rangers' preseason camp with fire in his belly, unburdened by anyone's expectations but his own. "I was playing for my hockey life," he says. "If I didn't make it this year, I wasn't going to get another chance."
The Rangers did have an eye on him, though. After the Olympics, while Leetch stepped directly into the Rangers' lineup. Granato reported to the club's Denver affiliate. There he scored 22 goals and had 18 assists in 30 games.
But the Rangers' brain trust had one question—the same one voiced by every scout who has appraised Granato: Can he play in the NHL at his size? The Rangers' bio sheet on Granato says he goes 5'10", 185 pounds, easily a 10-pound exaggeration.