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Richter played two seasons with the Badgers and then one with the 1988 U.S. Olympic team before spending the end of that season and all of the next with the Colorado Rangers of the International League. His first NHL appearance, during the 1989 playoffs, was not under the best of circumstances. With the Rangers trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins three games to none in the Patrick Division semifinals, Richter was dumped into the net for Game 4. He gave up three goals in his first 11 minutes, and the Rangers were eliminated. Still, Richter has never resented being thrust into that impossible situation. "I got an NHL playoff game behind me," he says. "I thought it was great."
Midway through last season, Smith recalled Richter to play in an exhibition game against a touring Soviet team. He played well enough, and the Rangers, who had not won in their last 11 games, were going badly enough that he earned another start. And another. "We were beginning to get some injured players back," says Neilson, "but no doubt about it, Mike pulled us out of it." Richter went 11-5-5 with a 3.00 goals-against average the rest of the season, outplaying Vanbiesbrouck and Bob Froese, the Rangers' second-string goalie at the time. That got him the start in Game 1 of the first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders. Richter played three of the five games in that series, winning them all, before losing his two starts in the Rangers' five-game second-round loss to the Washington Capitals.
It's not surprising that Richter, the rookie, is happy just to be in the NHL. It is surprising that Vanbiesbrouck, a fiercely competitive man, appears to be satisfied with sharing time. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of being on the Ranger team that finally ends the 1940 stuff," he says. But since establishing himself as a top-notch goaltender in '84-85, Vanbiesbrouck has been frustrated by two general manager changes and resulting turnovers in personnel. In the past, he has criticized teammates privately, questioned the organization publicly and seethed during the '86-87 season when Phil Esposito, the general manager then, traded defenseman Kjell Samuelsson and a second-round draft choice to Philadelphia for Froese. Vanbiesbrouck was coming off a season in which he had gone 31-21-5 with a 3.32 goals-against average, had backstopped a pedestrian New York team to consecutive playoff upsets of powerful Philadelphia and Washington clubs and had won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goalie.
Even if Vanbiesbrouck could have accepted the notion that continuing the 61-game workload of the previous season would eventually be counterproductive to the Rangers' and his own good, he could not buy the idea that New York needed a former member of the hated Flyers to share starts and locker-room chitchat. "We have a big rivalry with Philly," he says. "It didn't sit well with me.
"Now I can see the benefit of having a fresh guy out there every night. Always having at least a few days between starts gives you a chance to refocus and build up some determination for your next game. I now have the experience to know it's not bad to share the limelight."
Vanbiesbrouck seems a natural for the limelight of New York. His aggressive style—the way he comes charging out of the goal to play the puck—always sends a ripple through the raucous Madison Square Garden faithful. And while he has learned, for the benefit of locker-room harmony, to mute some of the observations and opinions that regularly pop into his mind, Vanbiesbrouck is essentially as diplomatic as a New York City cabbie making a right turn from the left lane on Seventh Avenue.
"I've taken on the qualities of a New Yorker," he says. "I love the energy of the people here. They don't back down from anybody. But they're like the chihuahua—once you get past their bark, they are as warm as anybody in the world."
Vanbiesbrouck's affinity for New York is probably rooted in the neighborhood where he grew up, a working-class area on the East Side of Detroit that wasn't exactly Sunnybrook Farm. But John's father, Robert, a Belgian immigrant who worked as a bricklayer, and Italian mother, Sara, made sure John and his older brothers, Frank and Julian, had what they needed to compete in Detroit's youth hockey programs.
Vanbiesbrouck was signed at 17 by the Sault Sainte Marie, Ont., junior team as a free agent and beat out three other goalies for the starting job. The Rangers drafted him in the fourth round in 1981, and he played one game for New York in '81-82.
Nine seasons later, Vanbiesbrouck is now the senior Ranger in point of service. Which also makes him the longest-suffering. But his new partnership with Richter, who has suffered little, gives New York two goalies who can erase most wrongs. This time around, the Rangers may finally get things right.