There is something about a hockey puck zinging in at 80 mph that brings out the expressiveness in goalies. Consider New York's Eddie Giacomin on the opposite page. His is the face of a man who has just been sapped from behind. In fact, he has made a lovely save on a high, hard Boston shot. The puck has bounced off Giacomin's chest to a spot above his left shoulder, etching that grimace in transit. Giacomin, for years a minor league goalie, was not always so expert. Only a year ago he and the Rangers were equally frightful—and the team was last. Suddenly he has become one of the better goalies—and the Rangers have emerged from a 25-year slump as prime contenders. On ensuing pages are more studies of Giacomin in action and the story of how a gambling coach has transformed the team and thus turned the National Hockey League race upside down.
FRANCIS FORGES AN UP TEAM IN A DOWN TOWN
We're No. 1!" The chant began far up in the balcony on the 49th Street side of Madison Square Garden, where the kids pay a dollar and a half to glimpse only part of the hockey rink from a bad angle. For a moment the words echoed strangely through the upper tiers of the old arena. Maybe a few cynics down in the loge seats even started to snicker. The New York Rangers No. 1? Twenty-five years had passed since they finished first in the National Hockey League, and five years since they placed even as high as fourth. Their fans had become conditioned to awaiting the annual collapse that occurs sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. No. 1? Skeptics could have been pardoned for laughing.
But nobody laughed, and the chant spread through the Garden. On the ice the Rangers were routing the champion Montreal Canadiens. And in the newspapers the NHL standings showed clearly, if implausibly, that the Rangers were in first place. So 15,925 people forgot about their apprehensions, shook off the frustrations of the Yankees and Mets, the Giants and Jets and joined in the chorus to the once-bedraggled, last-place team that had suddenly emerged as New York's only winner.
They haven't stopped yelling yet. The cries that began in that December game with Montreal still fill the Garden, even after Ranger defeats. It is past midseason and there has been no collapse. "We can hear the chants," says Harry Howell, who has toiled valiantly, but usually in futility, through more than 1,000 games as a Ranger defenseman. "After 14 years in this town it's great to hear the fans so happy, but, come to think of it, they're no more excited than we are."
The excited mood of the Rangers begins with a onetime goalie, Emile (The Cat) Francis. Two years ago Francis became general manager of the weakest organization in the entire NHL. A year later he compounded his troubles by firing the popular Red Sullivan and making himself coach. He set out to rebuild the Rangers' chaotic system of scouts and farm clubs. At the same time he knew he had to improve his team immediately; he did not dare wait for the long-range tinkering to produce players of quality. As this season approached he appeared to be in serious difficulty. The farm system was better, but it had no rookies ready for the Rangers.
Francis refused to write off the season. First of all, he gambled that Boom Boom Geoffrion, one of the Canadiens' alltime heroes—but 35 now and two years retired—could make a contribution, and that three veterans from other clubs would help. To get some improvement from his undistinguished returning players, Francis praised them, berated them, conned them and, most important, offered them money. The Rangers now have a package of incentive-bonus clauses as lucrative as any in hockey. For example, most of the players will get extra cash if they hold opponents to fewer than 200 goals this season. Money talked sweet and clear. The Ranger defense that allowed 261 goals last season gave up only 80 through the first half of this one.
There are other bonuses. Rod Gilbert (see cover), the team's most effective goal-getter through midseason—and, indeed, the league's—will draw extra pay if he gets 25 goals. "He has a bonus clause for 40 goals, too," snaps Francis. Gilbert, who has recovered from two serious back operations to become the best right wing in hockey, probably will get the 40.
To Francis, however, bonuses are no guarantee of competence. "They make some men more aggressive, and they've helped our checking," he says. "But don't forget we have a lot more depth and ability, too. If you don't have that, a million dollars isn't going to make you win."
Behind Gilbert and Howell, the team's steadiest defenseman, everything has fallen into place for Francis. Geoffrion has brought the winning spirit he absorbed in Montreal and the incomparably heavy, hard shot that won him his nickname. The team's other ex-Canadiens, Phil Goyette and Don Marshall, have reacquired that spirit and are having their best year. Orland Kurtenbach, a 30-year-old journeyman drafted from Toronto, has joined Vic Hadfield and Reg Fleming to give the once-meek Rangers as much muscle as anyone in the league. The defense is the best New York has seen in a decade, largely because of the dramatically improved Arnie Brown, whose exuberant rushes typify the mood of the whole club.