once a blueshirt

“I haven’t stopped the puck this well in years,” a 29-year-old John Davidson was saying in the fall of 1982 as he prepared to for his return to the New York Rangers’ crease after months of injury. “It’s a combination of hard work and experience. Starting off again is kind of new to me, and it feels good. It feels good to get out with the guys and contribute.” Davidson lost his first start of the season 3-2 to the New Jersey Devils, but five days later he helped the Rangers beat the Philadelphia Flyers by a score of 5-2 at Madison Square Garden. “The Flyers are a back-alley team,” he enthused after that one. “They come to play the game and work hard. This was a good, old-fashioned, hard-fought, knee-crawling hockey game. Whether you play in Philadelphia or here, you know you’re going to be in a battle and you look forward to it — you look forward to just going to war … and it was a war tonight.”

It also happened to be the last game of Davidson’s 10-year NHL career.

A few days after the Flyers’ game, at practice, Rangers’ assistant coach Walt Tkaczuk came in on a breakaway, deked, and — Davidson felt his back go. “When it went, it went,” he said later. “I felt a kind of jolt, like an electric shock.” Disc surgery ended his season before October was out, and though he focussed on making a return to the ice, by the summer of 1983 he was ready to call it quits. For all the trouble his back had given him, it took a knee to force him out, finally — the left one. “It’s full of arthritis and calcium,” he said. “I’m 30 years old and I guess my knee is 45 or 50.”

Davidson went into broadcasting and then, in 2006, hockey management. After six years as president of the St. Louis Blues, he took the helm of the Columbus Blue Jackets, a job he kept until he resigned last week. Now 66, Davidson made his return to the Rangers as the team’s new president. “New York’s special. There’s only one New York,” is what he told reporters who gathered today at MSG. “Once you figure it out, and it gets in your blood, it’s there forever. It’s a special place to win and that’s what we plan on doing.’’

a code of his own: colliding head-on with phiery phil

Phil Watson’s hair was wavy brown, and parted in the middle; his eyes were alert and green. This was in 1947, when Watson was 32 and a prominent right winger and sometime centreman for the New York Rangers, a talented, tireless, and conspicuously belligerent veteran of a dozen NHL seasons. According to Robert Lewis Taylor, Watson was one of the best-looking players in the game in those years — and it is true that he was, a decade earlier, recruited to double for Clark Gable in a hockey movie that was never released. Watson’s smile, Taylor wrote, was “uncommonly pleasant,” if “largely synthetic” — to replace the four top front teeth he’d had knocked out in the line of duty, the Rangers bought him the dental bridge he wore when he wasn’t doing battle on the ice.

Watson was born in Montreal on a Friday of this date in 1914; he died in 1991 at the age of 76. The man they called Phiery Phil got his name of the Stanley Cup twice — with the Rangers in 1940 and, in 1944, when wartime restrictions kept him home in Canada, as a member of the  Montreal Canadiens. In 13 NHL seasons, he proved himself to be a skilled defensive player as well as a first-class annoyance to his opponents. He also contributed offensively, and led the league in assists in 1941-42.

As a coach, he got two cracks at steering the Rangers during the 1950s and another, in the ’60s, behind the Boston Bruins’ bench. He coached two seasons in the WHA in the ’70s, guiding the Blazers in Philadelphia and subsequently in Vancouver.

For views of Watson’s background, unruly prowess on ice (think Brad Marchand before he reined himself in), and surpassing eccentricity, I recommend the long, droll, eventful profile Robert Lewis Taylor published in The New Yorker in 1947 under the title “Disorder On The Rink.” I count it as a bit of a lost classic of hockey non-fiction, well worth your while, particularly if you’re looking to round out your understanding of just how outlandishly unrestrained the excesses of NHL hockey once were.

It doesn’t extend to Watson’s coaching years, and it bypasses several key episodes in the Watson story. It doesn’t delve into the circumstances under which Watson annoyed his own Ranger goaltender so thoroughly that Chuck Rayner attacked him in the team’s dressing room. Also missing: his brief 1938 brush with Hollywood stardom wherein he served as Clark Gable’s skating and puckhandling stand-in opposite Myrna Loy in an ill-fated feature called The Great Canadian.

A taste of what Taylor does offer up in his portrayal of Watson’s tempestuous tenure in the NHL, in three excerpts:

The two most effective methods of taking a puck away from an advancing opponent are probing for it with a stick, which is known as “poke checking,” and slamming into the man bodily, which is called “body checking.” At these two arts, Watson has no master. A head-on collision with any moving object smaller than a pick-up truck provides him with the sort of comfort that some bankers get from foreclosing on a valuable farm.

Most hockey players consider it bad form to strike a referee with a stick, and the rules are explicit on the subject — the striker is subject to a fine or to suspension from the league. Watson, displaying a kind of instinctive legal ingenuity, has detected loopholes in the code: there is no mention of spitting in a referee’s face. In moments of extreme urgency, he performs this act and generally draws a severe penalty, under whatever rule the referee feels may be stretched to cover the case.

On one occasion, when he was relating an anecdote to Lew Burton, the Journal-American sportswriter, in the Rangers’ dressing room after a game which had featured a really spectacular brawl between him and the Detroit Red Wings, Burton interrupted to ask, “How’d it get started, Phil?” Watson jumped up, cried, “I tell you, Lew, they started it like this!,” and brought a hockey stick crashing down on Burton’s head, benching him for about twenty minutes. “It was the wrong way to tell that story,” Watson frequently says, with a gloomy inflection.

old; goaled

For The Defence: A year before Rangers’ coach and GM Lester Patrick famously took to the nets in the 1928 Stanley Cup Finals, he took a 43-year-old turn on the team’s blue line.

Lester Patrick’s career as a goaltender in the NHL is as famous a half-hour as you’ll find in the annals of NHL playoff history. Maybe you recall the story: in April of 1928, when the New York Rangers were battling the Maroons in Montreal in the Finals, Nels Stewart from the home team hoisted a backhand at the New York net. Rangers’ goaltender Lorne Chabot stopped it, but at a painful cost: the puck caught him (and I quote, from the next day’s Toronto Globe) full in the left eye. Chabot went to hospital, where doctors diagnosed hemorrhages of the anterior and posterior chambers of said eye. His replacement, back at the Forum? A couple of able-bodied goaltenders happened to be in the building, including the Ottawa Senators’ Alec Connell, but Maroons refused to agree that either of them should be allowed to step into the breach — it just wasn’t fair, they felt.

So Patrick suited up. Born on this date in 1883 (it was a Monday then, too), Patrick was a hockey colossus, one of the game’s most influential figures, a builder of leagues and rinks, inventor (along with his brother Frank) of the blueline and forward pass and the penalty shot, booster of women’s hockey. Now coach and GM of the second-year Rangers, Patrick had been a truly outstanding player in his day, one of the greats of hockey’s early era — which is to say, a while back. In 1906 and again in ’07, playing both on defence and at rover, he led the Montreal Wanderers to successive Stanley Cup championships. In subsequent years he’d starred for Renfrew’s Creamery Kings and the Seattle Metropolitans, the Spokane Canaries, and Victoria’s Aristocrats. He’d played regularly for another Victoria team, the Cougars, as recently as 1926. At the end of the 1926-27, with the Ranger roster thinned by injuries, he’d suited himself up for a single game on defence, making his NHL debut at the age of 43. The only statistic he registered was a minor penalty: two minutes for tripping.

A year later, another year older, Patrick returned to the ice for his NHL swan song. It’s worth noting (if not entirely a surprise) that this wasn’t his first attempt at preventing pucks from passing him by: Patrick had played some emergency goal for both the Wanderers and the Aristocrats, when the moment called, though he’d never yet been credited with a win of his own.

Standing in Chabot’s stead in 1928, making do with his equipment, Patrick deterred all but one of the 18 shots he faced — Nels Stewart was the lone Maroon to solve him, snapping in a rebound to tie the game after New York’s Bill Cook put the Rangers ahead. Frank Boucher’s overtime goal eventually gave New York — and Patrick — the win, paving the way for Rangers’ eventual triumph: they claimed their first Stanley Cup in five games.

Patrick went back to coaching after his game-two debut, with the Rangers calling on the league back-up, Joe Miller, to finish the job in the nets. He did so despite suffering a serious cut on the head in the final game, courtesy of Hooley Smith’s skate. As for Lester Patrick, he remains to this day the oldest player to have skated in the Stanley Cup finals. He died in 1960, aged 76.

buddy maracle, in 1931: swept through everybody to leave cude helpless with a wicked shot

Lestermen: The New York Rangers line up in 1931. Back row, from left they are: Bill Cook, Butch Keeling, Frank Peters, coach Lester Patrick, Ching Johnson, Buddy Maracle, Joe Jerwa, Bill Regan. Front, from left: Bun Cook, Paul Thompson, Murray Murdoch, Cecil Dillon, Frank Boucher, John Ross Roach.

Out now in The Hockey News online and at the newsstand, paywalled in both places — my profile of Buddy Maracle and the case for recognizing him as the NHL’s first Indigenous player. He was 27 and a minor-league veteran when the New York Rangers called him up from the Springfield Indians. “Those who used to boo the Noble Red Man in the Canadian-American League can now boo him in the National Hockey League,” a column in The Boston Globe advised, “though, of course, it will cost more.” Maracle played his first NHL game in Detroit on February 12, debuting in the Rangers’ 1-1 tie with the local (pre-Red Wings) Falcons. He didn’t figure on the scoresheet that night, and also failed to score in New York’s next two games. Hosting the lowly Philadelphia Quakers on February 22, the Rangers cruised to a 6-1 win. Maracle assisted when Cecil Dillon scored New York’s fifth goal in the second period; in the third, Dillon returned the favour when Maracle beat the Quakers’ Wilf Cude to score his lone major-league goal. One newspaper accounts rated it “clever;” getting the puck from Dillon, Maracle “swept through everybody to leave Cude helpless with a wicked shot.”

He would notch two more NHL assists. In a March 3 game against Boston, he abetted Bill Regan on a third-period goal, the only one the Rangers scored in a 4-1 loss. March 17, he helped on another Dillon goal in the Rangers’ 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators. In four playoff games that year, Maracle registered no points, took no penalties.

Not all of his achievements were logged for the statistical archives. In a March 7 game against the Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens, his penalty-killing caught the fancy of the local cognoscenti. By Bert Perry’s account in The Globe, Maracle “gave quite an exhibition of ragging the puck while [Ching] Johnson was off, displaying stick-handling of a high order that merited the applause of the fans.”

(Image: New York Rangers)

jean ratelle: among stooges and pirates and marx brothers madness, a stylist supreme

The New York Rangers stowed away Rick Nash’s sweater today, numbered 61, when they traded him to the Boston Bruins ahead of tomorrow’s NHL trade deadline. Jean Ratelle knows what that’s like. It was November of 1975 when the Rangers shipped him and Brad Park to the Bruins in a seismic exchange that brought Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais back the other way. Tonight, Ratelle, who’s 77 now, is back in New York to see the Rangers retire the number he wore for most of the 14 New York seasons he played before that. Ratelle’s number 19 will rise to the rafters of Madison Square Garden in a ceremony ahead of the game in which the modern-day Rangers go Nashless against the Detroit Red Wings.

“The trade began a seven-season seminar in poise and determination.” That’s from a 1980 editorial in The Boston Globe just after Ratelle announced his retirement at the age of 40 to move back of the Boston bench as an assistant coach. That’s right: the Globe saluted him with an editorial when he finally ended his playing days. As revered as he was in New York, Ratelle was, very quickly, beloved in Boston. In both cities the affection had to do with his skill and scoring prowess, and the trophies he won — a Masterton in 1971 along with two Lady Byngs (’72 and ’76) — but there was more to it than that.

Everybody knew how good he was, Globe columnist Leigh Montville effused on another page in 1980. “Not so much how good he was as a player — though he was very good indeed — but how good he was as a person.” He continued:

In the arms-and-elbow game in which the best disposition might be that of a pirate, Jean Ratelle was able to play 20 years on top of a pedestal. He was religious. He was a family man. He was a gentleman. He scored 491 goals and collected 776 assists and totaled 1267 points. He was a hell of a player.

On an ice surface filled with Marx Brothers madness and Three Stooges shenanigans, he was Fred Astaire in full glide. He was the maitre’d of hockey, the stylist supreme, top and tails and ease. The ragged and well-publicized fringes of the game never interested him or bothered him. He worked its heart, goal to goal, back and forth, follow the puck. He was a purist, an artist, a painter of perfect miniatures doing his job on a street filled with car horns and busy shoppers.

Rod Gilbert was a childhood friend of Ratelle’s in Montreal long before they ever played together in New York. He thought he could have been an actual artist. “He would really have excelled in any area of his life,” Gilbert said in 1981. “He showed beauty. If he was a writer or a painter, he would have done well.”

Also: “In all the time I’ve known him, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Jean Ratelle swear. Not once. Never.”

“It’s amazing, really, that he was able to play the game,” Brad Park said. “That might be the most amazing thing of Jean Ratelle’s career. That such a tranquil man could play such an aggressive game and survive.”

Not that he was fragile. Back in that editorial-page endorsement, the Globe maintained that for all his Astaire-ness, Ratelle was also “as tough as John Wayne,” as “eager young defencemen found out after bouncing off Ratelle’s strong forearms intent on guiding the puck to a teammate.”

“Others skate,” the Globe’s Bob Ryan wrote in 1976, “but Ratelle glides.” His passes? “Feather-soft, accurate, and there’s only one thing to do if you’re playing on a line with him: keep your stick on the ice because he’s going to put the puck on it.”

A year before he hung up his skates, Steve Marantz from the Globe was marveling how good he still was at the age of 39: “no slippage, no coughing an sputtering, no sudden gasp and wheeze.” Bruins’ coach Fred Creighton: “He does things with the puck that young players coming up don’t even know about.”

The highest praise you’ll come across in all the annals of Ratelle-related enthusiasm? I’m going to go with Bobby Rousseau’s ode from 1973. He’d skated the Montreal Canadiens’ wing for ten years in the 1960s, of course, before joining the Rangers in 1971.

“I’ve been fortunate in my career to play with two of the greatest centreman in the National Hockey,” Rousseau said, “Jean Béliveau at Montreal and Jean Ratelle with the Rangers.”

I’ve played against Jean Ratelle, I’ve played on a team with him the past two years, and for the past few games I’ve played on a line with him. He’s the same height, same personality, same temperament, same talent as Jean Béliveau. Because of the way he is, Ratty will probably be annoyed with me for saying these things. I don’t think Jean Ratelle has ever been given the credit he’s deserved.

(Image: Library and Archives Canada / PA-057285)

worth the weight

Claims for Camille Henry’s fame might include the Calder Trophy he won as the NHL’s top rookie in 1954 or the 1958 Lady Byng that recognized his mix of good manners and superior skills. They might reference, equally, the chase he took up in 1960 when a high-spirited fan smacked him in the face with his own stick. The latter was a year after this portrait was taken, or two years after yet another newspaper article made the rounds focussing on his weight, or lack thereof. Spoiler alert: at 24, he was on the smaller side, 5’7”, “a scrawny-looking French-Canadian youngster,” as profiled by an unnamed Associated Press correspondent, “who answers to the nickname of Camille the Eel.”

This was January of 1958, when Henry’s 23 goals happened to be more than anyone else had scored in the NHL to that point, ahead of Detroit’s Gordie Howe and Dickie Moore of Montreal. (Both would end up passing Henry by season’s end; he finished the year with 32 to Howe’s 33 and Moore’s 36.)

“Camille weighs about 149 pounds soaking wet,” the AP explained, “which he usually is after most of the games in the bruising, contact-filled sport.”

Henry’s view? “I figure being light helps me,” he said. “I can sometimes squeeze in among the bigger men, get my stick in the way of the puck and get it past the goalie. If I was heavier I might not be able to maneuver so well.”

(Image: Louis Jaques/Library and Archives Canada/e002343730)

cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.

Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”

Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.

Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:

No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’

That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”

Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.

That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.

Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.

Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.

We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.

Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.