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)
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.
They’re just a few of them, Canadians we feel we know so well (and maybe even revere) that just the one name will do. Most of them are singers, Drake and Shania, Joni, Neil, Leonard, though we also have a prime minister now, Justin, with whom we’re first-name familiar. Hockey has Gordie, Wayne, Mario, Sid — and now I guess Connor, too.
That one is an older vintage, and maybe doesn’t have the currency it once did. Still, it does retain a certain power, as a byword for the audacity and sheer foolery of old-time NHL goaltenders, one that conveys not only the awkward dignity of the man himself but also the fall-down, scrambling valor of a whole nervy puckstopping generation of maskless men, long before Tom Hanks was cast in the role of a slow-wit hero from Alabama.
Not that the surname isn’t just as good as the first: Worsley is Dickensian in its perfection, up there with Gradgrind, Cheeryble, Pickwick, Pecksniff. Paired, Gump Worsley not only sounds like a character from a story, one from whom you could figure out the gist of the plot just by looking at the man: oh, yes, right, so this is the one about the kind-hearted London orphan, bit of a sad case, all alone in the world, at the behest of his anonymous benefactor, without any training or apparent aptitude, has to take up goaltending in the six-team National Hockey League in order to prove himself and find his destiny.
John K. Samson once told me he carried a glorious old Gump-faced hockey card with him wherever he went. We were talking at the time about Reggie Leach, Riverton’s own Rifle, but then the talk turned as the Winnipeg singer explained that a lot of his admiration for Gump was based, like mine, on just how unlikely a goaltender he seemed, accidental, almost, and how amiably he seemed to bearing up in the situation into which he’d been thrust.
That’s in the song Samson wrote, of course, “Elegy for Gump Worsley,” that he sang with his erstwhile band, The Weakerthans. The words go like this:
He looked more like our fathers, not a goalie, player, athlete period. Smoke, half ash, stuck in that permanent smirk, tugging jersey around the beergut, “I’m strictly a whiskey man” was one of the sticks he taped up and gave to a nation of pudgy boys in beverage rooms. Favourites from Plimpton’s list of objects thrown by Rangers fans: soup cans, a persimmon, eggs, a folding chair and a dead rabbit. The nervous breakdown of ’68-’69 after pant-crap flights from LA, the expansion, “the shrink told me to change occupations. I had to forget it.” He swore he was never afraid of the puck. We believe him. If anyone asks, the inscription should read, “My face was my mask.”
He played 21 years in the NHL, mostly for the New York Rangers, most successfully for Montreal, finally for the Minnesota North Stars. He died at the age of 77 in 2007.
It’s possible that I saw him play, later on in his career, staying up late to watch Hockey Night In Canada in the early ’70s. If so, I don’t remember. I loved his memoir, They Call Me Gump (1975), which he wrote with Tim Moriarty’s aid, and not just because he devotes Chapter 21 to his recipe for pineapple squares. Okay, well, yes, that’s where a lot of the love is centred. Also with his affable way of looking at the world, and that if there’s a joke in his playing NHL goal, then it’s a joke he’s very much in on, and enjoying as much as the rest of us.
If Gump looked helpless, if he seemed hapless, well, of course, he was anything but. You don’t need to go and stand in front of his plaque in the Hockey Hall of Fame (elected in 1980) to know that he was one of the best of his era. Traded to Montreal for Jacques Plante, he went on to play his part in four Stanley Cup championships. He was a First All-Star Team and twice had a share (with Charlie Hodge and Rogie Vachon, respectively) in a Vézina Trophy. Of all the goaltenders to have defended NHL nets, he stands 22nd when it comes to regular-season wins (335). He had 40 more in the playoffs, which is more than Johnny Bower and Bernie Parent and lots of other Brahmins of the crease.
I don’t know where he slots in when it comes to the all-time index of pain and suffering. In his book, he mostly makes light of the wear and tear of being worn and torn. “The main occupational hazard is trying to stay alive while facing up to 40 and 50 shots a game,” he writes. “We’re not well, you know,” he says elsewhere, “or we wouldn’t be playing the position.” And: “It helps to be nuts.” If he were in the business of hiring goaltenders, his prerequisites would include “a hard skull to deflect flying pucks, plus a thick skin to absorb the abuse of coaches and fans.”
Like a lot of hockey memoirs, They Call Me Gump reads like a medical file. It’s longtime Ranger physician Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa attending, mostly, dropping in every few pages to consult on the tendons in Gump’s hand that Bobby Hull’s skate severed, or to remove cartilage from his knee. Gump pulls hamstrings, tears thigh muscles, sprains knees. He devotes another entire chapter (without going too deep) to the stress and fear of flying that fuelled the nervous breakdown he suffered in 1968.
The injuries would have contributed to that, too, though Gump doesn’t really make much of the connection. For all the damage he chronicles, there’s relatively little mention of concussions. One that features is famous in its way — a “mild” one that knocked him out of a 1967 game at Madison Square Garden when he was back in playing for Montreal. Others he leaves out entirely or tosses in with what passes for trouperly bravado:
[Boom-Boom] Geoffrion hit me right between the eyes with a slapshot in the Forum one night, and the puck ricocheted 40 rows into the stands.
Gump finally put on a mask in 1974, but only for the last six games of his career. “Hated it,” he said in 1984, looking back. “Sure I got knocked out a lot. I got knocked out oftener than Joe Palooka. But there was only one goalie to a team at that time, so they’d revive you and sew you up and you went back on.”
That’s all in keeping, I guess, with hockey’s historical nonchalance when it comes to head injuries. Getting your bell proverbially rung was just part of the game; you shook it off, headed back out on the ice. Knowing what we know now about head trauma and the long-time devastation of CTE casts a grim shade on those old attitudes, even as the modern-day NHL refuses to acknowledge the connections.
The American artist LeRoy Neiman didn’t get to the rink until he was well into his career as a painter, but he did keep coming back once he’d arrived. This 1972 serigraph, “Blue Hockey,” was his first hockey work; others include this one and this. Above, that’s Bobby Hull, numbered nine, in Chicago garb of fanciful blues, on his way to the New York Rangers’ net. The goaltender there would be, I suppose, Ed Giacomin, with Jean Ratelle, 19, attending. Could be anyone at the far post, most likely a defenceman. Brad Park? Jim Neilson? Might as well make the other Hawk Pit Martin. By the time the hammer fell on this particular signed edition at a sale last June of hockey art and artifact by Montreal’s Classic Auctions, the bidding had reached US$711. (Image: Classic Auctions)
For the Russians, the vast Ukraine-like wheatlands of Manitoba and a rather dour crowd of 10,000 provided what Coach Vsevolod Bobrov described as “the most suitable environment yet.”
“We are very happy with Winnipeg. We found the people much like our own.”
• Tim Burke, Montreal Gazette, September 7, 1972
September 6 was a Wednesday in 1972. Four days had passed since the Saturday when Canada’s hockey team lost, shockingly, to the visiting Soviets in a rout. They’d redeemed themselves, a little, to the west, with a Monday win in Toronto. Now the teams had moved on to Winnipeg, where they were preparing to meet again under the gaze of the world’s largest rink-portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.
Tuesday, in Munich, at the Olympics there, eight Arab terrorists had made hostages of 11 men from the Israeli team. After long hours of violence and blood, false hopes and failed negotiations, rescue efforts that didn’t succeed, the Israelis were dead.
The sports went on. Tuesday morning, even as the crisis continued, the International Olympic Committee’s American president, Avery Brundage, announced that the Games would continue as planned. “Canoe racing had already begun,” Red Smith wrote in his New York Times column. “Wrestling started an hour later. Before long, competition was being held in 11 of the 22 sports on the Olympic calendar.”
Not until 4 p.m. did some belated sense of decency dictate suspension of the obscene activity, and even then exception was made for games already in progress. They went on and on while hasty plans were laid for a memorial service tomorrow.
Wednesday morning 80,000 people filled the Olympic Stadium to mourn and pay tribute. “This service,” said an IOC statement issued beforehand, “should make clear the Olympic idea is stronger than terror and violence.”
I don’t know that there was any talk of cancelling the hockey game in Winnipeg. There was a discussion about how the hockey players might honour those who’d died in Munich. A minute’s silence before the puck dropped seemed like an appropriate gesture. A couple of directors from Hockey Canada wanted to go further: Maple Leaf Gardens president Harold Ballard and Alan Eagleson, the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, decided that Team Canada should wear black armbands. Ballard hoped all the players would. “But I don’t know,” he said, “if the Russians will go for it.”
Ballard had other plans, too. He was going to organize some kind of trophy, or plaque. “It’ll have the names of the Israelis engraved on it,” he told Dick Beddoes for The Globe and Mail. “I’d like to have Mark Spitz dedicate it for the Hockey Hall of Fame before the first Leaf game in the Gardens this fall.”
Georgi Guzinov was the Soviet team’s trainer. The day before the first game in Montreal, he’d predicted that after three games the teams would have a win each to their credit along with a tie. He was right, of course: in Winnipeg the score was 4-4.
Paul Henderson blamed himself. “I blew three chances,” he said afterwards. Tim Burke wrote in The Gazette that if not for the goaltenders, Canada’s Tony Esposito and Vladislav Tretiak for the USSR, the score might have been 10-10.
Canada’s assistant coach, John Ferguson, said he was relieved “to settle for half a loaf.” Canada had been leading by 3-1 before they surrendered two shorthanded goals in the second period. Canada’s scorers were J.P. Parise, Jean Ratelle, Phil Esposito, and Paul Henderson while Vladimir Petrov, Valery Kharlamov, Yuri Lebedev, and Alexander Bodunov got the Soviet goals.
The Munich tribute didn’t go quite as planned. A few hours before the game, officials from the two teams met to discuss the armbands. Canadian coach Harry Sinden announced the outcome: there wouldn’t be any. “We decided that as one group of athletes paying tribute to another group of athletes, the minute’s silence was sufficient.”
He was half-right, anyway. On the ice, so as not to interfere with timing for the TV broadcast, that hushed minute was cut down to 30 seconds.
As for Ballard’s trophy, not sure what happened there. Mark Spitz was absent when the Leafs opened their season at home to Chicago on October 7, as was the Leafs’ Moscow hero, Paul Henderson, who was day-to-day (The Globe suggested) with aches and emotional drainage.
I’m not even sure that Ballard was at the game. But then he did have a lot on his mind that fall. He’d been convicted in August of fraud and theft, and he watched Canada and the Soviets play while he was free on $50,000 bail. Lawyers had agreed to postpone sentencing until after the all-important series was over. It wasn’t until October 20 that he learned he was going to a penitentiary for three years.
Flat Out: New York Rangers goaltender Ed Giacomin takes a first-period moment in January of 1968 after taking a shot to the knee from Boston’s Gary Doak. He was soon up and back at it, helping the Rangers to beat the Bruins by a score of 2-1. Jean Ratelle scored both New York goals; Ken Hodge beat Giacomin for the Bruins. That’s Harry Howell looking on here, veteran defenceman and, that season, the incumbent Norris Trophy winner. It was his 1,002nd game in the NHL, and the Rangers celebrated before the puck dropped by lavishing Howell and his family with gifts. Also that nigh: a 20-year-old Ranger rookie named Walt Tkaczuk made his NHL debut. TAY-chuck is how you pronounce it, The New York Times advised next day, noting that he played a total of two minutes, administering three hits on three different Bruins. The Times: “He didn’t know their names, he admitted later.”
The New York Rangers eventually lost to Chicago in the Stanley Cup semi-finals in 1971, but they had some big wins along the way. One of them included a hattrick by centre Vic Hadfield, the first to be notched in the playoffs by a Ranger since Pentti Lund managed it. “I remember Lund,” Jean Ratelle said after the game, Hadfield’s linemate. “From the bubblegum cards I had as a kid.” Hadfield: not so much. “I never heard of Lund,” he said. “How long ago did he do it?”
It was the spring of 1950, in fact, which is worth recalling, with word today from Thunder Bay today that Lund has died at the age of 87. The second Finnish-born player to make a mark in the NHL, those who do remember him in New York know that he not only won the Calder Trophy as the league’s outstanding rookie in 1949, but Lund’s hattrick the following year almost — it was close — helped the Rangers win a Stanley Cup, too. Continue reading
Brett Hull grinned when he was traded from Calgary to St. Louis in 1988. “Yesssssss,” he said, and I quote. A few months later and a little to the north, Wayne Gretzky departed for Los Angeles amid a storm of shock and tears, anger and accusations. That, the latter, is probably closer to the norm when it comes to what hockey players go through when they’re swapped, one team to another. A lot of the time they feel what Arnie Brown felt when the New York Rangers sent him to Detroit in 1971: “depressed, bitter, and shocked.”
Dave Schultz was dazed. His head felt heavy. He never thought it would come to this. Traded for draft choices! This was in 1976 when Philadelphia sent him south to do his hammering in L.A. He was angry. He blamed Bobby Clarke. After all he’d done for the Flyers in the way of punching their opponents! Not to mention them punching him! Humiliating. He said some things, which a reporter heard and published. There was a furor. “It’s dislocation pure and simple — and rejection,” he’d wax later. “You don’t think that someone else wants you; you think that somebody doesn’t.” Continue reading