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.
Broad (Street) Brush: American artist LeRoy Neiman’s hockey work included portraits of the skilled set: Bobby Hull, Bryan Trottier, Wayne Gretzky. His sketchpad also reflected the game’s punishing side, as with these 1974 portraits of a trio of Philadelphia Flyers documenting the accumulated cost of doing business — smashed noses, slashed skulls, puckstruck teeth — suffered above the neck by (from left) a very Bobby-Clarke-looking Don Big Bird Saleski, Bob Hound-Dog Kelly, and Andre Moose Dupont.
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)
After 45 games, the Leafs appeared to be hitting a wall.
Toronto’s chances of making the playoffs, according to the SportsClubStats.com, now stand at 21 per cent.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that things aren’t going anywhere near what our expectations are, that’s for sure,” coach Randy Carlyle said on Thursday.
Canadian GM Steve Yzerman announced the team he’ll be taking to Sochi for the Olympics next month, which is when Michael Farber from Sports Illustrated took to Twitter: “My Canada includes Martin St. Louis.”
But Wayne Gretzky, for one, approved of the players selected: “I really think he put together a good team,” Gretzky told Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com. “He’s got skill, he’s got size, he’s got depth, he’s got a good coaching staff, and they’ve done all their homework. They’ve done everything they can do. Now it’s up to the players to play at the level that they need to play at to bring back the gold medal.”
The Toronto Star’s Damien Cox called the Winter Classic a gimmick ahead of the big New Year’s Day game between Leafs and Red Wings in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Farber: “No, I am not in Detroit. Since ’03 Heritage Classic in Edmonton – Hype vs. Hypothermia – I have been strictly an indoor hockey writer.”
Toronto’s Phil Kessel: “She is gonna be chilly tm out on that ice”
On the day, Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk told his coach, Mike Babcock, “Well, we’re being too careful with the puck. We gotta be because you’re scared to turn it over. There’s so much snow.”
In front of a record-setting crowd of 105,491,tThe Leafs won, 3-2 in a shoot-out. Cox, post-game:
NHL gimmickry and ambition collided with frigid, blustery, irritable Mother Nature to produce a compelling outdoor game as a remarkable 82 TV cameras peered through an unceasing snow squall to broadcast every moment to 160 countries.
“I never talk to my team after we lose ever,” Babcock said. “I did today. I said you should be proud. You have an off day tomorrow. Enjoy your family today.”
“To me,” said Babcock, “today was a home run for hockey,”
After bombs ripped through lives in Volgograd, in southern Russia, The Globe and Mail’s Roy MacGregor listened to Alex Ovechkin’s thoughts on the subject. “It’s awful,” he told reporters in Ottawa. “I don’t know what people doing that kind of stuff for. I feel so sorry about the families and the people who were there.”
When you hear this kind of situation happened, you think ‘Oh my God!’ You just feel bad. I don’t know how to say it, but just say ‘Why? Why you have to carry a bomb with you and push the button and destroy you and destroy everybody? If you want to do it, do it by yourself somewhere in a forest or in the mountains. Nobody is going to care about it. This is just stupid.
Boston’s goalie, Tuukka Rask, talked about the danger of terrorist attacks at Sochi’s Olympics, where he’ll be defending Finnish nets: “You trust the system that nothing will happen. You can’t live your life in fear.” Continue reading