Monday, February 27, 2012

Top 10 Greatest New York Rangers


Yesterday, Arsenal came from 2-0 down to throttle their North London rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, and put Spurs back in their place: "Forever in our shadow."

Or, as they would say over there, "5-2! We beat The Scum, 5-2! We beat The Scum, 5-2! We beat The Scum, 5-2!"

Over here, tonight, it's Good Guys vs. Scum, as the Devils go to Madison Square Garden to face the Rangers.

There was a time when the Rangers were NOT The Scum, and didn't even suck. When did that change?

Some people think the turning point was on April 11, 1975, when the Rangers were shocked in the Playoffs by the third-year expansion team out on Long Island. Suddenly, the Rangers weren't just an unlucky team that hadn't won the Stanley Cup in 35 years. They weren't even the best team in their own metropolitan area anymore.

The following season, Ranger management began a purge, dumping longtime head coach and general manager (and former Ranger goaltender) Emile "the Cat" Francis, and trading away two of their most popular players, center Jean Ratelle and defenseman Brad Park, and lesser-known defenseman Joe Zanussi, for Boston Bruins center and Captain Phil Esposito and defenseman Carol Vadnais. And, most notoriously, traded beloved goalie Eddie Giacomin to the Detroit Red Wings, who just so happened to be the Rangers' next opponent, and the Garden rang out with chants of, "Ed-die! Ed-die! Ed-die!" all night long, with Giacomin's every save being cheered, and the Wings' 6-4 win being greeted with a standing ovation.

As the Islanders got more successful, things went from bad to worse for Ranger fans -- and I don't mean getting Esposito, who was still a sensational player, and Vadnais, who gave them a toughness they needed.

I'm talking about February 25, 1979, when Ulf Nilsson, along with Anders Hedberg poached by the Rangers from the World Hockey Association Champion Winnpeg Jets, was crashed into the boards by Denis Potvin, the Isles' Hall of Fame defenseman and Captain. To hear Ranger fans tell it, it happened during the epic Stanley Cup Semifinal series between the teams later that year, and Nilsson never played again, and because of that, the Rangers lost the Finals to the Montreal Canadiens, forever justifying the chant that still rings out of the Garden's uppermost ring, the 400 Level, formerly known as the Blue Seats: "Potvin sucks!"

In truth, the hit happened in the regular season. It was a clean hit, Nilsson himself has always said so, and the referee gave no penalty on it. The Rangers beat the Isles in the Semis without Nilsson, and he did return for the Finals, and while the Rangers did win Game 1, that Canadiens team was one of the best ever, and a fully healthy Nilsson was never going to turn the tide in the Broadway Blueshirts' favor. Esposito, who says that he, himself, took the hardest hit of his career from Potvin in that same season, and says his back was never the same, has said, "Get over it, already." The chant is still produced every Ranger home game.

Then the Islanders won the next 4 Stanley Cups -- I've been to the Nassau Coliseum a number of times for Devils-Islanders games, and I've seen a car in the parking lot with the New York license plate "4 STAN" -- and that was more Cups in 4 years than the Rangers won in their first 67 years of existence. The Islander fans chanted, "NINE-teen-FOR-ty!" What could Ranger fans do, except hope their team finally won a Cup, and chant, "Potvin sucks!"

Then the Rangers finally did it, ending the 54-year drought, and beating the Islanders (and, uh, the Devils) along the way. But the Devils won the Cup the next year, and 2 more in the next decade. Today, the Rangers are, again, Number 2 (in so many ways), but at least they're ahead of the Islanders, who may not even be in the Tri-State Area at some point in the next few years, and are pretty much now reduced to "Rangers suck!" chants -- which, while true, don't help them much.

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What would I have done in hockey if there had never been a New Jersey Devils? I don't know. Most likely, I would have drifted over to the Rangers, because Long Island is such a pain in the ass to get to from New Jersey. Or maybe I would've rooted for some faraway team. I certainly wouldn't have gone down the Northeast Corridor and rooted for the Philadelphia Flyers. Even before I became a Devils fan and started hating the Rangers, I hated the Flyers.

But the Rangers do have a long history, rich with big moments -- if not with glory.

Top 10 Greatest New York Rangers

Honorable Mention to those Rangers who are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, but not on this list: Goaltenders Chuck Rayner and Lorne "Gump" Worsley; defensemen Ivan "Ching" Johnson, Earl Siebert, Art Coulter, Walter "Babe" Pratt, Edgar Laprade, Allan Stanley, Harry Howell, Bill Gadsby and Brad Park; left wings Frederick "Bun" Cook, Lynn Patrick, Bryan Hextall and Jean Ratelle; right wing Mike Gartner; centers Clint Smith, Neil Colville, Buddy O'Connor and Phil Esposito.

Also to these men who are in the Hockey Hall of Fame in the "Builders" category: General manager and coach Lester Patrick, general manager and coach Emile Francis, team presidents John R. Kilpatrick and William M. Jennings, coach Roger Neilson, and broadcasters Winn Elliott, Marv Albert, Sal Messina and John Davidson, who was also a fine Ranger goalie. And to Mike Keenan, who, while not in the Hall of Fame despite coaching 3 different teams to 4 Stanley Cup Finals, is the only living human to have coached the Rangers to the Stanley Cup.

All but two of the players listed below are in the Hall of Fame. There are no active, or even recently retired, players on this list. And all but Numbers 8 and 7 have had their uniform numbers retired -- although not necessarily in their own honor/memory.

10. Adam Graves, Number 9, left wing, 1991-2001. He gets called "a good guy" and "classy," which means people forget how he broke Mario Lemieux's wrist in 1992. But he scored 52 goals in the 1994 Cup season, among the 329 he scored in NHL play. But he has not been elected to the Hall of Fame.

9. Eddie Giacomin, Number 1, goaltender, 1965-75. He was fun. He was great. And he was tough. Legend has it that there was a game with the Chicago Blackhawks, and Bobby Hull was shooting, lost his balance, and his skate sliced right through Giacomin's catching glove and cut open his hand. Giacomin skated off the ice, had the hand stitched up, and got back in the net and the Rangers won.

When he was traded in 1975 after 10 years of sterling service, including holding off the Big Bad Bruins for 5 games before falling in Game 6 of the 1972 Stanley Cup Finals, it was the most despised trade in Ranger history. After Gilbert, he was the 2nd Ranger to have his number retired.

8. Bryan Hextall, Number 12, left wing, 1936-48. Two of his sons and a grandson all played in the NHL, and today he's probably best remembered for his grandson, the tempestuous goalie Ron Hextall. But until Mark Messier on June 14, 1994, he was the last man to score a Stanley Cup-winning goal for the Rangers, in overtime of Game 6 against the Maple Leafs on April 13, 1940.  (The photo above shows him shaking hands with head coach Frank Boucher afterwards.) At a time when an NHL season was 48 games, he scored at least 20 goals in 7 seasons, including 6 in a row (1939 to 1944).

7. Bill Cook, Number 5, right wing, 1926-37. Like his brother Frederick "Bun" Cook and Frank Boucher, he was an original Ranger who made it to the Hall of Fame, and together they formed a forward line with the brothers (Bill on right wing, Bun on left wing) flanking center Boucher. At first, the line was called the A Line, after the A train subway that went under 8th Avenue past the then-new "old Madison Square Garden." As the Great Depression set in in 1930, people began calling it the Bread Line. But the Rangers were (don't laugh) a symbol of success, and even class and sophistication at the time.

In 1933, Bill was, for the 2nd time, the NHL scoring champion (they didn't yet give the champion the Art Ross Trophy), and captained the Rangers' 1933 Cup-winning team. He later briefly coached the Rangers in the early 1950s. Bun Cook became a minor-league coach, and his 636 wins are an American Hockey League record.

6. Andy Bathgate, Number 9, center, 1953-64. He was on the cover of the January 12, 1959 issue of Sports Illustrated, which asked if he was the greatest Ranger ever. As you'll see on this list, not quite, not even at that point. But he was the first New York hockey star of the television era. In 1964, the Rangers traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he helped them win their 3rd straight Stanley Cup, the only one he ever won. In 2009, his Number 9 (already retired for Graves) was retired, along with the Number 3 of his teammate Harry Howell, and both were on hand for the ceremony.

5. Mark Messier, Number 11, center, 1991–1997 and again 2000–2004. Why only 5th? Longevity: Six good years, three of them great, but his second go-around, he was pretty much just killing time.

But his first go-around is the most important tenure in the post-World War II history of the club, including the 1994 Stanley Cup, the 1992 President's Trophy for best overall record in the League, and the 1997 Conference Finals. His acquisition, after he'd helped the Edmonton Oilers win 5 Stanley Cups (the last, without Wayne Gretzky, or Paul Coffey, or Jari Kurri, and with Bill Ranford as starting goalie instead of Grant Fuhr, as Captain), was the message that the Rangers were dead serious about ending the Curse of 1940.

Anything less than a Cup would have been a spectacular failure. In other words, if the Vancouver Canucks had scored one more goal in regulation in Game 7 of the Finals, and then won in overtime, Ranger fans could have taken Messier downstairs into Penn Station, and literally run him out of town on a rail.  But they won, and for that, he will always be the biggest hero in the club's history -- though not its best player. And, remember: He's not only the Hair Club Team Captain, he's also a client!

4. Rod Gilbert, Number 7, right wing, 1960-77. Still the Rangers' all-time leading scorer, their all-time leader in games played, and the first player of any Tri-State Area hockey team to have his number retired. Never won a Cup, though, never getting closer than the 1972 Finals, which the Rangers lost to Boston. Until the 1994 Cup, he was probably the all-time most popular Ranger, too -- even more so than Giacomin.

3. Mike Richter, Number 35, goaltender, 1990-2003. He's the one on this list who's not yet in the Hockey Hall of Fame, which makes no sense, since even an Islanders or a Devils fan has to admit that he's the greatest hockey goaltender the United States of America has ever produced. The 1994 Stanley Cup, the 1996 World Cup, his uniform number retired, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, and the Lester Patrick Award for service to hockey in the U.S., and except for Messier and possibly Leetch, probably the most popular Ranger of all time. He's been eligible for THE Hall in Toronto since 2006. What are they waiting for?

2. Brian Leetch, Number 2, defenseman, 1987-2004. In 1994, he became the first non-Canadian to win the Conn Smythe Trophy for Playoff MVP. In spite of all of Messier's heroics that season, Leetch deserved it. In 1996, he was the biggest factor in the U.S. team winning the World Cup (formerly the Canada Cup) for the first time. He wasn't the longest-playing Ranger, but he was the one who played the best for the longest.

1. Frank Boucher, Number 7, center, 1926-37, with a brief comeback in 1944 due to the wartime manpower shortage.  Centering the Bread Line on the 1928 and '33 Cup winners, he was right up there with Howie Morenz, King Clancy and Eddie Shore as one of the best players of that era. He scored 160 goals with 263 assists at a time when the NHL season was just 48 games long. Evelyn Byng, wife of the Governor-General of Canada, donated a trophy to be awarded to the NHL's "most gentlemanly player." Boucher won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy 7 times in 8 years. Lady Byng was so impressed that she gave him the trophy outright, and donated another trophy to the NHL.

In 1939, Lester Patrick left the head coaching position to concentrate on being general manager, and Boucher, who'd been coaching the Rangers' farm team, the New York Rovers, was named head coach and took them to the Cup. (In the photo above, Boucher, in the overcoat, is congratulating Bryan Hextall on his Cup-winning goal.) In other words, in their entire history, only once have the Rangers won the Stanley Cup without Frank Boucher being directly involved. Aside from Patrick and Tex Rickard, Boucher is the most important figure in the club's history.

He also succeeded Patrick as general manager in 1947, and built a team that almost won another Cup in 1950, but lost Game 7 in overtime to the Red Wings. He died in 1977, at age 76. In spite of all his achievements, his number has not been retired for him. Number 7 is hung in the rafters at The Garden, but it's for Rod Gilbert. Boucher has been virtually forgotten.  He was last a Ranger starter 75 years ago, but you should still know his name.

1 comment:

nutballgazette said...

With the Long History of the Rangers it is real tough. Jean Rattelle was one of my Favorite rangers ever before the isles came into the NHL, If he played his entire career in New York I am sure he would be close to the top along with Rod Gilbert at #4 or #5