It was September of 1971 in Kitchener, Ontario, I was just out of school, posing as a freelance writer doing a book about the Rangers five years before I would get this job as a professional writer, and Emile Francis was shouting at me.
“Are you trying to get to Toronto?” The Cat yelled from one end of the arena’s locker room corridor to the other, where I was standing with luggage by my side. “Are you trying to get to Toronto?”
My friend and fellow Section 419 season ticket-holding mate, Fred Balin, had come up about 10 days earlier after being granted limited access to the team by legendary PR Director John Halligan. We followed the team from Kitchener to London to Flint, Mich., and back again. We interacted with the team at motels, we interacted with Emile following practices and games.
Now the Rangers were about to return to New York. Balin and I were checking bus and train schedules, trying to figure out how to do the same. At which point, Emile Francis simply declared: “You’re coming with us.”
We went with them. We bussed with the Rangers from Kitchener to Toronto, flew from Toronto to LaGuardia, bussed from Queens to midtown Manhattan. We said our goodbyes to Emile and the Rangers, went back to where we belonged in Section 419, the book left unwritten in the wake of rejection letters from every publishing house on the Eastern Seaboard.
Five years later, I was writing for a living. Two years after that I was covering the Blueshirts, for real. And now, 51 years after meeting Emile for the first time, 51 years after he performed that act of singular kindness for a young guy who just loved his team, I am saying my final goodbye.
The circle of life goes ’round and ’round. Over just the last two years, the Rangers of the late ’60s and early ’70s have lost Harry Howell, Arnie Brown, Jim Neilson, Bob Nevin, Ken Schinkel, Bob Plager, Jack Egers and the fabled Rod Gilbert. And now Francis, who passed on Saturday at age 95.
As each departs, the memories that bind tug harder on the heart. A generation of fans mourns, but celebrates the era in which the Rangers were imperfect, flawed and unable to win the Cup, but outstanding, exciting, entertaining and charismatic. Those teams and those players were beloved. Even without a Cup, you will never convince me or my brethren that these were not the best and brightest of times and that these Rangers were not representatives of the franchise’s Greatest Generation.
With each day and with each loss, devotion is recalled. With each day and with each loss, the memories intensify and so does the desire to acknowledge appreciation. I hesitate to write this again out of fear of alienating the decision-makers, but this is why it would be so important to so many people for the Rangers to retire Brad Park’s No. 2. If not now, when?
Emile was not simply the Rangers’ general manager through that era, and he was not simply the Rangers’ coach while serving three distinct terms behind the bench. He was the Founding Father of the franchise’s modern era. He created the infrastructure in the mid-’60s that would propel the Blueshirts to prominence after the organization had fallen into such decay and disrepute earlier in the decade that a player of the renown of Red Kelly refused to report to New York after he had been acquired in a deal with the Red Wings. He was as good a friend to youth hockey this area has ever had and was the founder (there’s that word again) of the Metropolitan Junior Hockey Association.
Francis was an innovator. He was a presence. He re-invented the Rangers after taking over as general manager at age 38 after succeeding Muzz Patrick (“MUZZ MUST GO! MUZZ MUST GO”) in October of 1964, and then putting himself behind the bench for the first time after dismissing Red Sullivan in December of 1965.
The Cat traded Andy Bathgate to Toronto in February of 1964 in exchange for three players in Bob Nevin, Rod Seiling and Arnie Brown who would prove instrumental in the club’s rise later in the decade. He tried the same the following year by sending Camille Henry to Chicago, but let’s just say that Doug Robinson did not quite become a piece of the core the way Emile had projected. Oh, well.
He got into a fistfight with Arthur Reichart in a game in 1965 when the goal judge put on the red light denoting that the Red Wings had scored when the Cat — not yet the coach — thought the puck had not crossed the line. I was in the end balcony that night with my dad and watched just below us as Francis accosted the fellow, and 10 Rangers then scaled the high glass behind the net to protect him when they noticed the festivities.
Emile traded for Eddie Giacomin, then stuck in the AHL with Providence, before sticking with the goaltender after a disappointing rookie season in which he had suffered abuse from the fans. He built his first playoff team in 1967 around Giacomin, Howell, Nevin, Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield, Neilson, Brown, Phil Goyette, Donnie Marshall and Boomer Geoffrion.
Then he transformed that group into the marquee one featuring the GAG Line, Park, the Bulldog Line, Ted Irvine, Pete Stemkowski, Bruce MacGregor, Bobby Rousseau, Neilson, Seiling and Dale Rolfe and the rest of the gang you know by heart.
The Cat made four trades within four-plus months with the Red Wings during 1970-71, exchanging Larry Brown, Don Luce, Arnie Brown, Mike Robitaille, Tom Miller and Jim Krulicki for Stemkowski, Steve Andrascik, MacGregor, Rolfe and, welcome back, L. Brown. He traded Syl Apps, Jr. for Glen Sather. He traded Andre Dupont, Mike Murphy and Egers for Gene Carr — oh, how he and we all loved that shiny new toy until everyone figured out that he could not score — and a couple of toss-ins. He traded Curt Bennett to the Flames for Ron Harris. He traded for, good grief, Gilles Marotte.
He took big swings. Had some big misses. He was always looking for the missing link. He never found it. Didn’t matter. In The Cat We Trusted, even when he wound up acquiring Derek Sanderson in his post-WHA days, even when he traded Hadfield for Nick Beverley (!) after the 1974 semifinal loss to the Flyers. Well…
Were any of the trades his greatest mistake? Not even close. The Cat’s greatest mistake was not promoting Fred Shero to coach the Rangers after The Fog had spent a decade in the organization behind minor league benches. He won the AHL title with Buffalo in 1969-70, won the CHL title with Omaha in 1970-71 and never got a call from the Rangers.
Do you think 1972 might have been different? What about 1974? File this as one of the most tantalizing What Ifs in Rangers history, right beside the Larry Bertuzzi/Eric Lindros arbitration case.
His coaching hires of Geoffrion and Larry Popein were failures and so was his last one of Ron Stewart. It seemed as if he never quite wanted to cede the position to someone else. When the end was near, when Giacomin, Ratelle and Park were sent away in 1975-76, turning the Rangers into something unrecognizable and unlikeable, it was time for Emile to go, too. He did in January of 1976, replaced by John Ferguson.
The Cat went to St. Louis, where he built a strong team, and then to Hartford, where he did the same. I interacted with him on an intermittent basis on league business, then later in his retirement when he had re-engaged with the Rangers in his role as a proud representative of the alumni and as a symbol of the Greatest Generation.
We talked and talked. We reminisced. He told me some stories I could never confirm. We talked about those great teams as if I had been there. I was. We were, weren’t we, the kids from the side balcony, the fans from the Blue Seats. We were all there along for the ride. We were part of Emile’s Family. Now he is gone.
Fifty years ago, I was trying to get to Toronto. Emile gave me a ride. Now I’m saying goodbye to the Cat. The circle of life goes ’round and ’round.