It must be obvious by now to anyone interested in the game that New York just plain doesn't want to have a good hockey team. Why it doesn't will perhaps forever remain a mystery, but the evidence is incontrovertible. Except for the (comparatively) small band of faithful fans who cram into Madison Square Garden each week to moan over its team's losses, New Yorkers seem utterly indifferent to hockey and hockey players. The men who own and run the New York Rangers seem even more so. Twice in the last two years the Ranger management has given away its best players in trades that could be equaled only if the New York Yankees gave away Mickey Mantle one year and Roger Maris the next and got a handful of rookies and also-rans in return. Last year's end-of-season Ranger trade sent Andy Bathgate, the team's alltime scoring leader and one of the few genuine superstars of the game, off to Toronto just in time to help that team win its 12th Stanley Cup. If the fans were a bit downhearted, Andy himself was not. "What a difference," he said with the happy smile of a man paroled, "between New York and Toronto. Back there the only time people recognize you as a hockey player is when you are going in or coming out of Madison Square Garden."
With Andy gone, the bright star of the Rangers was little Camille Henry, the second-highest scorer in the team's history. So this year, just four weeks ago in fact, the Rangers traded off Camille—perhaps, though it was not so stated, because he was shooting more goals than anyone else on the team.
No single trade, not even Andy's, has upset Ranger fans as much. Not only was Henry the second Ranger captain and high scorer to be traded away in two seasons, he was the league's most accurate shooter as well. Cammy hit on nearly 25% of his scoring opportunities, and scoring opportunities with a team like the Rangers are not easily come by. Up to the time of his trade, Henry had scored 21 goals for the Rangers in the current season, and 19 of them were "important" goals, i.e., first, winning, tying or insurance goals.
Except for warning them not to throw rotten eggs and hot pennies on the ice, the Ranger management, an amorphous group of capitalists who own the Knicks basketball team and Madison Square Garden as well, does not waste much time on hockey fans. The official excuse it gave for dealing off Bathgate and Henry amounted to little more than a kind of hot-potato-in-the-mouth muttering about "building for the future." But for a Ranger fan such as I, the future still seems a long way off.
The trouble with being a Ranger fan—or a Ranger player, for the matter of that—is not just the drab hopelessness which comes with constant defeat. It is not just the knowledge that the Rangers have not won a Stanley Cup in a quarter of a century or a league championship in 23 years. It is not just knowing that no Ranger in recent memory has been named the league's top goalie, the league's top scorer or even its rookie of the year in 10 seasons. The trouble with being a Ranger fan is the feeling of frustration which comes from knowing that none of this is the fault of the team or its players.
The last time I saw the Rangers play, people were throwing little colored rubber balls down on the Madison Square Garden ice from the box seats, the mezzanine and the balcony. Green balls, red balls, orange balls. Not one of these balls was being thrown at a Ranger player or even at an opposing Black Hawk. Instead, like a man who has finally cracked up and sits thrumming his fingers over wet lips, the Ranger fans were reacting mindlessly but desperately to the rocks that the Ranger management has been throwing at them for years.
Since November 1959 that management (the Madison Square Garden Corporation, Irving Mitchell Felt, president) has had five different coaches running its team. Meanwhile, to make the job of each one virtually impossible, it has traded away the makings of an all-star team, including Goalies Johnny Bower and Gump Worsley; Defensemen Allan Stanley, Lou Fontinato, Bill Gadsby, and Al Langlois; scorers Ron Murphy, Andy Bathgate, Dean Prentice, Don McKenney, Dave Balon, Floyd Smith, Andy Hebenton and Camille Henry.
There is a mathematical constant in big league hockey almost as reliable as Einstein's E = MC[sup 2]. It is that the teams in positions one through five in the standings will play better than .500 hockey at home. With only eight wins in 28 home games the Rangers are currently batting worse than .300.
Three weeks ago a Ranger fan from Brooklyn named Richard Goldhaber began to circulate a petition aimed to stir the Ranger management into doing something. "We live without a tradition of victory," says this document, "and without a team of which we may be justly proud.... For the past decade, the management has continually promised that things would be looking up. Yet the only things that go up are ticket and concession prices."
Mr. Goldhaber has a valid point. In recent years programs for Ranger games have doubled in price from 25¢ to 50¢ while the editorial content has remained virtually the same. Since 1961, ticket prices have risen as much as $1. Yet the hockey has not improved. Management can thus count on half a million more dollars in profits but its player payroll remains the lowest in the league—so low in fact that recently NHL President Clarence Campbell stepped in to arbitrate on behalf of the Ranger players to get more money for them from the Ranger management.
Even more than money, however, what Ranger players need is a kind of incentive to play good hockey that, apparently, neither New York as a whole nor the Ranger management in particular can give them. Professional big league hockey players are an egotistical, a clannish and a proud lot, and most of them dislike New York heartily. In New York they walk the streets and ride the subways virtually unrecognized, whereas in the Canadian cities and even in Chicago, Detroit and Boston, they are celebrities.
Four years ago the Rangers tried to acquire Red Kelly, then a fine skater on the Red Wings and a current member of the Canadian parliament. Kelly would not come to New York, largely because he was convinced New York was a bad town to play hockey in. Kelly felt so strongly about it that he risked suspension by refusing to report at the Garden. "I certainly did not want to go to New York," says Kelly, who is now a mainstay of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "There was no hope of getting into the playoffs with the Rangers. That means less money and it also means that players are robbed of ambition or objectives. There is no hockey atmosphere in New York."
Unnoticed by most radio and TV interviewers, unrecognized by the public except on the ice, the Ranger players live in a tightly knit group, in rented homes out in Long Beach on Long Island, 25 miles from the city. Their wives are lonely for Canada, and they themselves lack even a decent place to practice. There is little doubt that practice on a standard-size rink sharpens the passing of a major league hockey team, but the Garden stages so many different sporting events that the Rangers often practice upstairs on a tiny pond called Iceland, which was built for figure skating and has aluminum sideboards. This year the team has, at times, practiced out on the Long Island Ducks' home ice in Commack, which provides a better rink but involves a three-hour drive back and forth.
Early this season Goalie Jacques Plante complained publicly about his team's mismanagement and was quoted by Stan Fischler, hockey writer for the Journal American, as saying, "The Rangers are cheap in a lot of ways. They made the players drive out to Commack for practices and they made them pay their own expenses instead of taking them out by bus. It was the same when you came back from a road trip." Plante also called the Ranger dressing room "a dirt house and the worst in the league."
No sooner had Plante's statements appeared in the paper than he was summoned from Baltimore, where he was trying to play himself into shape after an injury. In front of an astonished group of reporters and a gaggle of beaming Ranger brass, he promptly recanted all he had said.
Ironically, one of the few Ranger players ever to express a genuine fondness for New York was the recently banished Camille Henry. On the day that Henry was told he had been traded to Chicago, he sat stunned in the office of General Manager Emile (The Cat) Francis, who succeeded Muzz Patrick as boss this year. But the melancholy that Camille first felt on leaving New York quickly disappeared when he arrived in Chicago. Early one morning as the Hawks came off an overnight train from a road game, the ex-Ranger was amazed to see a group of fans waiting to greet the team at the station. "Thai never happened to me in New York," Henry told one of his new teammates, "and I was there a long, long time."
If New Yorkers don't throng to the railroad station to meet their hockey players, however, or make their lives gloriously miserable outside Toots Shor's begging for autographs, they do, at least, pile into the Garden to watch them play. And that may be the whole trouble. Even with the punkest play in the league, the Ranger management has already sold out the Garden nine times this season (capacity 15,925) and had near sellouts on eight other occasions. Its season-long business last year was well over 90% of capacity.
Why then should it bother with such nonessentials as building and training a good hockey team and making its players known to the public? Up to now the Ranger management has answered this question with a tacit but nonetheless definite "It shouldn't." But true Ranger fans live on hope, and right now, with Muzz Patrick gone, they are looking to Cat Francis to feed that hope. "The club's record in the last seven years has been a disgrace," Francis admits. "The one year in the last seven we made the playoffs—1961-1962—we made it on the back of Doug Harvey, a 37-year-old defenseman. And we made it with 64 points, one of the lowest totals of any fourth-place club in 30 years."
Under Francis, the Rangers have increased their scouting staff from 20 to 32 men in the last three months alone. It is promised that some staffers will work 12 months a year to improve the image of the Rangers, if such a thing is possible. Francis hopes, or claims to hope, that the Rangers can be a contender in three years—a contender for first place, no less.
If Francis is right, maybe I'll go back to Madison Square Garden and learn to hope once more. After nearly a quarter of a century of disappointment, I believe I deserve something besides promises and price rises. But as of now I can think of the Rangers only in terms of little rubber balls. Green balls, red balls, orange balls.