As the bus carrying the victorious New York Rangers pulled away from the Capital Centre in Landover, Md. and headed for the Baltimore airport one night last week, Ken Hodge shouted from a front-row seat, "So that's the first time the Rangers have ever beaten the Capitals down here, eh?" Then, from the back of the bus, Don (Murder) Murdoch hollered, "Hey, Hodge, don't live in the past."
Murdoch is an NHL rookie, a 20-year-old kid who played in Medicine Hat, Alberta last year, but he knows well that the Rangers' past is not worth talking about. Emile Francis' Fat Cats had the highest payroll in the game but never won anything. The jokes around Manhattan were that the blue in the Rangers' uniforms matched the players' bloodlines, that they threw around cheques rather than checks, and that the corners they frequented were on Park Avenue—not on the ice at Madison Square Garden. But all that is part of the sorry past.
Indeed, the only resemblance between the Fat Cats of Francis and the present Rangers of General Manager-Coach John Ferguson is that the feisty new Rangers also wear skates. Dismissed as "rebuilding" in preseason analyses, Ferguson's Rangers have lost only four of their last 21 games and are battling Atlanta for third place—and the last playoff position—in the Patrick Division, hockey's toughest. In fact, the Rangers have 42 points, which ties them for the seventh best record in the 18-team NHL, and if they were in the sickly Smythe Division, they would be comfortably in first place.
At the heart of Ferguson's Ranger revival have been Murdoch, a right-wing sniper who has scored 28 goals this season, more than anyone except Montreal's Steve Shutt or Guy Lafleur; Nick Fotiu, an enforcer from Staten Island who used to commute to the Garden by ferry; Ron Greschner, Dave Maloney, Mike McEwen and Dave Farrish, the youngest defense this side of Saskatoon; and Gilles Gratton, a nomadic goaltender who believes he is the reincarnation of a 16th-century Spanish soldier stabbed to death in battle.
When Ferguson replaced the fired Francis a year ago, the Rangers were demoralized, disorganized and en route to a) the worst defensive record in their 50-year history and b) no first-place finish or Stanley Cup for the 35th straight season. The U.S.S.R. Coach Konstantin Loktev perfectly assessed the Rangers' problems after the Soviets routed them 7-3 two weeks before Ferguson took charge. "The New York players," Loktev said, "all skate in a very heavy way."
What bothered Ferguson most about the Rangers he inherited was their pacifist posture on the ice. Hockey's best policeman-enforcer when he played for Montreal, Ferguson was appalled one night when the Rangers watched meekly as Atlanta's Curt Bennett knocked out Maloney in a one-punch fight. "I swore that would never happen again," Ferguson says. "Right after that game I went into the hallway, found Fotiu's agent and told him I wanted Nicky at our training camp in September for some respectability."
The WHA's New England Whalers gave Fotiu to Ferguson in return for two exhibition games against the Rangers in Hartford, and to put Fotiu's role into proper perspective, Ferguson assigned him the same No. 22 that Ferguson had worn for the Canadiens. A former New York Police Athletic League boxing champion, Fotiu has scored only one goal this season—but rival toughs now think twice before they start fights with any of his teammates.
"Fergy himself has been a shock to us, too," says Maloney, one of the three 20-year-old defensemen on the New York roster. "It was pretty dead around here before he arrived." Francis, for instance, rarely showed anger after a New York defeat, but Ferguson reacts to adversity by stomping clusters of Coke cans, hurling oranges, spouting expletives and airmailing towels in all directions. "Some guys laughed at Fergy, sure, but they're long gone now," Maloney says. "He's so intense, and it eventually wore off on the rest of us. He invokes fear and commands respect. What it all means, I guess, is that now we believe we can do things we never even dreamed about back in September."
Ferguson carefully plotted his course during the off-season. "First of all, I had to give the Rangers something they always lacked," he says. "A mean streak. To be a winner, a team, like an individual, must have some killer instinct. Second, we had to get in condition. When I helped coach Team Canada against the Soviet Union in 1972, I saw for the first time what conditioning really means. The Soviet players were in fantastic shape." Ferguson had new uniforms designed for the Rangers, and the sleek contours tend to make the players look brawnier than they are. He also discussed the Soviets' conditioning program with Dr. Edmund F. Enos, a Montreal educator who visits Moscow each June to study the latest advances in Soviet hockey technology, and prepared a routine designed to get the fat off the Fat Cats.
Then came Ferguson's most drastic change. "There were too many guys on the Rangers who had proved they could never play for a winner," he says, "so I made up my mind to go with the kids." He drafted superbly, taking Murdoch in the first round, Farrish in the second and McEwen in the third. All three became regulars, and Murdoch seems certain to be voted rookie of the year.
Murdoch leads the NHL in the "important goals" category: 10 of his 28 scores have tied (at some point) or won games for the Rangers. He surprises goal-tenders with a well disguised and deadly accurate wrist shot, something that disappeared from hockey with the introduction of the slap shot. "When I was growing up in Cranbrook, B.C.," Murdoch says, "I used to shoot 200 pucks a day in my backyard after practice." He scored two goals in his first NHL game, then five—setting a Ranger record—at Minnesota in his fourth game. After all his goals, Murdoch does the Murder Shuffle, a war dance that includes a stutter step, a choo-choo-choo with his mouth and a pumping arm motion.
Murdoch inevitably has attracted the attention of the league's most physical players. "Guys are taking runs at me now," he says, "but it was a lot worse when I was at Medicine Hat and we played against Lethbridge. I mean, once you've played junior hockey in Western Canada, the NHL seems kind of tame. Heck, our games against Lethbridge used to average 3½ hours."
Murdoch plays on a line with Center Walter Tkaczuk and Left Wing Greg Polis. When Boston's Mike Milbury punched away at Murdoch in one game, Tkaczuk—a former Fat Cat—charged across the ice to rescue his teammate and received a game misconduct penalty. Ferguson wildly applauded Tkaczuk's behavior; the old Tkaczuk, the $175,000-per-year center who scored only eight goals last season, would have watched the Milbury-Murdoch fray from a front-row seat. "I use the Tkaczuk-Polis-Murdoch line against the other teams' best line," says Ferguson. "Murdoch says he's just learning to check, but I use him to kill penalties, and when we beat Montreal, he limited Shutt to just one shot on goal."
Defensively, Ferguson also has made sweeping changes, dumping four of the veterans who contributed to last season's dismal goals-against record and keeping only Carol Vadnais. "If we're going to lose," he said, "I'd rather lose with kids." McEwen occasionally has defensive lapses but advances the puck skillfully, while Farrish plays solidly on defense but lacks McEwen's puck-carrying ability. Maloney, the third 20-year-old at the New York blue line, has been steady, aggressive and so physical that no one has tried to punch him in the mouth this year. Ron Greschner, an old man of 22, seems to have regained the flair he displayed as a rookie two years ago but rarely showed last season. One reason may be that Greschner, who used to avoid body contact, has taken to wearing a helmet and now skates madly into the corners.
Ferguson's rebuilding scheme almost went kaput last month, when regular Goaltender John Davidson injured his knee and underwent surgery that will keep him off the ice until March, but the flaky Gratton—a former Ottawa National, Buffalo Sabre, St. Louis Blue and Toronto Toro—has been surprisingly dependable in the nets.
Despite New York's unexpected success, Ferguson continues to be hard on his players. He benched Center Wayne Dillon for one game with a terse, "He'll play when he learns to check." After a 2-1 loss to the Islanders a fortnight ago, Ferguson said, "One mistake beat us. Rod Gilbert chased the defenseman in behind the net when he wasn't supposed to." At the same time, Ferguson has relaxed Francis' strict dress codes, and he always makes sure there is plenty of post-game "beer for the boys," as he calls it, on Ranger buses and planes.
On the flight home from Baltimore, Phil Esposito, Hodge and Vadnais—all former Bruins—regaled their young teammates with stories of their days with Bobby Orr. As Esposito was spinning a yarn to the spellbound Farrish, Murdoch interrupted him. "Hey, Espo," he said, "don't live in the past."
Rookie Don Murdoch has scored 28 goals but says the NHL is "tame" compared to Medicine Hat.