Emile Francis (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)
In 1969-70, the New York Rangers made history by overcoming a five goal deficit in the tie-breaking procedure to knock the Montreal Canadiens out of playoff contention. The Rangers' triumph was the first time in NHL history the playoffs did not have a Canadian team.
By Gerald Eskenazi
Should a team be defined only by a championship it wins? Can’t a fan have memories of great moments without a title?
It’s spring, and flowers are sprouting, baseball training camps are in full mode, basketball and hockey teams are thinking playoffs and pro football is planning mini-camps.
The Rangers, one of hockey’s best, are poised to go deep into the playoffs, and their fans probably will be heartbroken (again) if they don’t come up with a Cup. But once upon a time, just getting into postseason play was heartwarming.
These days l recall the 45th anniversary of the greatest big-league sports event I covered during my long tenure as a sportswriter with The New York Times.
No, it wasn’t a Rangers’ championship game I’m thinking about. It wasn’t even a playoff game. It was the final game of the 1969-70 season. What? You don’t remember? Well, neither do many of their followers.
And just what did their fans of that era have to recall so fondly?
Might as well ask what the Chicago Cubs’ fan has had for more than 100 years with no titles. And what about the raucous followers of the Blues in St. Louis, never seeing their team win a Stanley Cup? Or Buffalo, where the Bills got to the big game four straight years but remain one of 13 NFL teams without a Super Bowl trophy? And the Texas Rangers? Not even one World Series after starting life in Washington in 1961.
But I’ll guarantee you that their fans still have fond memories. Those of us based in New York, with its two MLB teams, three NHL teams, two NBA teams and two NFL teams (not to mention pro soccer) seem to find it a failure if a club doesn’t win a championship.
Then I remember that crazy Sunday 45 years ago: the Rangers woke up that morning trailing the Montreal Canadiens by 2 points for the fourth and final playoff spot in the East Division. This is what the New Yorkers were faced with: an afternoon game with the powerful Detroit Red Wings. A victory was imperative. It would then tie the Rangers with the Canadiens at points with 92 as well as victories with 38. But then, if the Canadiens lost and the teams were even in points and victories, the tiebreaker would be goals scored, and the Canadiens began the day having scored five more goals—242-237. Thus, even a Ranger victory wouldn’t be enough unless, somehow, they wound up scoring more overall goals than Montreal.
That afternoon Madison Square Garden rocked more than at any time I remember. The organist, Eddie Layton, told me he was going to play “More” whenever the Rangers scored. In his pre-game pep talk, Rangers’ coach Emile Francis told them “Anything can happen, boys. This game is slippery—it’s played on ice.”
And, oh, yes—the Red Wings had celebrated on their charter flight from Detroit, for they had clinched a playoff spot Saturday night, and Roy Edwards, their regular goalie, was sleeping it off in the locker room. Meanwhile, the great Gordie Howe was being rested, sitting on the bench.
The Rangers, pumped up by the crowd, almost scored in the opening 10 seconds. A wailing “Oh!” soon was followed by a cheer that made the arena vibrate. For the Rangers responded with a nine-goal performance, equaling the greatest number of goals they had ever scored. They blasted 65 shots on goal, better than one a minute, the highest number in their history. With each goal, the crowd went bananas. In fact, Francis even took out his goalie, Ed Giacomin, leading by 9-3 so the team could have an extra skater and attempt to score even more goals. The final score was 9-5, the Rangers were tied at victories and points with Montreal, but had an overall goal advantage of 246 to 242.
Francis went home and took out his dog-eared copy of “Patton--Ordeal and Triumph,” the biography of General George S. Patton that Francis had been reading for encouragement in the season’s waning days. Then he telephoned me and asked whether I could somehow get the Canadiens’ game on the radio. At the paper we had a “radio room” and there was a massive contraption in there with giant tubes. I went in, asked the clerk if it were possible to get a broadcast of the game, and found out we could.
That night, I listened to the game on the radio. The Blackhawks jumped out to a lead and the Canadiens did something unprecedented. In the first period, they pulled their goalie! Yes, they didn’t care if they lost, only if they scored goals. But they didn’t. Whenever Chicago scored I telephoned Francis. He was going nuts in his living room. And then I phoned him with the final score: Chicago 10, Montreal 2. Montreal and the Rangers were tied at victories, tied in points—but the Rangers had outscored them by 246-244. Francis took his copy of the Patton book and joyously flung it across the room. His team had made the playoffs. And for the first time ever, no Canadian team was in post-season play.
For New Yorkers, though, it proved one thing: Not everyone needs a championship to be happy.