Emile Francis came to New York and found a hockey wasteland. By the time he had finished his stints as the general manager and coach of the Rangers, he had made them a significant player among the Big Apple’s many professional sports teams.
Not bad for a wiry little guy from North Battleford, Saskatchewan. In fact, I found him the most fascinating personality I came to write about in my more than 40 years of covering sports.
Francis, who died at age 95 on Saturday, brought his own values to New York and never wavered. Life, like hockey, was simple to the man who earned the nickname “the Cat” for his quick moves as a goaltender. His philosophy could be summed up in a few of his favorite expressions:
“This game is slippery. It’s played on ice.”
“Hockey is like pool. It’s not what you make, but what you leave.”
“You can’t complain with half a loaf of bread under your arm.”
Francis, who had been a backup goalie with Chicago and the Rangers, became New York’s general manager in 1964. The team had suffered six straight losing seasons in the six-team N.H.L.
Midway through the next season, he fired Coach Red Sullivan and took over behind the Rangers’ bench. And then in the 1966-67 season, with the team under his complete control, it began a playoff streak that would last for nine straight seasons. But twice during that stretch he hired other coaches — first, the former star of the dynastic Montreal Canadiens, Bernie Geoffrion, whom Francis wanted as a symbol of victory for his maligned skaters. When Geoffrion faltered, Francis took over. Then there was also the 1973 hiring of Larry Popein, who was fired during the season and replaced by the Cat.
In those pre-computer days, Francis kept his notes on a pad in his jacket pocket. He could pull out statistics from the farm clubs or from his players.
And he was in charge. He often made the team’s train or plane reservations. He booked the hotels. At practice, he donned skates and led the team in calisthenics. He brooked no challenges, no outside interference, no distractions. He was putting together a team in his image, and he demanded his players follow his rules.
They did, and they did it well. He installed a system of hockey based on control, solid teamwork and conservatism. But the team never won a Stanley Cup, making the finals only once during his tenure. I always believed that if he had loosened up a bit — allowed, say, his best threat, Rod Gilbert, not to be shackled to his teammates but to roam a bit freer — the Rangers might have captured a championship.
But that was Emile’s way, and it was always a team effort. He was obsessed with not having anything out of place.
I attended training camp one fall in Kitchener, Ontario, with my wife and my infant daughter. Emile told the person at the front desk to put us in a room at the back of the hotel — he did not want a woman at training camp. Too distracting.
I was so fascinated with the game — and with him — that I wrote a book called “A Year on Ice,” which chronicled the roller-coaster 1969-70 season (and, I’m proud to say, was just made into a fictionalized film). To add what I thought at the time was total honesty, I included a paragraph that described a woman running out of a player’s hotel room in tears. That was it. A few sentences.
Just about the time the book came out, Francis was embroiled in contract battles with some of his stars. He suspended Brad Park, Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield and Walt Tkaczuk because they refused to play an exhibition in training camp without contracts. It was the beginning of players fighting for their rights in hockey. I wrote extensively about their demands, and Francis wasn’t happy.
It was all resolved after bitter battles. Then, a few weeks after the book was published, at Skateland, the team’s practice rink in New Hyde Park, N.Y., the trainer told me, “Emile would like to see you in the locker room.”
I walked in and there he was, in the middle of the room, with the entire team. He said, “I want you guys to hear this,” and he read the excerpt about the woman running out of the player’s hotel room.
“And this is the guy you’re talking to, trusting him?” Francis said, looking at me. Then he added, “Get out.”
Shortly afterward, the Rangers Fan Club held its annual dinner. I went there with my wife, Rosalind. And there was Francis. He walked over to her and said, “I’m sorry for what I did. But I’ll do anything to keep my team together.”
It was why, even though the team played in the heart of Manhattan at Madison Square Garden, he didn’t want his players anywhere near the place, lest they become distracted. He insisted they live on Long Island, and virtually all of them put down roots in Long Beach.
When Francis originally came to New York, he didn’t find many kids playing hockey. So he started a league that grew to seven teams and included clubs from New Jersey, Westchester County and Long Island.
He was determined to make the game a part of New York life, and he succeeded. But he was always determined to keep his small-town Canadian roots and values. Somehow, he juggled the two brilliantly.