The 1964-65 season was one of transition for the New York Rangers, a transition that actually began late in the 1963-64 season. That was when the Rangers dealt their long-time captain an only superstar, Andy Bathgate, to the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was accompanied to Toronto by another veteran, centre-left wing Don McKenney.
Ranger fans unhappy
The return the Rangers realized in this transaction left Ranger fans cold when the news first broke. The only name really familiar coming back to New York was Toronto fan favourite Dick Duff, a left winger with a penchant for scoring big playoff goals. Right-winger Bob Nevin, just a month shy of his 26th birthday was a key figure who would be tasked with replacing Bathgate on the right side for the Rangers. Nevin did not disappoint and is now captain of the club.
But the real targets in the trade for New York were a couple of young defencemen, Arnie Brown, who was at Rochester of the AHL, and junior player Rod Seiling. As predicted by general manager Muzz Patrick, both made the Rangers as the 64-65 season dawned.
Brown, 22, and Seiling, not even 20 when the season started, represented the Ranger change in philosophy. Gone are the days of filling spots with aging veterans. Young players being given a chance would now be the order of the day for the Rangers. The long-suffering “Gallery Gods” of Madison Square Garden, while they might not like the product on the ice at the outset of this plan, at least now realized that they had something unfamiliar to Ranger fans in recent years – hope.
Management change at Hallowe’en
The season went pretty much as coach Red Sullivan figured it would. There were growing pains for the youngsters, and several veterans showed signs of slowing down. But the big surprise would come at the end of October when the Rangers ownership completely bought into the rebuilding program and kicked Patrick upstairs. His replacement was Emile (The Cat) Francis, 38, who spent parts of four seasons with the Rangers as a goalkeeper.
Francis had been serving as the assistant general manager of the Rangers. He apparently had a large part in deal with Toronto, pushing hard for the Blueshirts to grab as many of Toronto’s young prospects as they could.
Two key trades
Francis wasted little time in continuing the swing to youth. He engineered a late-season trade with the Chicago Black Hawks in which popular veteran Camille Henry was sent to the Hawks. The key players coming back were 24-year-old Doug Robinson, John Brenneman, 21, and defenceman Wayne Hillman, 25. He sent Duff to Montreal for winger Billy Hicke, 26 just before Christmas.
With all this upheaval, it was no surprise that the Rangers finished a distant fifth with 52 points, 22 behind fourth-place Toronto. They didn’t defend well enough, and couldn’t score enough. And on many nights, it looked like the veterans didn’t care enough. By the end of the season, there was a lot of talk that Sullivan would not be re-hired for next season.
Youngsters showed promise
The kids were not the problem. There was no better Ranger than right-winger Rod Gilbert. The handsome 23-year-old led team in scoring with 25 goals and 36 assists for 61 points and showed great promise.
Vic Hadfield, also 23, scored 18 times from the left side, and showed a mean streak that belied his age. Every team in the league, when talking trade with Francis, started the discussion by asking for Hadfield, but Francis wouldn’t budge on any of those requests.
Another 23-year-old with a big future is Jean Ratelle. He sat out the early part of the season and was dispatched to Baltimore over a contract dispute. Once that was ironed out, he got into 54 games for New York and put up 35 points on 14 goals and 21 assists. Ratelle showed enormous potential and if he can stay healthy, he has all-star written all over him. He and Gilbert both suffered similar back injuries in junior and the hope is those woes are behind the pair now.
Goaltending Rangers Achilles heel
The most disappointing part of the Rangers’ season was the goaltending. Veteran Jacques Plante was expected to give stability between the pipes, but he was anything but stable. His play was inconsistent, and he constantly complained of sore knees. He was finally dispatched to the American League. Journeyman Marcel Paille took over in goal for a stretch, but all he did was prove why he is saddled with the journeyman tag. Plante eventually returned and the pair split netminding duties down the stretch.
Young defence struggled
The Ranger defence featured solid veteran Harry Howell, and three youngsters, Seiling, Brown and Jim Neilson, only 22. Howell worked with the kids as best he could, and there are few better teachers of the defensive side of the game. The youngsters struggled at times, and opposing forwards often took advantage of their inexperience, but the real problem was that when mistakes were made, New York’s goaltending was rarely able to bail them out. It was a recipe for disaster, and that’s what the Ranger defence proved to be.
Disappointing vets up front
Up front, the kids were all right, while the vets left a lot to be desired. Veteran centre Phil Goyette slumped to only 12 goals, but he missed 18 games with injuries. Camille Henry scored 21 goals in 48 games before being shipped to Chicago, and Donnie Marshall hit the 20-goal mark.
Dick Duff was a huge disappointment and never seemed to be able to get untracked in New York. He had only three goals in 29 games before the trade with Montreal, but his replacement, Hicke, didn’t fare much better. Hicke scored six goals in 40 games.
Big Doug Robinson, the key figure for Francis in the Henry trade, showed flashes of brilliance and could make “The Cat” look like a genius if he can continue his point-a-game pace. He had eight goals and 14 assists in only 21 games for the Rangers. With size and a good shot, he might be the perfect left winger for young Ratelle and Gilbert. Many were surprised the Black Hawks would give up on him so easily.
Management: Francis is the man
The slightly built Francis definitely is the main man in New York. He has been given carte blanche to rebuild the moribund franchise, and he is busy stockpiling young assets. Patrick was kicked upstairs to an executive vice-president position, with duties whose description were fuzzy at best.
George (Red) Sullivan will return as coach of the Rangers. Francis views the popular red-head as the perfect mentor for his young team, but he expects improvement next year. He has a one-year contract, standard for NHL coaches these days.
Francis knows he has to add talent in several areas for this team to be competitive. Goalkeeping is the number one concern. Plante is completely unreliable at this point in his career and Paille simply wasn’t good enough. He was part of the four-player package the Rangers sent to the Providence Reds for goalie Ed Giacomin. Many called Giacomin the best goalie outside the NHL and both Detroit and Toronto made solid offers for the Sudbury native, It’s doubtful he can be the answer in goal on a full-time basis just yet, so the Rangers will take a long look at Gerry Cheevers, the outstanding goalie in the AHL this past season. He will be a target if Toronto doesn’t protect him in the draft.
With so many youngsters on the club already, one might think that there isn’t much left down on the farm. But the Rangers do have some up-and-comers who have a chance.
Top prospect is Alexander “Sandy” Fitzpatrick, who scored 51 goals for Kitchener in the OHA Junior A Series. Fitzpatrick had a four-game trial with the Rangers as well. A couple of other Kitchener forwards who showed promise were Bob Jones and Billy Hway. Terry Ball was the best defenceman, but 16-year-old Mike Robitaille caught the eye of Ranger scouts as well.
The Rangers’ St. Paul team in the Central Professional League boasted the league’s second top scorer in Marc Dufour. Paul Andrea and Jim Johnson were a couple of other St. Paul forwards who should have NHL futures. Two outstanding defence prospects are Mike McMahon, named best blueliner in the league, and Tracy Pratt, son of legendary defenceman Babe Pratt.
The AHL Baltimore Clippers have a couple of young forwards that Francis will give a long look at training camp. Centre Gord Labossiere scored 38 goals, while his line mate Dick Meissner potted 35. Bryan Hextall, 23, is another who showed promise and has great bloodlines . Goalie Jean-Guy Morrisette, acquired in the Duff-Hicke trade, had some great games with Baltimore and will likely be the number one guy down there if Giacomin happens to make the NHL club.
The outlook for the Rangers is good – there are enough kids with solid potential that at least a few of them should pan out. If Francis can find the missing pieces and some of them mature quickly, the Rangers may yet find themselves in the hunt for a playoff spot as soon as next season.