Retro Rangers: Emile’s Big Decision

One of the first things that Emile Francis did when he took over the Rangers was to shore up their goaltending situation. He knew that Jacques Plante wasn’t the answer, so he acquired Eddie Giacomin from Providence of the AHL in May of 1965. Not one to put all his eggs in one basket, he also traded for Cesare Maniago who had brief stints with Montreal and Toronto.

But the 1965-66 season was a disaster as the Ranger finished dead last with an 18-41-11 record, 27 points out of a playoff spot. Francis fired coach Red Sullivan in December and took over behind the bench, but nothing changed. Giacomin and Maniago basically split the season but playing behind the porous Rangers defense, neither one showed any signs of being the game changer the Rangers needed. Giacomin finished the season with a 3.56 goal-against-average and Maniago despite recording two shutouts, ended up with a 3.36 GAA. Both also spent time with the Rangers AHL affiliate in Baltimore.

So as the 1966-67 season began Francis knew he would have to pick a number 1 netminder and stick with him. His plan was to alternate between the two until one of them played himself either in or out of the job. It was going to be a tough decision, but it was made a lot easier on the night of November 9th 1966.

I’ll let Emile tell the story:

“We’d played in Toronto on a Saturday night and you know Eddie used to like to get out of the net and handle the puck. So we had a 2-1 lead with about two minutes to go in the game. Toronto threw the puck in the corner, and Eddie came out to play the puck and he missed it and it came right out in front and they put it in the net. That tied the game and in the last minute they scored again to beat us 3-2. I had been alternating at that time, Giacomin one night and Maniago the other because I was trying to decide who I was really gonna select to be the goalkeeper.

So now the next game we’re back in Madison Square Garden and I knew the Toronto game was on TV and I didn’t want to put Eddie on the spot because I knew the crowd would get down on him. So I put Maniago in and we’re playing the Boston Bruins. Well, we’re leading 2-1 early in the second period and there’s a scramble in front of our net and down goes Maniago. So (trainer) Frank Paice runs out there and comes back holding a towel to Maniago’s chin. So I tell Frank and Dr Nardiello to get him back as fast as you can because I didn’t want to put Eddie in and have something happen like it did in the game before in Toronto. That Nardiello was fast. He was the Garden’s boxing doctor and he could stitch guys up in a minute.

After a little while Frank comes over and says, ‘Ok, he’s all fixed up.’ So I go over to Cesare and say ‘OK Cesare, let’s go.’ He says ‘I can’t go back out there.’ I say what do you mean? He says, ‘I’m still pretty sore. I don’t think I can play anymore tonight.’ So I say go and sit down and I put Eddie in. Sure as hell the same thing happened as the game before. The Bruins threw the puck in the corner, Eddie misplayed it and they get a goal, tied the game 2-2. They come down again, shoot it in the corner, he misses clearing it and bang it’s in the net. I’ll tell you, the Garden erupted. They threw programs, cushions, everything they could get their hands on they threw at Eddie. I felt so bad for him.

So after the game I was pissed. I got a hold of (John) Halligan. I was the first guy back then to start filming the games and John was in charge of the films. I said ‘John I’m having a meeting tomorrow at 10 o’clock, you get that film ready and I’m going to go over with these guys everything goddamn thing that happened’.

Okay, so next morning, John puts the film on and guess what? It caught fire! Blew up!. It caught fire, I had no film left! Things weren’t going bad enough for us and now the projector blows up!

So I bring them all back into the dressing room and I walked around. Okay. I’m gonna tell you verbally exactly what happened. So I go over to Maniago. I said we’re in this game as teammates to protect one another. I don’t see how you could have been hurt so bad that you couldn’t go back into the game. I said, Sh*t I’ve gone back in with eight broken noses and over 200 stitches and I didn’t back down, not one minute. So I say up until now I really didn’t know who the hell was going to be the next goalkeeper of the New York Rangers, but now my mind’s made up. Eddie Giacomin’s gonna be the goalkeeper. And that was in front of the whole team. Then I told Giacomin, Eddie I’ve never seen anything as embarrassing as what happened last night. Now when those people throw that sh*t at you, you throw it right back at them and I’ll be right beside you. Well guess what? The next game in Montreal Giacomin was sensational. His whole career started from that moment on. That’s what Eddie needed, as a confidence builder.

So then I didn’t protect Cesare in the expansion draft. I knew I had Villemure in the minors. Maniago went to Minnesota where he had a good career and he had good years later on in Vancouver. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him or anything, but I had to make a decision, that’s what General Managers are paid to do.”

Emile’s decision really helped turn the season around for the Rangers. At that point the Blueshirts were in last place with a 2-5-3 record. But they finished the season in fourth place with a 30-28-12 record and made the playoffs for the first time since the 1960-61 season. It was also the first of nine consecutive post-season appearances by the Rangers under Emile’s leadership.

Giacomin started the next 36 consecutive games and earned a spot on the First All-Star team, posting a 2.54 GAA with a league leading nine shutouts. He also led the league in Games (68), Minutes Played by a netminder (3.981) and Wins (30). And the fans never threw garbage at Eddie again. in fact he became a fan favorite. Eddie played a total of 11 seasons with the Blueshirts and still holds the Rangers record with 49 career regular season shutouts. He shared the Vezina Trophy with Gilles Villemure in 1971, made numerous All-Star appearances, was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987 and had his Number 1 jersey retired in 1989.

Maniago was interviewed by author Jay Moran (The Rangers, The Bruins And the End of an Era. A Tribute to a Great Rivalry) a few years ago and had this to say about the incident:

“That’s where I guess I had a cut and chipped a tooth at the same time. They stitched me up and he (Emile Francis) says well, what do you think? And I said well, I just don’t feel right and I believe he got ticked off with that because everything was kind of a macho situation in those days. In other words, you go in, if you’re banged up you get stitched up and if you’re still a little woozy you go back out. I can remember even earlier in my career, I got into a fight with a fellow by the name of Terry Gray and toppled on the ice and I hit my head and I had a concussion. I spent overnight in the hospital, I was out for a good half hour and Sammy Pollock was our coach and GM in Hull-Ottawa, the farm club of the Montreal Canadiens. I stayed overnight in the hospital in Kingston, went back up to Hull-Ottawa, we had an afternoon game and I was there and he says I want you to play. Okay, fine. Nowadays they wouldn’t even take a chance. As I say, there are some injuries along the way, yeah, I mean, there are a lot of times I did play hurt but in this particular instance in New York I just felt that I wasn’t right. And he did get ticked off. He did.”

I’ll have more from my interviews with Emile Francis in future editions of Retro Rangers. Stay tuned.

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