This month marks a sad anniversary in Ranger history because 35 years ago on October 31, 1975, Ed Giacomin suddenly became a member of the Detroit Red Wings. Ask any long-time Ranger fan about that night and they’ll probably tell you a story about where they were and how they heard the news.
Here’s mine: It was Halloween night and I was getting ready to go to a party at a friend’s house. On the six o’clock news, WNBC’s Marv Albert reported that the Rangers had made a deal but that the player involved had not yet been notified and details were not available. So since this was in the days way before the Internet or 24-hour news coverage, I made a mental note to check in with the news later on at 11 p.m.
But of course all night it was preying on my mind. The Rangers had lost to the Islanders in the playoffs the previous spring and it was obvious that changes had to be made. During the offseason, Emile Francis had swapped a lot of toughness in the form of Teddy Irvine, Jerry Butler and Bert Wilson to St. Louis for John Davidson and Billy Collins. Gilles Villemure read the handwriting on the wall and asked to be traded. He was sent to Chicago for Doug Jarrett on October 28th. So changes were indeed coming, but no one could have anticipated what was in store for the Rangers and their fans.
At 11 pm sharp, while still at the party, I switched on the news. WNBC’s anchorman Chuck Scarborough ran down the three top stories as a lead in for the broadcast. The first two items have long since faded from my memory, but he finished by saying “… and the Rangers ice Ed Giacomin”
My beer and my chin dropped to the floor as Marv reported the dismal details. Eddie had been put on waivers by the Rangers and picked up by the Red Wings. Sitting there in my authentic “GIACOMIN” jersey, I went into shock. After all, I had watched Eddie’s every move and cheered his every save since Francis acquired him from the Providence Reds of the AHL ten years earlier.
Giacomin was my boyhood idol and in fact still is. I considered those teams of the Emile Francis era to be “my Rangers.” I lived, cried and died with those guys, especially Giacomin. The fact that Eddie was no longer a Ranger was inconceivable. As I stared at the floor, I could hear people talking to me, but had neither the strength nor desire to respond. Someone actually asked if I was alright. I mean, if you have to ask, you’ll never understand.
At the time of the deal it wasn’t clear whether Giacomin would actually report to the Red WIngs or retire. But as the shock wore off he decided to play at least one more game, ironically at the Garden against his friends and former teammates, the Rangers.
Eddie returned to the Garden wearing Red Wing uniform #31 two nights later on an evening when the Rangers became the visitors in their own building. He always played with a lot of emotion and the fans returned that emotion ten-fold that evening. The noise level and electricity in the Garden that night were greater than at any time in recent memory. The sold-out crowd chanted “Eddie – Eddie” throughout warm-ups and the National Anthem, delaying the start of the game, as Giacomin’s former teammates at the other end of the ice, tapped their sticks to the rhythm of the crowd. Eddie wiped the tears away and stopped 42 shots to beat the Rangers 6-4 as the crowd booed every Ranger goal. Believe me, it was the only time I ever rooted for the opposition.
Francis later explained that he wanted to develop the 22-year-old Davidson as the next Ranger starter but knew he couldn’t play JD as long as Eddie was a Ranger. He knew that every goal that Davidson allowed would bring chants of “Eddie – Eddie” and it wasn’t fair to the young netminder. He tried to trade Eddie, but at 36 with a bad knee Francis found no takers, so he had to put him on waivers. Unfortunately injuries limited Davidson’s playing time and the Rangers, who had started the season with Giacomin and Villemure — the best one-two goaltending combo in the league at the time — were forced to rely on Dunc Wilson and Doug Soeteart in net. They finished with a 29-42-9 record and missed the playoffs.
But Giacomin was not the last to go. A week later Jean Ratelle, Brad Park and the infamous Joe Zanussi were sent to Boston for Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais. They were breaking up that old gang of mine. Francis himself was history by the summer, being replaced by John Ferguson.
A few years ago I had the unique privilege of interviewing Giacomin over breakfast while he was in New York for a Rangers old timers game. And of course I asked him about his memories of that October night.
“It was a Friday night, after the team had left for Montreal,” he recalled. “I got a call from Emile to come down to Long Beach where we practiced. It was an eerie night, with the wind coming off the bay and not a car in the parking lot, and then he tells me that he put me on waivers and that I was picked up by Detroit. They didn’t even get a player in return, but supposedly they got $2,000.”
“I look back to 1975 even today and I still don’t completely understand what happened,” Giacomin continued. “I was 36-years-old at the time and after ten years with the Rangers, I honestly believe I was one of the most down to earth, honest individuals to ever wear a Rangers sweater. Because I did everything I could for the game and the community and at no time did the almighty dollar enter my mind.
“When I became a Ranger they traded four players for me (Marcel Paille, Jim Mikol, Aldo Guidolin and Sandy McGregor) and I made the lowest salary a goalie could ever make. If you were the number one draft choice you made a million dollars and I was comparable to a first round pick in those days and I made $9,500. I wanted to play professional hockey and I was fortunate enough to be a New York Ranger.
I made the NHL when there was six teams and I was one of only six goalies playing in the league so the salary didn’t mean anything to me. I just wanted to be in the NHL. Luckily I was rewarded as time went on thanks to Emile Francis who understood the game and backed the goaltender.”
Giacomin played another two seasons in Detroit and retired after the 1977-78 season. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987 and saw his #1 jersey retired by the Rangers and raised to the rafters in an emotional ceremony on March 15th, 1989.
So in effect Eddie was honored on two “Nights”, one a spontaneous reaction by the fans on November 2nd 1975, and the other a planned evening by the Rangers 14 years later. Which “night” meant the most to him?
“There’s no doubt in my mind, the best memory of my career was November 2, 1975″, Eddie quickly responded. ”I don’t think any athlete has been treated that way. Every other athlete has had a planned evening, but this was not planned. And I think it happened because, since I spent ten years with Rangers, I also spent ten years with their fans. Everything I went through, they went through. Every goal, every win or loss, every fight. They went through it with me. And I think the feeling was `how could you do that to one of us?’
“And I firmly believe that because of what the New York fans did for me that night I made the Hall of Fame. Because there are certain criteria for making the Hall of Fame. You have to have records, but most have been on Stanley Cup winners, I wasn’t. I had something rare. I was so popular because of the New York Fans. And I said it then and I’ll say it now, the New York fans who I enjoyed playing for so much, put me in the Hall of Fame.”
Eddie gave me more than three hours of his time that morning, but he gave the Rangers and their fans ten years of exciting, emotional goaltending. Ten years that anyone old enough to remember, will never forget.
And I’ll never forget that interview with Eddie. He answered all of my questions thoughtfully and honestly. We talked and laughed about the many memories we shared with Eddie in the nets while I sat high over his right shoulder in section 439 of the Blue Seats. I also remember that when I began to write my original story about the interview I found that my words on paper could never fully express this man’s love for the Rangers and their fans.
In his heart, as in ours, Eddie Giacomin will always be a New York Ranger.