Part 1 of a series.
I’ve always loved hearing Emile Francis tell hockey stories. First, of course, there are the stories, and Emile’s got a million of them, but then there’s the voice, the cadence, the feistiness and the feeling that the Cat was always looking for that angle to put something over on somebody. So I was in my glory a few months ago when I had the privilege of interviewing Emile by phone from his home in Florida.
I wanted to talk about trades, so the first question I asked Emile was “What was your most important trade as Rangers GM?
“When I took over the Rangers I knew I had to get a goalkeeper. I wore out two suitcases in two years, I went to so many games. I went to see every guy that played professional hockey.”
“But I kept going back to Providence. I kept looking at this guy Giacomin. His record didn’t tell you much but I liked the way he competed. So I told our scout Johnny Gagnon, ‘Johnny I want you to find out everything you can about this guy. Go to every practice, follow him around after practice, see where he goes, find out how he lives, what kind of family he’s got because I got a feeling that this could a very important move for us. Another thing, you go to every game in Providence and tell me every scout that’s coming in there.’ So it turns out that Montreal and Detroit are sending in scouts and I had Johnny there all the time.”
“I had met half a dozen times with Lou Pieri the owner of the Providence Reds. Now in those days there were a lot of independent teams like Springfield with Eddie Shore, Hershey with the Chocolate factory, but you couldn’t get anyone from any of those teams because there was no draft in those days. The only way you could get a player that you wanted was to deal with the minor league club. So Johnny Gagnon tells me that the Red Wings have been here and are sending Johnny Mitchell their chief scout in here for Friday’s game. And he suggested that I get up there as fast as I could. So I call Lou Pieri and tell him I’m coming to watch the game and I was wondering if there was a possibility that we could sit down and talk after the game, because I think we’re getting to the point where we have to make a move. So he tells me ‘Here’s what I want you to do, I want to build up a whole new crowd of ‘Bobby Soxers’ to come to the games, these guys that you want to trade to me, I want you to bring their pictures, so I can look at them and I’d prefer to have single guys if at all possible. But I can’t meet with you on Friday night but I can see you on Saturday morning at 9 o’clock.’
“So I go to the game and I’m nervous as a god damn cat because I knew this other guy was coming in and he was meeting with Pieri on Friday night. So after the game I go back to the Biltmore Hotel right by the railway station and I didn’t want to go through the lobby because when hockey people came to Providence they hung out in the lobby and I didn’t want to attract any attention. So I went to the basement and took the elevator and the doors open on the main floor and on steps Johnny Mitchell, the chief scout of the Detroit Red Wings! So we get to our floor and he says, ‘I want to ask you a very confidential question. ’So I said Shoot!’ ‘Do you think that Eddie Giacomin is capable of playing in the National Hockey League?’ So I said, Johnny you’re asking the wrong guy that question and I left him and went to bed.”
“So I met Pieri the next morning and he asks ‘who are these guys you’re bringing me?’ Well I had a guy who had played for the Cleveland Barons of the AHL named Jim Mikol. He was single, tall and a professional golfer. Plus the guy’s a hell of a hockey player, you know him, he’s been in Cleveland. He says, ‘OK I‘ll take him.’ Then he says ‘if I trade you Giacomin, I’m gonna need a goalkeeper.’ OK, I said Marcel Paille. Turns out I gave him four guys, Aldo Guidolin and a guy named Sandy McGregor, But that was the key deal because for the next 10 years Giacomin was the cornerstone of our franchise.”
“Giacomin was a competitor. He played with a bad team in Providence but that’s how you produce goalkeepers. If I had a goalkeeper and I thought he was going to be a good one I’d put him with the worst team in our system so he’d get a lot of shots. Eddie was the key component and that’s where you start. You start in goal, defense and down the middle. Same like in baseball, you start with a catcher, pitcher, second baseman, shortstop and center fielder. And I built ball clubs so I knew all about building teams. That’s why I knew that I had to get a goalkeeper and he was the guy I picked.”
I’ll have more from my interviews with Emile in upcoming editions of Retro Rangers. Stay tuned.