It was clear that changes were on the horizon as the Rangers entered their 50th anniversary season in 1975-76. The previous season ended in bitter disappointment when they were unexpectedly eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by J.P. Parise and the Islanders. The Rangers’ core group of players had been together for a long time with little playoff success to show for it and changes had to be made both behind the bench and on the ice.
One of the first items on General Manager Emile Francis’ agenda was to find a new coach for the Rangers. Francis had been both GM and Coach on and off since he took control of the team in 1964. But he knew that he couldn’t continue to do both jobs and it was time to find a coach he could rely on. And the first person he thought of was John Ferguson.
What made you think of hiring John Ferguson?
“We were at war with the WHA and I was at the point where I couldn’t do everything,” Emile told me recently. “I was the General Manager and Coach so I figured that I had to bring someone in here to replace myself as the coach. I hadn’t had a lot of success doing that because I had brought in Larry Popein and that didn’t work out and I brought in Boomer Geoffrion and that didn’t work out. So I figured he’d be the logical candidate. So I called him and arranged to interview him in Montreal.
I always respected John Ferguson as a player, not only with Montreal but in Cleveland before that. I had played in Cleveland, so I had gotten to know him real well and I thought he was a very important guy to the Montreal Canadiens organization when they brought him in there. He changed the complexion of that team completely.
John Ferguson came from British Columbia and one of the big things out there is lacrosse and he was a real good lacrosse player. Now in Canada they had just started a professional lacrosse league and John had the franchise in Montreal and he was the President, Owner and Coach. So when I talked to him about coming to New York, he said ‘well, we’re in our first year in the league and I really can’t tell you that I’m that interested right now. I own this team and I want to look after my investment.’ And I told him that I understood how he felt. That’s where it stopped. (Ironically it was Fergusson who eventually replaced Francis as GM and Coach, but that’s a story for another day.) So then I hired Ron Stewart who had played for me and had an excellent resume as far as coaching in the minors. He had won a championship in Springfield and went out to the west coast and did very well. So that’s why I hired Ron Stewart. Because I knew I couldn’t continue to do both jobs.”
There were also changes in the executive suite at the Garden that didn’t bode well for the Rangers. Alan Cohen had been named President and Chief Executive Officer of Madison Square Garden. Cohen had a reputation as a “bottom-liner” and he came armed with a mandate to trim payroll and get rid of any dead wood as he saw fit.
What was your first impression of Alan Cohen?
“Alan Cohen came out of nowhere and he didn’t know a puck from a sputnik. The first time I met him was at a Frank Sinatra concert at Madison Square Garden (October 1974). Sinatra was making a comeback and I was there with my wife and Dennis Ball who was my assistant General Manager and his wife. All of a sudden Alan Cohen came wandering over with his two daughters who were about 18-19 years old. So these girls start asking me, ‘How come you dealt this guy, how come you dealt that guy?’ So I’m trying to be as nice as I can, but I tell Alan that those girls had no business talking about this stuff here. It was in front of a group of people and he stood there like a nothin’.
So the next day I had to go back in the office and I call in Dennis Ball. And I said ‘Dennis, you and I have been together a long time and that could end very shortly, because that guy you met last night, Alan Cohen the new Chairman and President of Madison Square Garden, he and I could tangle. I can’t tell you when but it’s gonna happen. But when that happens, I’ll be gone because he’s the guy who will make the ultimate decision and they’ll bring in somebody new and you could be gone too. So in the next few months I’m gonna look for a place for you because you’ve been a loyal, hard working guy and I’m gonna find a place for you other than here with the New York Rangers. So he says, ‘no they couldn’t do that’. I said Dennis believe me, they can do anything they want. I’m gonna find you a job and I got him a job with the St. Louis Blues as Assistant General Manager.”
You were also worried about Frank Paice.
“Frank Paice had been a trainer for the Rangers for 30 years and he didn’t even have a pension with Madison Square Garden. He had a pension with the Rangers but it was small and of course he had Social Security. So I called him in July and told him, Frank, I want to talk to you and your wife, come out this weekend to Long Beach. So I got the two of them together and said Frank you don’t have a pension with Madison Square Garden, the only way I can get you a pension is by you agreeing with me saying you’re gonna retire. I’ll approach Bill Jennings and tell him you’re been here 30 years and you should have a pension. So he says, I don’t want to retire. I said, Frank listen to me, I’m not gonna be around here too long. I’m gonna tangle with that guy they just brought in and when that happens, they could bring in somebody new and you could be wiped right out. I’m trying to look after you and your wife, so tell me that you’ll retire and I’ll get you a pension, because Bill Jennings (Rangers President) and I are very close and I can make it happen. So he says, if that’s what you want. I said, I don’t want it, I just want to make sure that you and your wife are looked after. So I talked to Jennings and I got him a pension. It wasn’t a big one but it was something. It was more than he had.”
When did the trouble with Cohen begin?
“So the season starts and we had five rookies on that team. It takes at least three months when you’re breaking in rookies. It was Christmas Eve and my phone rings. Now in all the years I ran that team, Irving Mitchel Felt (former MSG Chairman and President) would meet with Bill Jenning and I in the beginning of the season and at the end of the season and that was it. He never called me, never interfered, nothing. So this guy Cohen calls me on Christmas Eve, and he told me. ‘I want you to fire the guy you brought in here, Stewart, and you go back in and coach yourself.’ So I said to him, let me tell you something, I’ve run this team for 12 years and I didn’t need any help and I don’t need any now. And I hung up the phone.
I was so pissed off. I knew he and I were gonna tangle. So at that time I was chairman of the General Managers committee and we had a meeting scheduled in Montreal that weekend. So I had to go to Montreal. So after the meeting I went back to the hotel and was sitting there with Steve Brklacich, one of my top scouts and the phone rings. It’s Bill Jennings. He says ‘How are you?’ Fine, ‘How’d your meeting go?’ Good. He said ‘Where are you going from here?’ I said the Rangers are playing in St Louis on Tuesday, so I’m planning to fly out there tomorrow. So he says, ‘Evidentially, Alan Cohen spoke to you over the last week.’ So I said yes, Christmas Eve. So he says, ‘Mr. Cohen would like to meet with you tomorrow at 2 pm in room 200 at the Garden.’ I said, Okay I’ll be there. He said he’ll be there. I said fine. I hung up the phone and said to Steve, well this is something I anticipated and this is it. He said ‘What do you mean?’ I told him I gotta meet Alan Cohen tomorrow at the Garden at 2 pm. This is it.
Anyway I got back to New York about 11 am and went to my office and started getting my things together. So my secretary for many years Rita White comes in and says ‘What are you doing Mr. Francis?’ I said Rita I gotta meet Mr Cohan at 2 pm and this is it. She said ‘Are you kidding?’ I said, no I’m not. I’m an old Boy Scout, always be prepared.
So I go up to room 200 and ring the doorbell and Bill Jenning opens the door and he’s got a glass in his hand and he tells me to come in and sit down. So I go in and ask, Bill, where’s Mr. Cohen? ‘Oh he said he had a very urgent meeting and wouldn’t be able to be here. I’ve got to speak to you on his behalf.’ So I said go ahead. He says, ‘Here’s the choice you have, you can quit or you can be fired.’ So I said to him, Bill you’ve been with me now for 12 years, have you ever seen me quit on anything? I took over you guys when you had one playoff in nine years, I’ve never quit on anything in my life. You go ahead, you wanna fire me, go ahead. He said ‘You’re fired!’ And then he said ‘It will take about 20 minutes for us to get a release together to announce what happened.’ I said, I’ll tell you what you can do with your release, Stick it up your ass. And I grabbed my briefcase, said see ya later and I left.
I got home and I remember my wife saying, ’Don’t you feel bad?’ I said not a bit. I never look behind, I’m looking ahead. I’m not worried about this, If that’s the way they want to operate, it’s their decision. I’m not worried about getting a job in the National Hockey League. I had several job offers within 24 hours believe me. But I held out until I got the deal that I wanted. I said that if I ever run another team I want to own part of that team. And any interview I had, and I had about four, I’d say Okay I’d be interested in coming here, but I want 10% of the team. And they’d say no, and I’d say, fine there’s nothing more to talk about and I’d get up and leave.”
You had worked with Bill Jennings for 12 years. Were you surprised that he didn’t back you up?
Bill Jennings was a partner in Simpson, Thatcher and Bartlett, one of the biggest law firms in New York. And one of their biggest clients was Madison Square Garden. So that’s why he was in no position to stand up for me when this guy came on the scene. I swore that I’d never talk to Bill Jennings again. When I went to St Louis, he’d call me and my wife would answer the phone and I’d tell her ‘I’m not here’. Then he got sick, with cancer and his wife Betsy called and said, ‘Bill always said that you were the best friend he ever had. He’s dying and I’d really appreciate it if you came to see him. He’d really like to see you.’ I told her I’d be there and went the next day. It was lucky that I went because he died three days later. But we had been together for so long. Then when Bill died, his wife called and said “Bill would like you to do his eulogy, would you agree to do that?” I said I certainly would. So we went and the minister says ‘and now to deliver the eulogy,’ and I start to stand up, ‘is the Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.’ Bill and Vance had gone to Princeton and Yale together and he spoke and was as dry as dry could be. So he finishes and the minister asks me to speak. I went up there and I had them crying and laughing within 10 minutes because I knew Bill better than anybody. And I said for you people in here no doubt he’d talk to you and have lunch with you. But it took me awhile to figure out that all he was doing having lunch with me was figuring out what we were gonna talk about at 10 o’clock that night! I finally had to tell him, Bill, I get up at six in the morning. I can’t get on the phone at ten at night and talk for an hour or two. You wanna talk to me, talk to me when we’re having lunch. I had them laughing.”
In his 12 years as General Manager, Emile Francis took a team that hadn’t gotten into the playoffs in five seasons and built it into a perennial contender that made it to the post season nine years in a row. Perhaps Emile’s greatest failure however was not finding a coach as good as himself to run the team, allowing him to devote more time to his duties as General Manager.
Francis still holds the Rangers record for most games coached 654 (342-209-103), most coaching victories 342, winning percentage (.602), most playoff games coached 75 (34-41) and most playoff victories.
Emile went on to manage St Louis (1976-1983) and Hartford (1983-1988) before retiring in 1989. His overall record including the games he coached in St Louis is 388-273-117 and 39-50 in the playoffs. Emile was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1982 and was awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy for contributions to hockey in the United States that same year.
“The beauty of the whole thing was that two years later they fired Cohen and called me and asked if I was interested in coming back to run the Rangers,” Emile concluded. “I said are you kidding? I loved New York, it was the best time of my life, but I’d never go back there. Ironically I ended up in Hartford, and after Cohen got fired he put a group together to buy the Boston Celtics. So a sportswriter calls from Boston and asks me what I think of Alan Cohen, the guy who bought the Celtics. I said I’d like to see that son of a bitch in the middle of the road and I’d be driving a car and I’d run right over him. So Cohen called the insurance company that owned the Whalers at the time to tell them to shut that guy up. And I would have too because he took all the 12 years of 18 hours days and ran them right down the drain. And when I tell you I worked 18 hours a day, I’d get home at 7 o’clock at night and be up past midnight making deals. But I enjoyed it and if you enjoy what you do you’re very fortunate and very lucky and I was lucky. New York was the best years of my life, I’ll never forget them. I could walk down the street and cab drivers would yell to me ‘Hey Cat!’ The fans were great!”