Retro Rangers: ”A Year on Ice” Turns 50!

Former New York Times sportswriter Gerald Eskenazi produced 16 books during his 47-year career as a journalist, but none has earned the lasting acclaim as his groundbreaking 1971 offering, “A Year on Ice.”

The book is a day-by-day chronicle of the New York Rangers roller coaster 1969-70 season and was the first to provide a behind the scenes look at the game and the players away from the ice. It was part of a new era in sports journalism that was dawning at that time that produced classics like Jim Brosnan’s  “The Long Season,” Jerry Kramer’s “Instant Replay,” as well as Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four,” all of which looked at the players as human beings rather than just athletes.

Eskenazi became the Rangers beat writer for the Times quite by accident.  “The first hockey game I ever saw, I wrote about,” recalled Eskenazi. ”It was Columbus Day, 1964, and around 12 noon the assistant sports editor noticed that the Rangers were opening the season that night in Boston and we didn’t have anyone covering the game. I was the youngest guy and stuck in the office writing up anything that would come in.  Well, they asked me to go to Boston to cover the game. I had never seen a hockey game, but I borrowed a typewriter, took a cab to LaGuardia Airport, bought a copy of the World Telegram afternoon paper to read about the Rangers and got to the press box just as they were playing the National Anthem.”

“The Rangers won 6-2 and Reggie Fleming, who was still with the Bruins, got into a fight. I had never seen anything like it, the whole scene, the noise, the color, the smokey Boston Garden, and that kind of got me hooked on hockey. I wrote the story and came home on the overnight train with the Rangers. In those days they didn’t go to a hotel, they slept on the train siding and left at five or six in the morning and got back to New York at 10 AM. I went to the office and everybody was talking about my story because I had used adjectives and back then Times reporters used to write very simple sentences. So, from there they asked me to go to Ranger workouts at Skateland, in New Hyde Park, which was just a few blocks from my home and I became the hockey guy at the New York Times.”

The 1969-70 season was indeed a roller coaster ride for the Rangers and their fans. The Blueshirts were coasting along in first place with an impressive 34-12-12 record until February 19, when Brad Park broke his ankle. They managed to win two of their first three games without Park, but then the roof fell in and they went on a 1-9-3 streak and fell out of a playoff spot.

Entering the final weekend of the season, the Blueshirts were in fifth place, two points behind Montreal for the fourth and final playoff spot in the NHL’s Eastern Division. The Rangers were scheduled for a home-and-home series against Detroit while Montreal had a pair of games against Chicago. If the Rangers could win both games against the Red Wings, and the Canadiens got less than three points out of their games with the Black Hawks, the Blueshirts would sneak into the final playoff spot.

 

But the Rangers were drubbed 6-2 in Detroit, the Red Wings clinching third place with the victory. But as luck would have it, the Canadiens lost as well, 4-1 to the Black Hawks.

 

So with just one game remaining, the best the Rangers could do was tie Montreal for the last playoff spot. But to do that, they would need to beat Detroit at the Garden on Sunday afternoon while Montreal would have to lose again to Chicago that night. That would put the two teams in a virtual dead heat with the same number of Wins, Losses and Ties. The next tie-breaker would be goals scored and Montreal already had a four goal edge going into Sunday’s games.  The Rangers would not only need to beat Detroit, they’d have to score at least five goals and hope that Chicago would beat and also shut down the Flying Frenchmen. Quite a task indeed, but Coach and General Manager Emile Francis wasn’t giving up. “This game is slippery. It’s played on ice,” he told reporters. “We’re not out yet, and we won’t stop fighting until the last soldier is dead.”

No, as it turned out the Rangers were not dead yet. They scored nine goals, the most they had netted all season to beat Detroit 9-5. Later that night Chicago, who was playing for first place in the Eastern Division beat Montreal 10-2.

“To this day, of all the events I’ve covered, and I’ve been to four Olympics, the Miracle on Ice game in 1980, and more than 20 Super Bowl’s, that day with the game against Detroit and subsequently the game that night, was the most thrilling sports event that I’ve ever been involved with,” Eskenazi recalled.

Unfortunately the Rangers could not carry that momentum into the playoffs where they lost in the opening round to the Boston Bruins, four games to two. But the roller coaster ride continued. About a month later the hockey world was stunned by the news of the tragic death of goaltender Terry Sawchuk, who succumbed to injuries suffered while scuffling with teammate Ron Stewart.

It was a memorable season but it was covered very thoroughly in Jerry’s book which made for great reading.

And now 50 years after its publication, Writer – Director Stacy Cochran is hoping “Year on Ice” will make a great movie.

Always looking for inspiration, Stacy had read a short article by Jerry about how hockey has changed since he covered the sport.  That led to her reading “A Year on Ice,” which she thought would make a nice backdrop for a mystery involving a rift between the team’s owner and its captain as the main plotline.

“It’s a COVID version of a hockey movie,” said Stacy. “Not knowing when the world was going to get back to normal or when the movie business was going to resume, I decided to do a version of it which is unlike any hockey movie ever made.”

The movie was filmed in the Berkshires, which made it possible for Jerry and his wife, Roz, to drive up from New York to watch the filming. “Stacy gave me a cameo role as a  hockey announcer named George Schneider, which is a combination of my middle name and my mother’s maiden name,” recalled Jerry. “She wanted my scenes to be spontaneous, so she didn’t give me the script until five minutes before they shot it. I had to ad lib five scenes including my signature line – Lets get the puck out of here!”

“I’m very proud that Stacy wanted to do something with that book,” said Jerry. “It’s a book that is very important to me. It’s a book I felt very good about. I sent an email to some of my fellow writers at the New York Times, ‘Never fear, something that you wrote 50 years ago might still be viable today.’”

Stacy’s movie “Year on Ice” is scheduled to be completed in the spring, and if you dig deep enough, you can probably still find a copy of “A Year on Ice’ online or in your local library. I guarantee that you’ll find that your sea