Of all the players of the Emile Francis era, I identified most with Steve Vickers. We were the same age and weight and although I was a little taller, he had that moustache and much better hair. But it was easy to picture myself with a number 8 on my back, hanging out by the left post knocking in rebounds. Unfortunately that’s where the similarities ended, because Vickers made his living as a hockey player and I worked with computers.
Following two impressive seasons with the Toronto Marlboros of the OHA as a lefty shooting right winger, Vickers was the Rangers first round pick in the 1971 amateur draft (10th overall). Ironically the top four picks that year, Guy Lafleur (Montreal), Marcel Dionne (Detroit), Jocelyn Guevremont (Vancouver) and Gene Carr (St. Louis) all ended up playing for the Rangers at one time in their career, some famously, some infamously but those are stories for another time.
In his first year as a pro, Steve (6’ 185 lbs) was moved back to left wing and scored 36 goals in Omaha, the Rangers top farm club at the time.
At the Rangers 1972 training camp Steve, 21 had about 6 wingers ahead of him on the depth chart and didn’t really expect to make the team. But he worked hard and Emile Francis liked the kids’ toughness, maturity and consistency and made a spot for him with the Rangers.
On opening night in Detroit he started out on a line with Pete Stemkowski and Bruce MacGregor but was moved up to the Walt Tkaczuk – Billy Fairbairn line when Gene Carr was having trouble handling the puck. The trio clicked and Steve scored on his first shot on goal in his first NHL game. But Francis had made a big trade for Carr (Note 1) and had a lot riding on him, so Gene was back on the Tkaczuk line for the next game and Vickers became a spare part.
Fate however had different plans for Vickers and when Carr suffered a broken collarbone in early November, Steve was reunited with Tkaczuk and Fairbairn and the results were record setting. On November 12th Steve scored a hat trick against Gary Edwards and the LA Kings and then repeated the feat in the Rangers next game against Michel Belhumeur and the Flyers. It was the first time in NHL history that anyone had recorded back-to-back hat tricks. Vickers gave full credit to his line mates, “Playing with Walt Tkaczuk and Billy Fairbairn has to be the easiest way for a left wing to break into the NHL” he told reporters. “They’re doing all the work and I’m getting the goals.” A week after Vickers record setting hat tricks, Vancouver’s Bobby Schmautz had a 3-goal night followed by a 4-goal night. “That’s something, and he did it without Tkaczuk and Fairbairn!” Vickers remarked.
The trio proved to have that certain chemistry and the second variation of the “Bulldog line” was born. The previous version was pretty successful as well with Dave Balon at left wing. But Balon had been traded in November of 1971 (Note 2) and as many as 16 left wingers were tried on the line until Vickers came along.
Vickers also brought something to the line that Balon couldn’t: Toughness.
Although Steve wasn’t the type to go looking for a fight, he could take care of himself and be counted on to stand up for his teammates. His famous 1973 punch out of the Bruin’s Don Marcotte earned respect from the tough guys around the league as well as his coach. “Vickers is tough” said Francis. “It takes a lot to get him riled up but when he does, look out!” Ranger scout Steve Brklacich put it this way, “He doesn’t start fights, he finishes them”.
The three linemates were all excellent two-way players who were assigned to check the oppositions top line every game, a task that Vickers welcomed. “I prided myself in being a good two-way player.”
Despite missing three weeks due to a knee injury Vickers finished the season with 30 goals, 23 assists and added 5 goals and 4 assists in 9 playoff games against Boston and Chicago. His impressive season earned him the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year, the first Ranger to win the award since Camille Henry in 1954.
Steve was a very smart player who was quite often in the right place at the right time. He scored most of his goals from his “office” near the left post about 3-4 feet out with a strong, accurate backhand shot. But he paid the price by taking a pounding from opposing defensemen. “You have to keep moving to stay free from the defensemen and not get tangled up”, Vickers told reporters. “And you need a good sense of balance.”
Nicknamed “Sarge” by Stemkowski because of the old army jacket he wore to practice, Vickers set another record on February 18th, 1976 when he scored three goals and added four assists against Ron Low and the Washington Capitols. It is a Ranger record that still stands today.
Vickers had a good 4-year run while Francis was in charge, scoring a total of 135 goals from 1972/73 to 1975/76. But Steve saw less power-play time under John Ferguson / Jean Guy Talbot and later Fred Shero and scored only 54 goals during the next three seasons. He bounced back in 1979/80 scoring 29 goals while on a line with Tkaczuk and Anders Hedberg, but his production slipped to 19 goals the following season. In 1981/82 he was sent to Springfield of the AHL by Herb Brooks but returned at mid-season to score 9 goals in 34 games. At the end of the season he asked GM Craig Patrick if he still had a future with the Rangers. When Patrick said no, Steve retired.
Vickers is 8th on the Rangers all-time scoring list with 246 goals, 340 assists, 586 points and 330 penalty minutes in 698 games as a Ranger. Steve also scored 24 goals and 25 assists in 68 playoff games. He is still the team’s highest scoring left winger. Today he lives with his family in Florida and is a consultant for an international mineral company. And he still has better hair than I do.
Note 1: The Rangers traded Jack Egers, Andre Dupont and Mike Murphy to St. Louis for Gene Carr, Jim Lorentz and Wayne Connelly on November 15, 1971.
Note 2: Dave Balon was sent to Vancouver with Wayne Connelly and Ron Stewart for Gary Doak and Jim Wiste on November 16, 1971.