Retro Rangers: The Emile Francis Memorial Ice Arena

by | Dec 21, 2022

On Saturday December 10,2022, the city of Long Beach, New York renamed their municipal skating rink in honor of the late Emile Francis. The facility, now known as the Emile Francis Memorial Ice Arena, was built in 1973 and was used by the Rangers as their practice site until the 1980s when they moved their operation to Rye, New York.

Prior to 1964 when Emile Francis took over as General Manager, the Rangers practiced in a rink on the top floor of the Old Madison Square Garden called Iceland. It was small, dark, oddly shaped and for some strange reason, had aluminum boards. Built for figure skating and used for public sessions, it was approximately 140 feet long and 75 feet wide and one end was cut off at an angle, so there wasn’t a full corner. Former Ranger Eddie Shack once said it was like playing in a garbage can.

“Sonia Heine used to train there, “ recalled Emile Francis in a 2015 interview. “It was all glass on one end and the sun would come in there, they didn’t even have blinds. So, if you were the goalkeeper at the other end of the ice you’d never see the puck coming. And if a player touched his skate on those tin boards the equipment guy had to take the guys skate, go down five floors, run over to the dressing room and sharpen the skate. It took forty minutes for the guy to come back up. So we couldn’t practice properly. I said to myself I don’t know how the hell they got by with this. To think that they had done this since 1926, and won three Stanley Cups. That’s the rink that they practiced in. I don’t know why whoever was running that club would have put up with that or why they never went out and built a rink of their own. Teams used to come in to play us, and they’d look at it and couldn’t believe it. That’s where you practice?

The first thing I did was to move the practice out of there to Commack, Long Island. That was the only place I could find.  Where the Long Island Ducks played. It was about an hour’s drive out of Manhattan. Then about a year after that I found a rink in New Hyde Park called Skateland. But that rink was the same size as the Garden, 185 by 85 feet, but I wanted a 200 by 85 foot rink. So I worked out of New Hyde Park for about five years or so. And then I had lived in Long Beach and I worked with the City of Long Beach to build us a rink right there.”

Long Beach officials were joined by Emile’s son and former NHL coach Bobby Francis as well as Ranger alumni  Steve Vickers, Pete Stemkowski, Gilles Villemure, Andre Dore, Ron Greschner, as well as Nick Fotiu and Brian Mullen, who along with his brother Joey started out playing in the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League, founded by Francis in 1966.

Francis, who passed away in February at the age of 95 was also instrumental in creating an enclave for his players and their families in Long Beach.

“I didn’t want the players living in Manhattan,” said The Cat. “In the summer time there would be 100,000 people in Long Beach, but in the winter there were these nice homes out there completely furnished that you could rent.

So I got a real estate guy and I had all the homes lined up where the players could move their families for the winter and the people were only too glad to rent them. Rod Gilbert was the only guy I think was living in the city. They all lived out there. Plus the fact that I knew where everyone was.

We had an ideal set up. It was a small area and all the players lived within four to six blocks of one another. And their wives got to know one another and that built up a kind of camaraderie not only with the players but with their wives. It was a really tight knit group and that’s what you wanted – one big happy family.”

The Rangers, who sponsor the Junior Rangers as well as other youth leagues at the arena, have chipped in by donating equipment, renovating the locker rooms and adding safety netting. They also helped the city by donating $25,000 after Superstorm Sandy damaged the arena’s ice-making equipment.

“Emile has meant so much to me and the Rangers organization for so long,” said Brian Mullen. “It’s so fantastic that we are finally doing something to keep his name and memory alive. He was a great man both on and off the ice.”

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