On Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, the Rangers lost a legendary pioneer. Emile “Cat” Francis was a huge part of the Original Six franchise. He was 95.
It was as a coach and general manager that he helped shape the team from also rans into Stanley Cup contenders. A former goalie who did have a brief NHL stint with the Blueshirts in the early 1950’s after getting his start in Chicago, Francis was a backup who was a Ranger between ’48-49 to ’51-52.
Most interesting is that he was traded to Cleveland (AHL) for future Maple Leafs Hall Of Famer Johnny Bower. Bower lasted three years before he was dealt back to Cleveland. Eventually, the Leafs claimed him. The rest is history.
After spending the rest of his pro career playing minor league hockey until 1960, he made the transition to management. Francis first was an assistant general manager with the Rangers before taking over as GM in 1964. Eventually, he’d double as coach the following season.
As a GM and coach, Francis made his mark in the Big Apple. For years, the Rangers had been a struggling franchise that didn’t make the playoffs when there were six teams. The Original Six era saw the top four teams qualify for the postseason with Stanley Cup Semifinals and Finals determining the winner.
In fact, the last time they made the playoffs was in ’61-62. They lost to the Leafs in the Semifinals four games to two. Toronto won three consecutive Cups from 1962-64. Bower was the goalie for all of them. He also was part of their last Cup in ’67 with Terry Sawchuk getting six of the eight wins.
During that era, Andy Bathgate was the captain and team leader. A great Ranger who won the Hart in ’58-59 when at the age of 26 he had 40 goals and 48 assists for a career best 88 points in all 70 games, the popular center only made the playoffs four times in NYC. Sadly, the Blueshirts never advanced past the Semifinals. His final appearance with them was in ’61-62 when they lost to Toronto.
In a twist of fate, Bathgate was traded to the Leafs two years later. On Feb. 22, 1964, he was sent to Toronto with Don McKenney for Arnie Brown, Bill Collins, Dick Duff, Bob Nevin and Rod Seiling. Of the five players they acquired, Nevin and Seiling both stuck around a while and were part of the late 60’s rebuild by Francis that led to the Rangers becoming Cup contenders in the early 70’s.
While Bathgate won a Cup with the Maple Leafs in ’64 where he put up five goals and four assists, both Nevin and Seiling produced well for the Blueshirts. They easily could’ve been part of a Stanley Cup roster. If not for a bad break in ’71-72 with Jean Ratelle breaking his ankle on March 1 that season, they probably beat the Bruins to win the Cup in ’72. Instead, Ratelle returned for the Stanley Cup Finals and was not himself in a crushing six-game series defeat to Boston. Had he been healthy centering the GAG Line with Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield, that would’ve altered history.
It was under Francis that the Rangers became a good team. In fact, they never missed the playoffs from ’66-67 to ’74-75. By the 70’s following 1968 Expansion, teams had to go three rounds to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. It wasn’t as easy to get there. Especially with the Bruins, Canadiens, Blackhawks and later the Flyers standing in the way.
When looking at the Emile Francis Rangers Era, we have to take into account some of the Hall Of Fame talent they faced during that time. Boston had the incomparable Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito leading the way along with John Bucyk and Gerry Cheevers. Along with Ken Hodge, Derek Sanderson and Wayne Cashman, they were a handful. Montreal featured Guy Lafleur, Pete Mahovlich, Steve Shutt, Larry Robinson, Ken Dryden, Guy Lapointe, Serge Savard and Jacques Lemaire. Some of the greatest collection of talent ever assembled.
The Blackhawks boasted Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito, Dennis Hull along with Pit Martin and Jim Pappin. They even reached the Final after Bobby Hull bolted for the WHA for more money in Winnipeg. He was 33 when he left the NHL. At the time, he came off his fifth career 50-goal season. What if The Golden Jet had stayed in Chicago? Hull scored 610 goals in the NHL. 604 came as a Blackhawk. There’s no telling how many he would’ve scored.
This exemplifies the kind of high caliber talent you had to face. It was no picnic. That was truly a different era for hockey.
When he first took over at 39 and replaced Red Sullivan in ’65-66, the Rangers weren’t good. They were a bad team that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1962. In his first year behind the bench, Francis went 13-31-6. Overall, they finished 18-41-11 with 47 points to rank sixth.
At the time, the team had some good players who Francis could build around. They included Gilbert, Ratelle, Hadfield, Nevin, Seiling and Ed Giacomin. Harry Howell was near the end of his Rangers career.
In fact, the Hall Of Fame defenseman won his only Norris in ’66-67 when Francis guided the Blueshirts back to the playoffs. Poetically, Howell became the answer to a trivia question. Who was the last defenseman to win the Norris before Orr? He would own the award over a record eight consecutive years.
Over the next couple of seasons, some new faces would help turn the Rangers into a playoff contender. Names that became synonymous with the franchise’s success under Francis. In the next part, we’ll take a look at those key players who provided fans with plenty of excitement to usher in the new Madison Square Garden that opened its doors in 1968.