Before I was an Islanders fan, I was a Rangers fan.
That’s because there were no New York Islanders before 1972.
My New York Rangers were the team of close but not enough. Between 1971 and 1974, they looked championship ready, but every time someone stopped the Broadway Blueshirts. In 1971 they finally won a playoff series against Toronto, only to lose in seven games to the Chicago Blackhawks. In 1971 they beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens and swept the Blackhawks, only to lose to the Boston Bruins in the finals. In 1973 they beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins, only to lose to Chicago once more. In 1974 they beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Canadiens, only to lose to Philadelphia, who then went on to beat the Bruins for the Cup.
In other words, for three straight years the Rangers knocked off the defending champions. In beating out Montreal for the final playoff spot in 1970, they blocked the Canadiens from attempting to win a third straight Cup.
These Rangers were loaded with Hall of Fame talent in Rod Gilbert, Brad Park, Jean Ratelle, and Ed Giacomin. I met Gilbert and Park one summer when I attended their hockey camp, and Gilbert liked the fact that I wore his number seven on my skates. The following year Gilbert and Park joined Team Canada in the Summit Series against the Soviet Union, and I had to make do with folks like Rogie Vachon (Rogie was terrific, and wore white goalie skates that made him look like a small polar bear) and Gilles Villemure (who also rode in harness racing).
Although one could target the Blackhawks as the greatest obstacle to championship greatness, the Rangers’ biggest rivals were the Boston Bruins, who had a few players that people remember, led by a guy named Bobby Orr, with Phil Esposito, John Bucyk, Ken Hodge, Wayne Cashman, Gerry Cheevers … enough already. For every Walt Tkaczuk, there was a Fred Stanfield; for every Jim Neilson and Rod Seiling, there was a Don Awrey and Dallas Smith. If Gilbert was New York’s playboy, Derek Sanderson (as in Derek Sanderson Jeter) was Beantown’s response. Vic Hadfield could fight and shoot, but so could John McKenzie. And yes, those teams liked to fight.
The Rangers and Bruins met three times in four years. In 1970 the two teams fought through an opening round of six games, with the Bruins prevailing. Game Three that year was a classic donnybrook:
Here’s newly-acquired Ranger Tim Horton joining in the fun:
The following year, a rookie goaltender named Ken Dryden held off the Bruins, but the Rangers fell one game short of making the finals: in 1972, however, after both teams had magnificent regular seasons and dominated the NHL All Star selections, they faced off in the finals, and the Bruins prevailed once again, causing a first-year student at the Phillips Exeter Academy much heartache as a Rangers fan in Bruins territory. Revenge came in 1973, when the Rangers prevailed in surprisingly easy fashion. Yes, Phil Esposito went down with an injury, but the same fate had befallen Ratelle the previous year, possibly costing him the scoring championship.
During those years, Orr and Park had a rivalry that was akin to Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, although Park fell a little short. Gilbert and Ratelle were finesse and speed, while Esposito and Hodge were brute force and banging home loose pucks.
The two teams simply brought something out in the other. Orr and Park not only defended against each other, but they fought. So did Gilbert and Sanderson in the final game of the series, a game better remembered because of Orr’s performance. At the end of that contest Bruins captain John Bucyk lifted the Stanley Cup … and, realizing he was in New York, hurried off the ice after a short skate.
It would never be quite the same after that. Both teams lost players over the next few years to retirement, the rival World Hockey Association, and trades; in November 1975 the teams traded stars, with Esposito and Carol Vadnais coming to New York in exchange for Park, Ratelle, and unknown Joe Zanuzzi. By that time I was an Islanders fan in any case, and during the Isles’ Stanley Cup run they beat the Rangers three times and Boston twice.
Still, those Bruins-Rangers clashes were classic. It took me a long time to admire Orr, and even longer to give Esposito some respect (I feel the same way about Mark Messier), although Espo’s performance versus the Russians helped a lot. It was not fun when aging Bruins made their way to New York (Hodge and Cashman stand out, along with Sanderson), much as old Edmonton Oilers would suit up as Rangers, but with far better results. Meanwhile, I followed Park and Ratelle with their new team, and in any case the Bruins of the late 1970s and early 1980s were a different bunch.
This year’s series has nothing on what once was.