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As the NHL team in the biggest media market in North America, the New York Rangers have had plenty of attention given to them through the years.
Books span the decades, from Frank Boucher teaming with Trent Frayne on the 1973 book When the Rangers Were Young, to Stan Fischler's 2015 ode to the Blueshirts, New York Rangers: Greatest Moments and Players. There are books about the finality of life, 100 Things Rangers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Adam Raider and Russ Cohen, and team-oriented, We Are the Rangers, Fischler again with a foreword by the uber-Ranger himself, Rod Gilbert.
And for every book with a simple title, like Brian McFarlane's The Rangers and John Halligan's The New York Rangers, there are epic titles like The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: New York Rangers: Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from New York Rangers History by Steve Zipay (and a creative naming crew).
All this brings us in a roundabout, but important way, to a new Rangers book about a very specific era of the team.
We Did Everything But Win covers the years 1964 to 1976, which happen to be the years that Emile “The Cat” Francis was in charge of the team.
The writer of the book is George Grimm, a long-suffering Rangers fan from Suffern, NY, who writes the Retro Rangers column for Insidehockey.com, and has been in a lot of other Ranger-related publications too, like the Rangers Game Night, SportStat, The Rangers Report, and the Blueshirt Bulletin.
“Over the years the New York Rangers have caused me a lot of grief, but they have also been very good to me. In my youth they gave me that all-important connection with my father, and in later years gave me an outlet for my creative talents. I even met my wife in an old AOL Ranger chatroom,” said Grimm. “From the time I was first introduced to the sport, I collected Ranger Blue Books and started to keep notebooks of the games and events of each season. In the early '80s I wrote a story about Eddie Giacomin that was published in Rebound, the newsletter of the International Goaltenders Union, an organization run by a man named Lee Schappell in Reading, Pennsylvania. To be honest, I enjoyed seeing my work in print and a few years later I started to publish SportStat… The Rangers Report which was a bi-weekly newsletter that I mailed to about 300 subscribers across the U.S. and Canada. I also sent copies to the Rangers PR department and they liked it. They published one of my stories in the Rangers Game Night program and gave me a press pass, which allowed me the kind of access to the players that I could never have dreamed of.”
But it didn't last for Grimm, who found the pressure of producing an eight-page newsletter every two weeks while holding down a full-time job to be too much. So he closed SportStat and wrote the Blue Seat Point of View column for the Blueshirt Bulletin for a number of years. Then he moved online.
If Grimm is the writer for We Did Everything But Win, then Emile Francis is the heart and soul.
Having interviewed Francis before, Grimm knew that The Cat was full of stories, so when Grimm retired from his “day job” as a technical writer, he decided to work on a book about the teams that he grew up watching, with Francis as the focus.
“We Did Everything but Win was a true labor of love. It took over two years to complete and involved a lot of research and re-reading of many of the hockey books that I had collected over the years. But I enjoyed it,” said Grimm. “I also enjoyed talking to Emile Francis and his players. And they also seemed to like reminiscing about those seasons and those teams.”
Contributing to the book are many Rangers of the past, broadcasters, writers, and, of course, Francis.
“Emile was a joy to work with. He was extremely generous with his time and very good to me. Lots of funny stories. And at 90 he’s still sharp as a tack. I love the guy,” marvelled Grimm. “I grew up listening to him and he’s still got that voice and that cadence when he speaks.”
Grimm loves to tell a story about missing a call from Francis.
“I made him laugh once when he missed my call and had to call me back. I picked up the phone and he says, 'Hello George, this is Emile Francis.' So I said, 'Oh shit, I’ve been traded!' He laughed like hell. I can’t say enough good things about him. I consider him a friend and call him once a month or so just to talk.”
Unfortunately, Grimm didn't get everyone he wanted in the book, which is hitting shelves in September 2017. Rod Gilbert, a star throughout all those years, never got back to him, and he wished for, but never got to Jean Ratelle, who just had his number #19 retired by the team.
Sometimes the unexpected names turn out the best, he said. “One guy who really surprised me was Derek Sanderson. Of course being a Ranger fan I hated the guy when he was with the Bruins, but he was a pleasure to talk to, very open and funny. I’m really happy that he was able to turn his life around.”
We Did Everything But Win (Sports Publishing, now a division of Skyhorse Publishing) is divided into 15 chapters chronicling the Francis era, and the sections also include additional essays about specific events and players pertinent to each season. Additional chapters detail Emile’s playing career and his hiring as General Manager of the Rangers, the aftermath of Emile’s dismissal as well as an analysis of his tenure; plus there's a brief history of the Blueshirts on radio and television.
With his first book done, Grimm is hard at work on a second. Naturally, it's about the Rangers – all 86 goalies the team has used (to date).
It's easy to forget when living in the hockey-mad land of Canada that other countries read about the sport too. Into the mix comes “Muj divoký hokejový život,” which loosely translated, means “My Wild Hockey Life.” It was written by Mirko Frycer and Lubos Brabec, and published in the Czech Republic. On the Hockey Books Facebook page, Brabec shared what the book includes: “Mirko openly tells his story about his dramatic escape from Czechoslovakia to Canada, about the beautiful and ugly times in Maple Leafs in the Harold Ballard era, about his war with John Brophy etc. Last but not least: Mirko describes candidly his problems with alcohol and the new life after liver transplantation.” It comes out on September 27, and took a couple of years to put together.
Brabec does hope one day to find an English-language publisher. “An English version would be nice, of course, but we don't have connection with Canadian publishers yet and we don't even have a literary agent. This book is a small project without big ambition, DIY. But we'll try to find a way,” he wrote. For more on the book, see www.frycer.cz
JEAN BELIVEAU AND THE VACHONS
There have been many occasions when my other passion, writing about professional wrestling, overlaps with my hockey writing. There's the obvious connections, like WWE star Chris Jericho being the son of long-time NHLer Ted Irvine, or players like Tony Twist or Jean Pusie taking a turn in the ring. More than a few Toronto Marlies have told me over the years of sneaking into the wrestling ring set up in Maple Leaf Gardens for the next night's show after coming home from a road game.
But some of the behind the scenes stuff is of interest too.
Grand Prix Wrestling, run by Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon and his brother Paul “The Butcher” Vachon, would not have gotten off the ground in 1971 had it not been for the intervention of Montreal Canadiens captain Jean Beliveau.
The story is told in Mad Dog: The Maurice Vachon Story, by Bertrand Hébert and Pat Laprade (a translation of the earlier-published French language version), and Laprade shared the details in an email:
“Maurice and Paul were on a plane with some of the Montreal Canadiens two years before. Claude Ruel, Canadiens coach, was a big fan of Maurice and wanted to sit next to him. Rogatien Vachon was on the flight too and they were laughing with each other calling themselves cousins (they're not related at all). Serge Savard and Jean Beliveau were also on that flight.
“Two years later, at the end of 1971, Grand Prix was not able to get dates at the Forum. The Montreal Forum was telling Paul that he needed a license and the Montreal Athletic Commission was telling him that in order to get a license he needed to secure dates at the Forum. A good old catch-22. Les As de La Lutte (All-Star Wrestling in English) was the only one with a license and with dates at the Forum. And Johnny Rougeau was behind that power struggle because he had a lot of control over the Montreal Athletic Commission.
“Remembering that flight and the fun they had with the players and since Beliveau had just retired and had started working in the Canadiens' offices, Paul went to see him. Beliveau managed to get dates and therefore the Montreal Athletic Commission didn't have any other choice than to give Paul his license.”
For a two-year span, the Vachons' Grand Prix wrestling cards were among the most talked about events in North America, in part because of a hot young rookie named Andre Rousimoff, but who fans in Quebec knew as Jean Ferre. He'd later become the iconic Andre the Giant.
FAVOURITE FROM THE PAST
Russ Cohen, author of The Winter Classic: The NHL's Savior, 100 Ranger Greats, and more:New York Rangers: Seventy Five Years by John Halligan. In my estimation it's the Rolls Royce of Rangers books. 180 glorious pages. A coffee table book that's expertly written with a lush cover (the deluxe version). The pages have that certain smell and no Ranger was left behind.
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