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On The Outside, Looking To Get In
E.M. Swift
December 07, 1981
Coach Herb Brooks, maestro of Lake Placid, is struggling to feel at home on the Rangers
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December 07, 1981

On The Outside, Looking To Get In

Coach Herb Brooks, maestro of Lake Placid, is struggling to feel at home on the Rangers

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Injuries can be part of any team's problems but fate has been especially unkind to the Rangers. Anders Hedberg, New York's top all-around forward, had knee surgery after four games and is lost for the season. Hedberg, a Swede, had spent most of his life playing the way Brooks was asking the Rangers to play now. Ulf Nilsson, Hedberg's center for the last nine years, has been recovering from knee surgery himself and isn't expected to play until mid-December at the earliest. Laments Brooks, "I'm losing the people who could say, 'I'll show you how to play that game.' I've lost the picture that is worth a thousand words." New York's other injuries have included Defenseman Ron Greschner (back), Goalie John Davidson (back), Dave Maloney (broken thumb), Forward Don Maloney (knee), Defenseman Ed Hospodar (pulled groin) and Goalie Steve Baker (torn groin). Through the first 24 games, the Rangers led the league in man-games lost with 152.

The most effective Ranger line, by far, has been that of Ron Duguay, Pavelich and Silk, put together by Brooks in the second game of the season. Silk and Pavelich, neither of whom expected to make the team, are used to Brooks's system and, according to Assistant Coach Wayne Thomas, "Duguay's played that way his entire life." It's just that until this season no one was playing that way with him. He's off to the best start of his career, leading New York with 13 goals, and has been killing penalties with Pavelich at an excellent 80% success rate.

Pavelich, who is only 5'8" and played last season in Lugano, Switzerland, is one of seven Ranger skaters who weigh 175 pounds or less. "We've got some midgets here," says Dave Maloney. "It's been a long time since I've been in a locker room with guys this size."

In an age when most sports are turning to the big men, the tough little guy with good hands still has a place in Brooks's system. It isn't so much an innovation as a throwback to the glory years of the NHL, when small, highly skilled players (Camille Henry, Stan Mikita, Pierre Pilote, Yvan Cournoyer, Henri Richard) were commonplace. "They said Pavelich was too small," says Brooks. "I asked, 'Can he skate?' Yeah. 'Can he pass?' Oh, yeah. 'Can he stickhandle?' Damn right he can stickhandle. 'Is he a good playmaker? A good guy? Does he work hard?' You take all those variables, and put them against his height and weight, and he's a player."

Some of the Rangers actually feel that Brooks is prejudiced in favor of undersized players. When the 5'9" Johnstone got off to a slow start, one Ranger remarked, "Good thing he's small or he'd have been sent down by now." There is also some ill-feeling toward the Europeans on the team—five, including Hedberg and Nilsson—and the way Brooks built up his rookie Finnish defenseman, 5'8" Reijo Ruotsalainen, a fantastic skater but an ineffective playmaker, so far, and a defensive liability. Says one Ranger, "There's a rift starting. A few players can do no wrong, and some can't do anything right."

Brooks's habit of pointing out the mistakes of the players on the ice to the players on the bench so annoyed some of the Rangers that a meeting was called to clear the air. The players accused Brooks of embarrassing them behind their backs. Brooks explained that he wasn't trying to embarrass anybody, but was using their mistakes as a teaching tool—as that picture that could save a thousand words. He says he will continue to do so. "In the history of the NHL there hasn't been a lot of teaching," says Thomas. "Herb's dealing now with people much closer to him in age and with much greater egos. Even though he's been less critical than he was with his college team, he's still been more critical than other NHL coaches these guys have played for."

"All good coaches weren't necessarily loved," says Dave Maloney. "You can say what you want about him, but the bottom line is, if we win, we like him."

So far, almost the only way the Rangers have been able to win is to score the first goal of the game. New York, whose offense ranks 18th of 21, is 2-9-1 when the opposition has scored first, and 6-4-2 when it has. "It's a lot easier to play that motion-type game when you're ahead," says Silk. "When you fall behind, the tendency is to push too much and revert to the style you're used to."

Without a proven goal scorer, the Rangers' power play has produced on only 16% of its opportunities. It has been especially ineffective at home (13% vs. 20% on the road). "Shoot!" Ranger fans holler in deafening unison. A "now" town wants a goal now, not two passes from now. Says Silk, "You get so tight when 17,000 people start yelling at you, you can't block it out. On the road guys don't mind taking the time to set up."

Ranger fans have shown patience with Brooks and his system since that first home game. In a recent lopsided loss to the hated Islanders, Pavelich made an inspired passing play after the game was out of hand, and the crowd applauded, even when Duguay's shot was turned aside. Such appreciation, commonplace in a city like Montreal, is relatively new to Madison Square Garden, where the bottom line—winning—seems to be all that ever matters.

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