Do you know where you were and what you were doing 50 years ago tonight? I do. I was leaning out of my bedroom window, aiming the transistor radio in one hand toward the Empire State Building, the phone receiver in my other hand as I kept an open line with my friend Fred Balin so we could both listen to the Canadiens-Black Hawks game through the crackle of static from the station in Chicago.
It was April 5, 1970 and it was hours after the most famous regular-season game in Rangers history, the 9-5 afternoon victory over the Red Wings that meant the Blueshirts would make the playoffs if the Canadiens lost to the Black Hawks while scoring fewer than five goals.
In fact, this was not only the most famous game in Rangers regular-season history, this represented the most dramatic and uproarious final day ever of an NHL season. The Blueshirts had entered two points behind Montreal, needing not only to win to have a chance to finish fourth and qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament, but needing to score at least five goals more than the Canadiens did in a defeat.
Yup, that was the first tiebreaker: goals scored. The Rangers came into the final day at 37-22-16 with 237 goals. The defending Cup champion Habs came in at 38-21-16 with 242 goals. The Blueshirts owned the second tiebreaker, so a differential of five would be enough.
The Rangers had been sailing along in first place with a 34-12-12 mark until Brad Park sustained a broken ankle in Detroit on Feb. 19. The Blueshirts won two of their first three without No. 2 and then collapsed, going 1-9-3 in their next 13 to fall out of a playoff spot.
“I played 17 years and never missed the playoffs,” Park said by phone on Saturday. “If there was ever a year that put that in jeopardy, that was it.”
Park returned with a week to go, the team won two and tied one, but then were blown out in Detroit on the penultimate night of the season to remain two points behind Montreal. The Red Wings clinched a spot with that victory and as their reward, partied hard even with an afternoon game at the Garden coming right up.
By the way, my copy long ago fell apart, and at one point I probably had memorized every word, but if you’d care to read a book on the season, and you likely have some time to do so at the moment, “A Year on Ice,” by the great Gerald Eskenazi is for you.
And if you’d like to read a book on this game and this day, then “9 Goals” by Reg Lansberry fills the bill. It hits every note and it is terrific. Plus, even I am quoted.
The place was maybe half-full at the start. The building — well, at least 419 where I was, in Row C, Seat 4, with Balin on my left in Seat 3 and Chief Dennis Ryan in Seat 6 and either his wife, Pat, or son, Bernie in Seat 5 — took on the atmosphere of an Irish wake.
“We got there and it was like, ‘What do we have to lose?’ ” Park said. “I never played in a game like it. It was all offense. My partner was Arnie Brown and one of us was up joining the rush every time and the fifth guy was cheating, too. No defense. All go-go-go.”
Rod Gilbert scored 36 seconds in. The Red Wings tied it quickly. Jack Egers, replacing the injured Vic Hadfield, scored twice. Dave Balon scored another. Four goals in the first period. The Garden was like a party. The Rangers noticed.
“We came into the room between periods and it was like, ‘OK, that’s a good start, now let’s get ready,’ ” Park said. “We go out to start the second, and if there were maybe 7,500 there at the start, it was now about 12,000. It was tremendously uplifting. And then, when we came back out for the third, the Garden was full.
There were three more goals in the second, another from Gilbert, a quite unlikely pair from Ron Stewart, and hey, guess who scored the Red Wings goal that made it 7-3 late in the period? Why, Pete Stemkowski on an assist from, of course, Bruce MacGregor.
“So now we’re playing the third and you could feel the swell coming out of the stands as you went up the ice,” Park said. “You could feel the presence. There was no holding back. The floodgates had opened.”
There were two more goals from Balon to complete the hat trick as the Blueshirts poured 26 shots on goal for a single-period franchise best to also establish the franchise-record 65 shots in a game. It was 9-3 and coach Emile Francis pulled Ed Giacomin with about four minutes to go. Detroit scored twice. It ended 9-5.
“We were upset we didn’t score more.”
So the Rangers were 38-22-16 with 246 goals. The Canadiens were 38-21-16 with 242 goals. Montreal needed either one point or five goals. The Canadiens got neither.
Through the cackle of static, I could hear the Hawks go up 5-2 midway through the third period. Park was listening, also.
“A few of us had gone to Mr. Laff’s,” Park said, referring to what was a most popular night spot at the time. “A guy there called his mother in Chicago, asked her to turn to the game, and put the radio to the phone. So I was sitting on a chair next to the bathroom, and I was calling out what was going on to Rod [Gilbert], Walter [Tkaczuk] and Nevvy [captain Bob Nevin].”
Chicago needed the game to finish in first place and get home-ice advantage in the playoffs. When Pit Martin scored to make it 5-2 at 10:44, the Canadiens pulled Rogie Vachon. They needed only to score three more goals. They got none. The Black Hawks scored five empty-netters. It ended 10-2.
The Habs were out and the Rangers were in. The Blueshirts lost the first round in six games to Boston in the series that featured the famous Game 3 brawl at the Garden after Giacomin allegedly told Derek Sanderson there was a bounty on his head. Good times.
The NHL changed the tiebreak rule immediately, replacing goals scored with goal differential. But the league couldn’t change the history that those Rangers made.
“It’s one of the highlights,” Park said. “We had a little reunion at Walter’s place a couple of years ago, Billy Fairbairn, Teddy Irvine [who came later], Nevvy, Rod Seiling, Eddie, and believe me, it came up.
“It was a wild and crazy day and it represents one of the great comeback stories ever. We were totally out of it and went into that last game with nothing more than a wing and a prayer. And we had it answered.”
Where were you 50 years ago today?
I know where I was. So do the 1969-70 Rangers.