"The cops come into our dressing room before that game," Emile "The Cat" Francis said Wednesday from his Florida home. "And they go, 'We'll take you to the bench.' I said, 'I can get to the bench by myself.' And they insist, 'No, we're going to have to escort you there.'"
"That was a long walk, people are yelling all sorts of stuff at me. I get to the bench, look up and I see this big bedsheet. On it, it said, 'Kill The Cat.'"
When the teams returned to Madison Square Garden for Game 3, as Francis, then GM and coach of the Rangers put it, there was "tit for tat." Still, even he was startled by the bedsheet proclaiming the dining habits of a Bruins mustachioed playboy named Derek.
"It said, 'Sanderson Eats S…,'" said Francis, who is laughing like crazy now. "I'm like, 'Take that sign down! This game is on TV!"
To this day, The Cat still gets a charge out of the sporting enmity between the two metropolises that sandwich our state. Before Jason Varitek smushed his catcher's mitt into A-Rod's face, before Spygate, before the Yankees-Red Sox and Jets/Giants-Patriots made it Boston vs. N.Y., there was Rangers-Bruins. In Jay Moran's book, "The Rangers, The Bruins, and the End of an Era," Francis said, "Every time we played it was a war. That was the greatest rivalry I've ever seen."
Partly through various NHL playoff systems and partly through happenstance, the teams haven't met in the playoffs since 1973. The Rangers have met the Flyers 10 times since 1973. The Bruins have met the Canadiens 18 times.
"I can't believe it has been 40 years," said Francis, the Whalers' general manager during their most successful NHL period.
If anybody is allowed to express disbelief, it's The Cat. He was alive when the teams first met in the playoffs in 1927, when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1928 and when the Bruins beat the Rangers for the Cup in 1929. He was behind the bench when the Bruins won it all in 1972 and the Rangers paid them back some a year later.
Yep, 40 years. You could beat a hockey fan over the head with a shoe and it would be less shocking — wait a second, Mike Milbury did that when he went after fans at Madison Square Garden in 1979.
Yep, it was 1973. The year the World Trade Center opened in New York. Remember that "Kill The Cat" game? After the Rangers had rushed back to erase a 5-1 deficit, Garnett "Ace" Bailey scored from what Francis called "an impossible angle" to win it for the Bruins. Bailey was killed on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists crashed United Flight 175 into the South Tower.
It was 1973, the year of "The Sting," "The Exorcist" and "Serpico." The year Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs and Bill Walton went 21-for-22 in the NCAA championship. The year the American League adopted the DH and Time designated Watergate judge John Sirica as its Man of the Year.
Emile Francis, still spry at 86, can shut his eyes and imagine looking into the face of one of his 29-year-old wingers in 1973. Forty years later, Glen Sather is the Rangers GM.
As the 1973 regular season drew to a close, Francis had two days off and he had a plan. After the regular season finale against the Red Wings, the team took a chartered flight to Massachusetts. He arranged for a hotel and ice time in Fitchburg. There, 50 miles from Boston Garden and 25 miles from where a 14-year-old boy named John Tortorella was growing up in Concord, Francis ran a mini-camp.
"We practiced twice a day, once in the morning, once in the afternoon," Francis said. "Then we went to the film room until 6 o'clock. At 6, we'd all eat together."
"On film, we could see Bobby Orr was having trouble with his knee. Rather than keep the puck from Orr, which normally you do, we decided to throw the puck in his corner every time. He was having trouble, turning and getting back."
The Rangers had a 2-1 lead in Game 1 when Ted Irvine went toward Orr. They fought. By the time Orr got out of the penalty box, the Rangers had scored three goals en route to a 6-2 win.
In Game 2, disaster struck for the Bruins when Phil Esposito, who led the NHL with 55 goals and 130 points, blew out his knee. As Espo was carrying the puck across the blue line, Ron Harris got him with a hip check. The Rangers would win, 4-2.
"Esposito was taken away in a stretcher and we didn't see him the rest of the series," Francis said. "But the year before Jean Ratelle got a broken ankle when Dale Rolfe hit him with a slap shot [late in the regular season]. Two key guys."
Ratelle returned in time for the 1972 finals, but he had rushed his return and wasn't effective.