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Sunday Long Read

The night New York vented its anger at 'The Cat'

Francis looks back at his time rebuilding Rangers, including uproar over waiving Giacomin

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Emile Francis can still hear the chant of the Madison Square Garden crowd on Nov. 2, 1975, his nickname bouncing off the arena walls and its famous ceiling:

"Kill The Cat! Kill The Cat!"

Francis, general manager of the New York Rangers, hadn't exactly endeared himself to local fans two days earlier when he waived hugely popular goaltender Ed Giacomin, who was in the twilight of a career that had him bound for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The Detroit Red Wings claimed Giacomin, who had played 10-plus seasons for the Rangers. And as fate would have it, the Red Wings were at Madison Square Garden two nights after the Halloween waiver deal had shaken New York hockey to its core.

Francis had brought Giacomin, not quite 26, to the NHL in May 1965, giving up four players for him in a trade with Providence of the American Hockey League.

"I made a lot of good deals, but in my mind, without a doubt [getting Giacomin] was the most important deal I made. I had to build up our goalkeeping," says Francis, 89, who championed Giacomin for years.

But in 1975, Francis was leaning toward newcomer John Davidson. Giacomin's return to the Garden with Detroit was one of the most emotional nights in Rangers history; the Red Wings defeated the Rangers 6-4, with the full house bellowing its love of Giacomin through the entire game.

"Here's the problem: Both of Eddie's knees were gone," Francis says. "I knew that the year before, when I made the deal with St. Louis to get Davidson, to groom him to be our next goalkeeper. But I couldn't use [Davidson] at Madison Square Garden. 'Ed-die! Ed-die!' the fans always chanted. I knew if I was ever going to get [Davidson] ready to play for the Rangers, he's got to be able to play in the home rink.

"[Giacomin] had done so much for our team. I tried to trade him but nobody wanted him. So I put him on waivers and who picks him up but Detroit, who's coming in next game."

Francis laughs at the memory of the chants for Giacomin drowning out the national anthem, and recalls that his own conflicted players didn't want to shoot on their former teammate.

"The last 10 minutes of the game, they start: 'Kill The Cat! Kill The Cat!' " Francis says of the fans. "The game ends and the Garden police say, 'When it's time to go, we've got to escort you out of this building.' I told them, 'I came into this building on my own, I'm leaving on my own.' I said, 'They may get me but I'll guarantee you, I'll take a couple of those [guys] with me.' I walked right out through the rotunda, through the middle of the crowd, straight to my car."

Francis helped develop some of the Rangers' greatest players of the day: Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield, Jim Neilson and Rod Seiling. He drafted others, including Brad Park, Walt Tkaczuk, Bill Fairbairn and Ron Greschner. A week after waiving Giacomin, Francis further stunned New York when he sent Park, a brilliant defenseman, No. 1 center Ratelle and young defenseman Joe Zanussi to the Boston Bruins for forward Phil Esposito and defenseman Carol Vadnais.

Francis justifiably took great pride in establishing the Metropolitan Junior Hockey Association; he did so after seeing lots of kids playing roller hockey near the Garden. It was from this league that Nick Fotiu and brothers Joe and Brian Mullen emerged; their NHL success in a way was the Stanley Cup that eluded Francis as a player and executive.

His welcome worn out in New York by January 1976, Francis headed to St. Louis; he was hired as GM and executive vice president with a 10 percent share of the Blues, with whom he also coached parts of three seasons. He played a huge role in helping to secure local ownership in St. Louis before joining the Hartford Whalers, first as GM from 1983-88, then as team president from 1988 until his retirement in 1993.

Family is bedrock in the life of Francis, who will speak often of Emma, his wife of 64 years; their sons, Rick and Bob (the latter won the Jack Adams Award in 2002 with the Phoenix Coyotes as the NHL's top coach); and the couple's four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

But hockey will be in Francis' blood forever. He says he most misses the competition, though with his subscription to NHL.TV he might watch more games than ever.

Still, you won't find him in arenas. Since Emma took ill eight years ago, two caregivers rotate to provide 18 hours of daily assistance. He's spent one night away from her side, that when his family insisted he go to Boston last December to accept the Wayne Gretzky International Award from the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame for his contributions to the sport in America.

"I would never be able to do the things I did without Emma, believe me," Francis says. "While I worked around the clock to build my teams, she took the station wagon and transported our sons to baseball, football, hockey ... Our boys both ended up with hockey scholarships because of her. All I knew was where I lived, Madison Square Garden and the airport. But Emma knew New York, and she knew it like the back of her hand."

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