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Rangers-Bruins blockbuster shook up 1975-76 season

by John McGourty

The New York Rangers acquired future Hall of Famer Phil Esposito from the Boston Bruins during the 1975-76 season in a rare
deal between the two longtime rival clubs.
Bitter rivals don't make trades.

Never written in stone, this axiom, nevertheless, has been common practice in pro sports for eons.

Detroit doesn't deal with Colorado. Montreal didn't deal with Quebec. The Rangers and Islanders? Nope. The Rangers and Devils. Nope again. Toronto and Detroit? Maybe in a leap year.

The Boston Bruins and New York Rangers?

Well here's the cause of the axiom running smack dab into the proverbial immovable object. Or another familiar saying: Necessity is the mother of invention.

After lackluster training camps and dull starts to the 1975-76 season, Rangers GM Emile "The Cat" Francis and Boston GM Harry Sinden -- both of whom had coached their teams at the start of the revivals -- began a game of trade-talk "Cat"-and- ... well, nobody ever took Harry Sinden for a mouse.

Let's just say they parried about a few ideas.

Those talks led to what many consider the most dramatic trade of the 1970s, one that positioned the two clubs for three Stanley Cup Final appearances at the end of the decade.

On Nov. 7, 1975, the Rangers traded defenseman Brad Park, center Jean Ratelle and defenseman Joe Zanussi to the Bruins for center Phil Esposito and defensemen Carol Vadnais.

John McGourty

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This was big. No, make that big!

In the seven previous seasons, Esposito had won the scoring title five times and twice finished second to Bobby Orr, including the previous season. Park was considered the best defenseman in the NHL next to Orr and Ratelle was one of the League's top playmaking centers. Yep, big stuff.

"We both got off to lousy starts," Francis recalled. "In those days, Montreal, New York and Boston didn't deal with each other because we were fighting for the top spot against each other and you don't deal with your enemies.

"But the press really turned on us and the players. We'd had the good years, but we didn't win the Stanley Cup. We were getting older and we knew we had to shake things up.

"Eddie Giacomin had a bad knee and I tried to trade him several times. I got John Davidson that summer because I knew Eddie's time was limited and John was only 22. Every time I used him the crowd chanted, 'Eddie, Eddie'. So, I put Eddie on waivers and Detroit claimed him; and who did we play next in Madison Square Garden? Detroit. It was 55 minutes of 'Eddie, Eddie' until the last five when it turned to 'Kill the Cat, Kill the Cat.' I came off the bench and I had 10 security guys surround me.

"So, I made the initial call and we were discussing this guy and that guy and I said; 'Harry, there's no point talking twos and threes. If we're going to shake these teams up, let's talk about the better players.' I said I'd talk about Brad Park. He asked who I wanted to talk about and I said Orr. This went on for about a month and I flew in there a couple of times.

"Then, about a week before the trade, we looked really bad in Philly and I put the whole team on waivers. I did. I told them I was going to do it. Then Harry asked about Ratelle and I said I needed Espo, but those names didn't come up the first three weeks."

“Harry, there's no point talking twos and threes. If we're going to shake these teams up, let's talk about the better players.” - -- Emile “The Cat” Francis to Harry Sinden

"Both teams were going badly and we needed a change," Sinden agreed. "Some insignificant trade of bottom-line players wasn't going to cut it, so we traded our best players. The only fear I had was Park's knees.

“We checked it out and we watched him play. I had my chief scout watch him play in four-straight games, one in Montreal, one in Vancouver and one in New York -- and another I can't remember -- and he was the No. 1 star in each game.

"I had the same concern about Orr's knees, so we wanted Park because of that concern. I knew I couldn't give up Orr, I valued my life," Sinden said with a laugh. "So, I guess I got around to Esposito somehow. Ratelle had that broken ankle a few years earlier, but he was OK. We weren't concerned about his injury. He had played in all their games for them that year.

"The key from our standpoint was Park and the reason we went on with Ratelle and Vadnais was because they needed a defenseman and I needed a center to replace Esposito. We did that so each wouldn't have a big hole in the lineup.

"Emile ended up with one of the great centers of all time and I wound up with one of the great defensemen of all time," Sinden said. "Park was one of the top six defensemen to ever play in the NHL. Both Phil and Park went to the Hall of Fame, as did Ratelle. This was a trade of really top players. Providing injuries didn't get in the way, the deal should have worked for both teams.

"My concern was losing Orr to his injury. In Boston, we were able to see the value of a top defenseman. Orr was the top defenseman in the history of the NHL to that time and, in my opinion, still is. We were in danger of losing him. If we could get the defenseman who was second to Orr, which Park was, we could afford to give up the best scorer in the League. Emile may have had concerns about Brad's knees as I had about Orr."

Francis had no qualms about Park's soundness and would have had no insight into Orr's. Park would play another 10 years while Orr had played his final effective season, although he wouldn't retire until 1979.

“I knew I couldn't give up Orr, I valued my life, so, I guess I got around to Esposito somehow.” - -- Harry Sinden

"Park had two knee injuries, but he got over them," Francis said. "He played in the playoffs with a big brace. There was no concern about his health."

You have to wonder if Sinden wasn't trying to get a little edge on Francis by asking for the extra player, Zanussi. If so, "The Cat" was playing cute, too. He'd wanted Vadnais for years.

"They asked for Joe Zanussi," Francis continued. "He was in Providence and he wasn't going to play for the Rangers. He was a good guy. He could skate like hell and was a good team man. He had a good shot, but he was by far the smallest guy we had. He had a good year that year for them, though."

Zanussi played 60 games for Boston that year, the most in his four-year NHL career.

"But I got Vadnais," Francis crowed and the pride is still there when he tells the story. Vadnais gave the Rangers seven good years, long after Francis was gone.

"I saw him in the Central League. The Rangers had the Omaha Knights and Montreal had the Houston team. He and Serge Savard played together for Houston, two big, tall, rangy defensemen. The kind of guys you like playing defense. I liked him from the first and tried to get him from the Oakland Seals. I thought I had a deal, but their GM sent him off to Boston. He could carry the puck, handle the puck, had a good shot and skated with his head up. That first pass out of your own end is so important and he did that really well."

But it was the addition of Vadnais that nearly skewed the whole deal.

"Ten minutes before the deal was official, Harry called me and said he'd made an error, that Carol had a no-trade contract, plus his wife was being operated on," Francis said. "Talk about a bad day for him. Vadnais wouldn't report because of the no-trade contract. I sent a telegram to Boston that said I was going to sue him, but he had a Montreal agent who was a really classy guy. Remember, Phil got hurt in the second game and Vadnais wouldn't report. The Bruins had Ratelle, Park and Zanussi in their lineup and I had nobody.

“The last place I wanted to be traded to was the Rangers because they were our enemies. But they treated me really well in New York and I played hard for them." - -- Phil Esposito

"I got a letter from a lawyer and flew to Boston," Francis continued. "We were two days talking and we straightened out the deal. He didn't have to go anywhere, and I felt so bad when I found out about his wife."

"I was a little shocked at the time because I had a no-trade contract which I asked for because I felt I played better when I had security and because my wife was very sick," Vadnais recalled. "She had the operation three days after the trade. Emile was very good to me and told me to relax and he would take care of everything.

"I didn't know Emile, but he was a tremendous gentleman," Vadnais continued. "The main guy was Esposito. New York wanted Esposito for Park. Then, one needed a center and one needed a defenseman. I was definitely the throw-in, I thought. I didn't know they were really after me, but Emile said he wanted me when I was in Oakland and said he had offered more than Boston. Hey, you're just a player, in those days you didn't ask questions."

"I loved Boston and I loved the Bruins," Esposito recalled. "We were really a team. We played hard and we hung out together and we won Stanley Cups together. I think if I had stayed we would have won a couple more. The last place I wanted to be traded to was the Rangers because they were our enemies. But they treated me really well in New York and I played hard for them."

Esposito said the years of close but no cigar had affected the Rangers in a negative way. He had two goals and two assists in his first game as a Ranger but they lost, 7-5, to the Golden Seals, the worst team in the League. Esposito said in his autobiography, Thunder and Lightning, that he blew up at his new teammates.

"In Boston, if we lost a game, everybody was (angry.) Especially, if we lost to a team that we never should have lost to, like California. Our philosophy was to always beat the teams you're supposed to beat. Especially, the teams that are worse than you -- you have to beat them."

Esposito said one of his new teammates told him, "You can't win them all." Esposito knew he wasn't in Boston anymore.

Defenseman Brad Park played 18 seasons in
the NHL from 1968-85, and was elected to the
Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988.

"Esposito loved Boston and he was shocked," said Francis, who was fired as Rangers GM in early January 1976. "They were all shocked, all the guys in the deal, because nobody thought we'd deal New York-to-Boston. We were dealing with well-established players. I was gone not too long after that and the new GM, John Ferguson, made Espo the captain over Rod Gilbert. I imagine there was concern in the dressing room. When I was there, Espo was fine. The guy was monumental in Boston, but he got hurt in the second game he played for us, after scoring twice and having a good game the first game."

The Rangers overhauled the team and Vadnais and Esposito were key to the revival that brought them to the 1979 Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to the Canadiens. But Boston got the first return when Ratelle and Park led them to the Final in 1977 and 1978, only to lose twice to Montreal.

"Jean Ratelle got almost 100 points in both his first two years with us," Sinden recalled. "You know, I've often used his name as players have come along since and pointed out what a great defensive player he was without being an aggressive type of forward. He was a terrific checker. A lot of players who don't have an aggressive nature think you're talking body-checking, but Ratelle is a great example of how you can check so well without necessarily being a body-checker.

”He brought a lot to this team. He was an excellent faceoff man and more of a creative playmaker than a shooter. He'd get 35 goals while Espo would get around 60, but Jean was able to put a lot of points up there with his playmaking."

It was the second time the Bruins and Esposito had been involved in a blockbuster trade.

"Milt Schmidt was the GM who made the 1967 trade with the Blackhawks for Esposito, Fred Stanfield and Ken Hodge," Sinden said. "Tom Johnson and Westy Adams, the owner's son, got involved too. I was the coach then. Obviously that trade had a dramatic impact: We won two Stanley Cups and were the dominant team until the WHA came along and a bunch of our players left. The trade for Park kept the Bruins at the top level of the League for another six or seven years after Orr was gone. If Bobby had been able to play and stayed with the Bruins and we had Ratelle and Park, which we had the three for only about nine games, you would have seen another Bruins' dynasty. They were among the very best players in the history of this game ... but we anticipated Orr's problems.

"In the beginning, I don't think I realized the significance of Bobby's problems," Sinden said. "He was playing on it, the same thing with Brad. How Park lasted as long as he did with his knees, I don't know. He was taped up for every game. You know, he should have won the (1976) Norris Trophy the first year Potvin won it. He was the outstanding defenseman in the game that year.

"If you didn't see Orr, then you just don't know," Sinden said. "You had to see him to see how far above every other player in the League he was. It wasn't even close. If he dropped four or five levels, he would still be above most everyone else. So, we thought he'd still be a great player. Orr was never the same after the operations and the first one was the worst. He got by and was still good but not the same. In retrospect, the first operation did all the damage."

So, Sinden made a deal that he thought had long-range implications for the Bruins, only to discover it would have to have an immediate impact. It jolted the city of Boston and its rabid sports fans like nothing in sports ever had.

It was, literally, the most dramatic thing that had collectively happened to its residents since the assassination of President Kennedy. And, if you remember, it was only a few weeks after the Red Sox had lost the dramatic 1975 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.

Veteran Boston sportswriter Bill Kipouras, a Bruins' beat writer, recalls the impact on the Boston fan base.

"Stunning, that's the only word for it," Kipouras said. "Stunning. I don't know if the fans ever got over it. Esposito was an icon surpassed only by Orr. They had a famous bumper sticker, "Jesus saves but Esposito scores on the rebound," on cars all over the Boston area. Jean Ratelle was one of the all-time classiest people to ever come to Boston. No person with more class ever wore the Bruins' uniform than Ratelle; but Esposito was a legend. He was what the Bruins were all about in their salad days."


 

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