Welcome to another edition of Blueshirts Briefs, a series profiling individuals who worked a short shift for the New York Rangers.
This week, I decided to look back on what might have been for forward Ulf Nilsson and the New York Rangers had the Swedish-born forward not broken his ankle on February 25, 1979, at Madison Square Garden.
If you’re a Rangers fan you know the background by now, even if you were still just a star in the sky waiting to be born, so I’ll be brief with the recap: Nilsson was sent crashing into the boards and down to the ice on a clean hit by New York Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin. On his way down, Nilsson’s skate got caught in a rut on the ice, causing his ankle to break.
Nilsson said Potvin’s hit was clean. So did many of his teammates. And so did former Rangers radio network play-by-play man and longtime Blueshirts fan, Howie Rose. The Garden faithful, not surprisingly, disagreed and gave birth to the “Potvin sucks!” chant, which is still strong at every Rangers’ home game.
Nilsson had 27 goals and 39 assists for 66 points in 59 matches to that point but was never the same player after returning from the injury.
Then just 28 years old, Nilsson played 50 games the following season and another 51 in 1981, posting 14 goals in each campaign and respective point totals of 58 and 39. But while playing for Sweden in the 1981 Canada Cup, Nilsson suffered a terrible knee injury that caused him to miss the entire 1981-82 NHL season. He came back for 10 games in 1982-83 and posted six points before opting to retire at age 32.
I’ve always wondered whether things might’ve unfolded differently for Nilsson and the Rangers hadn’t he broken his ankle on that fateful evening at the Garden. The Blueshirts went on to upset the Islanders in six games in the NHL Semifinals later that spring without Nilsson, but the Isles won four Stanley Cups and beat the Manhattanites in the playoffs four times over the next five seasons.
Might the momentum from the ’79 upset and a healthy Nilsson have altered history? Who knows?
The Islanders had good goaltending, depth upfront and on the blue line, multiple scorers, and Clark Gilles, whose fury and fists met any opponent who interfered with his teammates’ efforts to do their jobs (right, Ed Hospodar?). But the ’79 Rangers also had decent goaltending in John Davidson and depth, enough to earn 40 wins and 91 points.
To lose a key player like Nilsson was a blow.
So too was Don Murdoch being on the downslope of his career after tearing an ankle tendon on Valentine’s Day in 1977 and missing 40 games of the 1978-79 season due to a suspension stemming from an August 1977 arrest for cocaine possession. Sadly, neither the injury nor arrest inspired “Murder” to tone down his penchant for partying, and in March 1980 he was traded to the Edmonton Oilers.
Rangers fans will never know what might have been had Potvin not hit Nilsson, who joined the Blueshirts with fellow Swede Anders Hedberg on August 5, 1978, when the pair signed for $2.4 million to become the highest-paid players in the NHL.
Prior to their arrival on Broadway, Nilsson and Hedberg played on a line with Bobby Hull for the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association, Nilsson notched 484 points (140 goals) in 300 contests, Hedberg 458 points (236 goals) in 286 matches for the Jets.
They carried their magic to Broadway, as Hedberg posted 33 goals and 45 assists for 78 points in 1978-79 to go with Nilsson’s 27 tallies and 66 points. Hedberg went on to notch three more 30-goal seasons for the Rangers, plus two others with at least 20 markers.
It’s fair to wonder whether those totals might’ve been even better, as well as whether the Rangers might’ve derailed the Islanders’ dynastic run, had not Nilsson been twice injured and forced into early retirement.