The New York Rangers and the hockey world lost a giant figure Saturday with the death of Emile Francis at age 95. Though small in height, he was a legendary figure in Blueshirts’ history. He played for the Rangers then became General Manager and Head Coach.
The Rangers announced his passing via Twitter.
Rangers President and GM Chris Drury spoke for the team. “The New York Rangers and the entire hockey world are saddened to learn of the passing of Emile Francis. Emile’s passion and dedication to the Rangers organization and growing the game of hockey in New York City was second to none. ‘The Cat’ was a true pioneer and innovator, as well as the architect and coach of some of the greatest teams in Rangers history. Emile has meant as much to the Rangers as any person who has been part of the organization throughout its history. Our thoughts are with Emile’s family and friends during this difficult time.”
You maybe surprised that his tenure as Coach and General Manager lasted only a little over 11 years. He was hired as only the fourth GM in franchise history on October 30, 1964. He lasted until January 1976 when he was fired and replaced by John Ferguson.
He coached the team 654 games, most in franchise history. He finished with a record of 342-209-103. Those 342 wins are also a franchise record. His playoff record was 34-41-0. His 34 playoff wins are three more than Lester Patrick and Alain Vigneault.
Francis took over a team that was a perennial basement dweller and made it into a Stanley Cup contender. The 1964-1965 Rangers had made the playoffs only four times in 14 years and had not won a single playoff series. Within three years they were back in the postseason, finally winning a series in 1968 and making it to the Stanley Cup Final in 1972.
As GM, he was responsible for developing the great Rangers teams of the late 1960s including players like Ed Giacomin, Brad Park, Walt Tkaczuk, Steve Vickers and Bill Fairbairn and he traded for players like Phil Esposito, Carol Vadnais, John Davidson, Doug Harvey, Camille Henry, Pete Stemkowski, Dale Rolfe and Glen Sather.
Sather had this to say about Francis’ passing. “I mourn the loss of my dear friend, Emile Francis. I had the privilege to play for Emile, coach against him, and work in the league as a general manager at the same time as him. I always admired Emile’s passion and dedication, and he was one of the true characters of our game. I’d like to express my deepest condolences to everyone who knew and loved Emile.”
Although he ran the Rangers for only 11 years, after he retired he was a familiar figure at Madison Square Garden. He will be missed.
Francis was never one to retreat from making headlines. He made one of the biggest trades in hockey history when he sent Jean Ratelle, Brad Park and Joe Zanussi to the Boston Bruins for Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais in November 1975.
He traded for Pete Stemkowski, Phil Goyette, Terry Sawchuk, Red Berenson and innumerable other players and traded away a similar list of legends including Vid Hadfield, Dave Balon, Lou Fontinato, Harry Howell and Camille Henry.
He was vilified by Rangers fans when he waived fan favorite Ed Giacomin in October 1975, setting up one of the most memorable games in Garden history when Giacomin returned as a Red Wing. Fans forget that he traded for Giacomin in 1965.
He fired coaches Red Sullivan and Larry Popein and took over for them. He replaced coach Bernie Geoffrion when the Montreal great’s ulcers prevented him from coaching. In 1975 he hired Ron Stewart to coach the team and that got him and Stewart fired just three months into the season.
Francis was a character. On Christmas Eve in 1972 he was so happy about an Ed Giacomin shutout he gave the goalie $100.
In November 1965 he got into a brawl with a fan after a disputed goal in a game at the Garden with the Detroit Red Wings. The Rangers’ GM was arguing with the goal judge when a fan heckled him and Francis started throwing punches. Ten Rangers scaled the herculite glass and went into the stands to defend their GM.
Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Emile Francis was a goalie and he got the nickname “The Cat” because of his quick moves in net in junior hockey. He made his NHL debut in 1946 with the Black Hawks who traded him to the Rangers in October 1948. He spent four years in the Rangers organization, making it to New York for 22 games. He was traded to the minor league Cleveland Barons for future Hall of Famer Johnny Bower in 1953, After a long minor league career he retired as a player in 1960.
He was hired to coach the Rangers farm team in Guelph, Ontario and made it to the Rangers as assistant general manager in 1962. He got the big job in 1964 , but showed no reluctance to make coaching changes and ended up taking over behind the bench for Red Sullivan, Bernie Geoffrion and Larry Popein. His longest stint was 343 games when he led the team to the Stanley Cup FInal in 1972, losing to the Boston Bruins.
He was fired by the Rangers in 1976 and served time as coach and general manager of the St. Louis Blues before his last job as President of the Hartford Whalers. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982 in the Builder category.