Blittner’s Blue Line: Remembering A Legend, Plus Thoughts Around The League
By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com
Somewhere at The Great Big Rink In The Sky the old-time hockey guys and gals just welcomed another familiar face to their ranks. Over the weekend we lost a true NY hockey icon. One who was responsible for arguably the greatest era in Rangers history. We lost Emile “The Cat” Francis. He was 95.
The mastermind behind the Blueshirts of the mid-60s to the mid-70s, “The Cat” had three careers. He played. He coached. And he was an executive. He was inducted into The Hockey Hall of Fame for his work as a “Builder” in 1982. Francis did many things during his years with the Blueshirts, including forming the GAG Line. He led the team to the playoffs more often than not and even went to The Stanley Cup Final in 1972.
Those Rangers teams were special, regularly featuring the likes of Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield, Ed Giacomin, Brad Park and others. It was a wonderful time for the Broadway Blueshirts, unfortunately they never did win the big one. Though they didn’t win The Cup, they did help lay the foundation for the 1994 team who did. And a lot of the hard work was done by Francis.
For Blueshirts fans who aren’t old enough to have seen “The Cat” lead Gilbert and Co. into battle you can read all about their exploits in George Grimm’s book “We Did Everything But Win.” Now that Francis is reunited with Gilbert, you can just imagine the hockey games they’re playing far from the prying eyes of the living. And it’s not just them.
Long Island lost Clark Gillies last month. Gillies never got the chance to compete against Francis’ Rangers at their peak. But you can picture in your mind’s eye how the trio of Gilbert, The Cat and Gillies are reliving the Rangers-Islanders rivalry on the ice we’ll never see and then going for a beer or two after the games.
And speaking of Gillies, last Friday, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman held a ceremony at the Nassau County Executive Building honoring his memory. For those who missed it, here is a video provided by the Islanders.
It’s a sad time when tributes like these are needed because it means we’ve lost somebody who meant a lot to so many. While it’s wonderful for Gilbert, Gillies and now The Cat to be reunited with so many of hockey’s great people, here’s to hoping the roster in the sky doesn’t grow again anytime soon.
Now, for some happier stuff.
The Edmonton Oilers have a new Head Coach who seems to be getting results in the early going. Jay Woodcroft has been behind the bench for six-games and the Oilers are 5-1-0 during that stretch. What has changed that’s led to the revitalization of the Oilers’ season? Defense. Woodcroft has stressed defense to his players and so far the early returns are good. Whether or not Edmonton can keep this up is another question for another column.
And speaking of new Head Coaches, Montreal has one in Hockey Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis. A first-time NHL Head Coach, St. Louis has not been as lucky as Woodcroft in the record department (2-3-0), but there are signs he’s got a strong future as a coach.
Meanwhile, in the not-so-distant future…
TRADE DEADLINE APPROACHING
The NHL’s annual Trade Deadline is now under a month away (March 21st) and the market is still relatively quiet outside of the occasional depth swap between teams. That’s going to change really soon and some prominent names could be on the move.
Tomas Hertl seems like a lock to be traded. And with every loss the Canucks suffer J.T. Miller looks to be another step out the door. Perhaps the most intriguing name said to be available is Mark Giordano.
Seattle’s inaugural Captain is on an expiring contract and even at his advanced age (38-years-old), he could be a nice fit for a contending team who wants to shore up its blue line.
For now it’s a waiting game.
LONG AWAITED WINS
And finally, it’s been a long time coming for two NHL goaltenders.
Over the weekend J-F Berube (Blue Jackets) and Andrew Hammond (Canadiens) each picked up their first NHL wins since 2018. Both have hardly seen NHL action in the last four-years so it’s nice they were each able to earn a victory for their respective teams in what will likely be short-term stays at the NHL level.