(Editor’s note: The author, a resident of Airmont, N.Y., is former publisher/editor of SportStat the Rangers Report. He also wrote the Blue Seat Point of View column for the Blueshirt Bulletin for many years and currently writes the Retro Rangers column for Insidehockey.com.)
Another Kind of Winter Classic
By George Grimm
On Sunday Feb. 9, 1969 the Northeast was hit with a snowstorm that started in the Carolinas and moved up the coast. Weather forecasters confidently predicted that the precipitation would change to rain by the afternoon, but Mother Nature had something different in mind. Instead the storm intensified and dumped more than 17 inches of snow on New York City and 20 inches on Long Island.
It wasn’t quite the storm of the century but it had quite an impact on the Northeast, the political future of John V. Lindsay, the mayor of New York City and a hockey game between the Rangers and the Flyers that was scheduled to be played that night at Madison Square Garden.
These days the NHL would probably postpone the game due to the traveling conditions for both the teams and the fans. But back in 1969, if there was a game scheduled, they did the best they could to play it.
At the time a large contingent of Rangers made their winter homes in Long Beach, a bedroom community about 25 miles east of Manhattan on the south shore of Long Island. Sensing that a heavy, stable vehicle would be needed, Arnie Brown commandeered teammate Orland Kurtenbach’s station wagon and started the long trek to the city, picking up fellow Rangers along the way. Ron Stewart, Reggie Fleming, Dave Balon, Rod Seiling, Walt Tkaczuk, Brad Park, Vic Hadfield and Jim Neilson all piled into the station wagon and ultimately took turns driving and pushing the car through the snow covered roads. “A little snow never hurt anybody”, Brown told reporters when he finally arrived at the Garden. “We rode over dividers, through snow banks, everything”.
“I never saw anything like it” said Balon a native of Wakaw, Saskatchewan that sees it’s share of snow each winter.
Meanwhile Donnie Marshall, Phil Goyette and Harry Howell needed a police escort to make it from their Glen Oaks homes in Queens to the subway that took them to the Garden.
Back up goaltender Don Simmons came to the Garden earlier in the day before travel conditions became difficult. And city dwellers Rod Gilbert and Bob Nevin took a cab from their Upper East Side apartments.
But as the afternoon progressed, there was no sign of starting goaltender Eddie Giacomin as well as Jean Ratelle and Larry Jeffrey. Sensing that he might not have the requisite two netminders available for the game. General manager, coach and former goalkeeper Emile Francis signed himself to a $1 contract in case a backup for Simmons was needed. Francis was 43 at the time and hadn’t played since he retired in 1960, but this was an emergency and if he was needed, he was ready.
It turned out that at 3 p.m. Ratelle, Giacomin and Jeffrey hopped on a Long Island Rail Road train bound for Penn Station, right beneath the Garden. But they never made it. The train got stuck in Elmhurst, Queens and they spent the night on the train until the tracks were cleared the next morning.
The Rangers opponent that night, the Philadelphia Flyers had played in Boston the previous night and were experiencing their own travel problems. Their train was stuck at a frozen railroad switch north of the city.
So at the usual 7:05 pm starting time, the visitors locker room was empty. The Flyers eventually made it to the Garden by 8 p.m., but their equipment didn’t show up for another 30 nervous minutes later at 8:30.
The game finally started at 9:15 p.m. with 5,273 hardy souls in the stands.
Guy Gendron scored for the Flyers 5:30 into the first period, Then Don Blackburn made it 2-0 in the second period and things really looked bleak for the Blueshirts when Andre Lacroix made it 3-0 early in the third period.
But then the Rangers stormed back on goals by Tkaczuk and Goyette making it 3-2 with about five minutes left. Francis pulled Simmons with 40 seconds left in the game and Bob Nevin scored to tie the game.
“What a night this has been!” Francis later told reporters..
“Okay guys”, Brown was heard yelling in the dressing room, “ready for the ride home?”
The Rangers’ night might have been over but the fallout from the storm didn’t end so quickly for the city or Mayor Lindsay. The city and suburbs were paralyzed for three days and the streets of Queens were snow covered for a week causing a disruption in mail service, buses, milk and bread deliveries and trash collection. Lindsay was heavily criticized for not responding to the situation quickly enough and jeered when he tried to make a good will visit to Queens later in the week.
Later that year he lost the Republican Mayoral primary, but ran as an independent and won re-election. However he was never really able to shake what became known as the “Lindsay Snowstorm” and his political career, including a failed run for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1972 was never the same.