It was a Saturday afternoon, the first day of April 1989. I was unpacking my groceries when the phone rang. It was my father. “Bergeron’s out” he said. “I was watching the Bruins game and they just announced it.”
I was a little surprised at the news, and while I wasn’t doubting my father, I may have questioned his source. After all it was April Fool’s day and Ranger fans were an easy target. General Manager Phil Esposito was known for making impulsive moves but firing the coach with just two games remaining in the season was beyond anything he had ever done before. In addition, I was publishing SportStat … The Ranger Report at the time and had spent most of the previous night getting the next issue ready to take to the printer. If I had a staff it would have been a perfect moment to shout one of those great newspaper movie cliché’s like “Stop the presses!” or “Baby get me re-write!” But since I was just a one man operation all I could do was turn on the computer and start updating the entire issue.
Saying that he did not like the direction the team was heading in, Esposito fired coach Michel Bergeron and named himself coach through the following season. After spending more than two months in first place the Rangers were in the midst of a 9-19 slide since February 1st and had fallen to third place in the standings and losing their home ice playoff advantage.
Esposito also accused Bergeron of insubordination. There had been rumors of a power struggle between the two men and Bergeron showed no loyalty or respect for Esposito. Bergeron refused to take Espo’s calls while on the road or scout the Rangers minor league team in Denver. He was also known to call opposing coaches and initiate trade talks behind Espo’s back. Bergeron also pushed for trades that ultimately made Esposito look bad, such as sending the productive Walt Poddubny to Quebec in a package of players for the oft injured Normand Rochefort.
The rift deepened in December when the coach made a very public demand for a contract extension after MSG renewed Espo’s contract for another season. Espo refused to discuss it saying “he has a contract, I expect him to honor it”.
Bergeron was also very hard on Ranger prospects that were called up from Denver, ridiculing their rookie mistakes and saying “I don’t teach, I coach.” Darren Turcotte and Mark Janssens were shuttled in and out of the line up while other youngsters simply let it be known that they would rather not be recalled than be embarrassed by Bergeron. Only Tony Ganato and Brian Leetch got a fair shot at cracking the lineup, but only because their talent was too obvious to ignore.
Esposito had decided to fire Bergeron after the season was over but ran out of patience as the team neared the playoffs.
The final straw came following a 4-3 loss in Detroit on March 29th when Bergeron called his players “chickens” in the press. Espo called the coach and suggested that he apologize to the players but Bergeron refused. Esposito then asked Garden VP Jack Diller if he had his support to make the move. When Diller said yes, Bergeron was a goner.
Esposito had actually traded for the rights to sign Bergeron nicknamed “Le Petit Tigre” in the spring on 1987, sending a 1st round draft pick (Daniel Dore) and $100,000 to Quebec. It was the first transaction of its kind NHL history. Quebec GM Martin Madden was more than happy to make the deal since he was barely on speaking terms with Bergeron, who still had a year left on his contract. Ironically Bergeron was rehired by Madden two weeks after he was fired by the Rangers. This came as no surprise to Esposito or anyone else in the Rangers organization who knew that Bergeron had kept in constant contact with the Nordiques all the while he was in New York. He lasted one season in Quebec posting a 12-61-7 record before being let go at the end of the season.
Bergeron was the second coach Espo fired in his three years as the Rangers General Manager. In 1986, he replaced Ted Sator behind the bench after the Rangers got off to a dismal start. He then hired Tom Webster who was forced to step down because an inner ear condition made it impossible for him to fly, thus making him a part time coach at best.
Esposito’s move behind the bench was anything but successful. The Blueshirts lost the last two games of the season and were ousted from the opening round of the playoffs by the Penguins in four games. By the fourth game Espo was so desperate that he started a rookie by the name of Mike Richter in goal. It was Richter’s first NHL game and he played well in the 4-3 loss but the Rangers were just overmatched by Mario Lemieux and the Penguins.
Esposito was given a vote of confidence by Garden brass following the playoffs. But a few weeks later VP Jack Diller changed his mind and fired Espo on May 24, saying “It is our belief that new hockey leadership is necessary at this time to achieve the goals we have set for the franchise”.
So once again the Rangers organization was in disarray. With Esposito gone and a new GM yet to be hired, there was no one to run the Entry draft in June. It was left to Joe Bucchino, Espo’s assistant and former stick boy to make the selections and he actually didn’t do too badly, picking Steven Rice and Rob Zamuner among others.
The new GM turned out to be Neil Smith, who was hired in July. Smith and coach Roger Neilson carefully brought the Rangers back to respectability. But then in an all out attempt to end the Rangers 54-year Stanley Cup drought, Smith hired Mike Keenan, who was guilty of many of the same sins that Bergeron had committed years earlier. The difference this time was the leadership of Mark Messier that kept everyone on the same path. And with the help of Brian Leetch, Adam Graves, Mike Richter and Stephane Matteau, that path did indeed lead to the Stanley Cup.