Someone hands Glen Sather a fresh bottle of cold pills. “Ah, I’m coming down with something,” he says, sounding just slightly pissed off. “You got all these New York germs here. Whatever they are, we don’t have them in the clean air of Alberta.”
Sather, from High River, Alberta, is sitting in his wood-paneled, carpeted private box, up in what is called the “eyebrow” of Madison Square Garden, high above ice level on the Seventh Avenue end. He’s got a bank of four video monitors on his left. Behind him are a series of photos depicting great moments in Rangers history.
Five stories below are the Devils and the home team, for whom he played 186 games in the early ’70s, the team he took over last spring following his 20-year reign in Edmonton. With Sather as coach and GM, the Oilers won more Stanley Cups in seven years than the Rangers have in 75. The Rangers may not be the cause of his oncoming illness, but they’ve certainly not made Sather’s first months back in town very pleasant.
They entered Monday’s match in Columbus seven games under .500, 10 points out of the final playoff spot, the worst defensive team in hockey, and the continuing object of ridicule around the NHL—and in the local papers—for their poor showing despite a league-high $60 million payroll.
They were a game over .500 in early December when they hit the road and the road hit them back, plunging them into a near free fall over the next five weeks, during which they won just one of 14 games.
The slide was greased by the Rangers’ power play, the NHL’s best back in early December, motoring along at better than 24 percent. But when San Jose killed five Rangers’ man advantages by pressuring the puck carrier on December 9, the whole league took notice. This past Sunday, every maneuver of the Rangers’ six fruitless power plays was met by Devils’ aggression, bringing their extra-man record since that game against the Sharks to nine goals in 106 chances.
“I knew there were going to be some warts along the way,” Sather admits. But he clearly wasn’t prepared for this. “I didn’t think we’d struggle as much as we have struggled.”
What has gone so wrong that the Rangers may have to win 20 of their final 25 games to grab their first playoff spot in four seasons? Sather places the blame squarely on a mindset he senses has taken root in the organization. “To see a team that can fall apart as quickly as we have and to play as well as we have some nights, I mean, that sort of thinking takes a long time to develop. It doesn’t happen in three or four months, and you don’t solve it in three or four months.”
This, he says, is a culture of losing, and it permeates the organization. It happens, he says, when “there’s no accountability.” If the Rangers had been comprised of younger players who feared a mistake on the ice would land them back in the minors, it might not be that way. But since winning the Stanley Cup in ’94, the Rangers have been an older team.
It was Neil Smith’s team, and Smith somehow felt compelled to regularly trade young talent for veteran performers and sign big-ticket free agents, though he often confided that he didn’t actually like to make deals to “win now.”
“Patching holes,” is how Sather puts it. “I’m not going to criticize the past organization that was here, but,” he criticizes, “there was no long-term thinking in it. Everyone was moved to get an immediate change. I’m against doing something like that. If you’re getting a bona fide star or a superstar for a prospect, that’s one thing. But to trade all of your assets just to try to fill a hole, I think that’s a mistake.”
So Sather was left with a team overpopulated by a certain type: “a guy that’s a veteran of eight or nine years, with a big contract. He knows you’re not going to send him down.”
As a consequence, his team “gives up goals at the wrong point, they turn over pucks at the wrong point, they miss checks, the goaltenders miss saves, and you’ve got that subconscious attitude about giving up too easily. When you see a team miss the playoffs a lot of years, what happens in most cases is (new general managers) clean out everyone to get rid of that kind of thinking. It’s not necessarily the players’ talent. It’s the thinking you’ve got to change.”
Cleaning house sounds nice, but, thus far, Sather has made very few such moves. “What do people think?” wonders one Rangers insider about those demanding trades. “Do they think that because the Rangers don’t want, say, Valeri Kamensky, that the other teams in the league do want him? Do they think that the Rangers are smart and the other teams are stupid?”
Still, Sather says any of his players can be had. “There’s not anyone here who’s untouchable as far as I’m concerned.”
Mark Messier is not going anywhere, though, unless he retires at season’s end. Too often, Messier looks every bit his 40 years and then some. He ranks 975th out of 975 NHLers in plus/minus, on the ice for 25 more even-strength goals against the Rangers than goals for.
This team’s expectations may have emanated from Messier’s “guarantee” to return the Rangers to the playoffs. But while Sather and the coaching staff defend him, lauding his still-impressive leadership skills and effort, there have been rumblings that some teammates feel the Captain, too, deserves his share of public criticism for poor play. And the fans—who demanded Messier’s return for three years—now seem disenchanted.
“C’mon, Mess,” one blue-seater loudly groaned last Sunday, “I want my money back.”
The future of the Rangers is elsewhere. “There’s been a lot of new, young people brought in here,” Sather says with justification. For the first time in a while, 11 players on the roster are under 25, products of both Smith and Sather deals.
“You know,” Sather says, “this is really Manny Malhotra’s first year of development. The guy has played pro three years but this is the first time he’s really been used in any meaningful way. And we’ve made him accountable and he’s starting to respond to it.”
There are also some fine young defensemen like 20-year-old rookie Tomas Kloucek. And two-thirds of the Czechmates line, Jan Hlavac and Radek Dvorak, are in that younger group.
But perhaps more than the talent or the age of the players, “it’s the culture we’re trying to change,” Sather says, eyeing the bottle of pills on the counter in front of him. “The average fan, he probably doesn’t understand that.”