| VICKERS – RANGERS JOHNNY ON THE SHOT
By Robert Picarello
All throughout his career with the New York Rangers it seems that Steve Vickers took advantage of the shots the organization gave him and the ones he took on the ice.
Heading into training camp during the 1972-73 season, the rookie left wing did not think he had a chance of making the big club. Other forwards like Gene Carr, Tommy Williams and Curt Bennett were ahead of him on the depth chart, so Vickers went in expecting to be sent back down to the minors before the regular season began.
“I wasn’t really highly touted going into that season,” Vickers said. “I think I was sixth or seventh on the depth chart for left wing for the Rangers then, but as camp wore on I started getting more confidence.”
The Toronto native impressed management so much during preseason that he was in the lineup for the team’s opener on Oct. 7, 1972 against the Red Wings. Vickers started his career with the Rangers at Detroit’s old Olympia Stadium skating on a line with Pete Stemkowski and Bruce MacGregor.
While he didn’t play much in his first NHL game, he did take advantage of an opportunity in the third period. After Carr missed two point-blank shots and was fumbling pucks on rushes, Rangers head coach Emile Francis decided to replace the winger by moving Vickers up to play on a line with Walt Tkaczuk and Billy Fairbairn. The results were instant and magical, as the rookie tallied his first career goal on his very first shot on net.
“I remember I wasn’t getting a lot of icetime early on in the game, but they put me on in the third period a little more and I wound up scoring on my first shot on goal,” Vickers recalled. “That was such a thrill. Scoring on your first shot in your first game is something that will stay with you forever.”
Another thing that will also stay with him forever is that he scored on a slapshot that whizzed past the Wings’ netminder, Denis DeJordy, from 50 feet out.
“I didn’t score too many goals in my career on slapshots. I just came over the blueline and I let one go on DeJordy and I think he must have been screened because normally you’re not gonna beat a goalie from that far out with the slapshot I had.”
Well, DeJordy wasn’t going to be the only NHL goalie to let one up on the Rangers winger that year. Vickers went on to score 29 more red-lighters that season, finishing with 53 points off 30 goals and 23 assists. He also took home the Calder Trophy, given to the league’s Rookie of the Year, after the ’72-73 season.
But, believe it or not, even though Vickers had immediate success playing on a line with Tkaczuk and Fairbairn, he didn’t play regularly with those forwards until Carr went down with an injury one month into the season. As a matter of fact, Tkaczuk and Fairbairn had 16 different left wings before Vickers came along and the trio made history together.
On Nov. 12, 1972 against Los Angles, the line reunited and once again magical things happened on the ice. Vickers notched his first NHL hat trick and three nights later against Philadelphia, the first-year Ranger repeated that feat, becoming the first player in League history to record back-to-back hat tricks in consecutive games.
“Scoring the two hat tricks in my first month in the League was my greatest memory on an individual basis,” Vickers said. “That established a place for me in the lineup on the Bulldog line with Tkaczuk and Fairbairn.
But the Rangers didn’t only rely on Vickers and the Bulldog line to score goals. The three were also asked to shutdown the opposing team’s top line every night.
“I prided myself in being a two-way player. Emile Francis insisted on that,” Vickers explained. “Our line’s job was to check the other team’s top line of forwards, plus try to chip in whenever possible. But to our credit I think we also scored 80 goals one year with our line. So we could do more than just shut down the other team. I think we were an offensive force also.
“I think almost every hockey player tries to be a two-way player and I know I used to get just as much satisfaction stopping opposing players from scoring a goal as I did when I scored. I enjoyed coming back and back-checking and maybe turning a three-on-two into a three-on-three to give our goalie more of a chance.”
Well, when Vickers was in the lineup for the Rangers, it always seemed the team had a better chance to beat the opposition. He was just as quick at coming to a teammate’s rescue as he was at pouncing on loose pucks around the opposition’s net.
“I was very fortunate in that I played with so many great hockey players when I first came to New York – Rod Gilbert, Ed Giacomin, Brad Park, and my two linemates, Walt Tkaczuk and Billy Fairbairn. They seemed to go out of their way to try to get me the puck and I always tried to make the most of it.”
Don’t let him fool you. Vickers more than made the most out of his opportunities with the Rangers. Sarge – a nickname bestowed upon him by Stemkowski, after he wore an old beat up army shirt to practice that had sergeant chevrons on it – tallied 246 goals and 340 assists in 698 games for the Rangers. The hard-hitting winger also had 24 goals and 25 assists in 68 playoff games for New York, a city he more than loved playing in.
“New York is the biggest stage in the world to play on – some people even like to say it’s the center of the universe. And like the saying goes, ‘if you make it there, you can make it anywhere.’ The fans are terrific and, unfortunately for them, when I was here we never won a Cup,” Vickers said.
“We had some really, really good teams, especially in the early ‘70s. We had a pretty good run in ’79 when we went to the Finals against Montreal. We made the Playoffs all but two years when I was there. It was just magical walking into that building every night with so much tradition. Taking an elevator up five floors to ice level also amazed me. I couldn’t believe that. I had never seen anything like that growing up. But seriously, the fans were incredible. You’d score a goal for them and they would cheer so loud for you that it would send shivers down your spine.”
The cheers were never louder for Number 8 at Madison Square Garden then on Feb. 18, 1976 when Vickers rang up seven points off three goals and four assists against the Washington Capitals, a Ranger record that still stands today.
“It was one of those nights where every time I touched the puck something happened,” Vickers said. “I was playing with Rod Gilbert and Wayne Dillon. I must admit that Washington didn’t have a real great team that year, but everything I shot on net seemed to go in or seemed to get me on the scoresheet. Whether I shot or passed, the red light went on. It was really, really a great night and I didn’t think the record would stand up this long – it’s been almost 30 years. While it’s not a League record, it’s a Rangers record that I cherish.”