Fred Shero, the New York Rangers' coach, looked down the corridor at an approaching media horde and, unaware that a gimpy-kneed reporter had limped through the door behind him, muttered, "Here come the vultures."
It was one of the few times anyone could be sure he had received a clear indication of Shero's true feelings. For the man who coached the Philadelphia Flyers to two Stanley Cups and has in one season revitalized the sagging New York Rangers did not acquire his nickname of "The Fog" without reason.
Shero's comments are often a mystery to writers, players and even owners. Yet the probability exists that Shero does not open his mouth without some purpose, no matter how vague or ill-defined.
One thing is certain. When Shero passes on information to a player, either through blackboardverismilitude, a rare personal chat or via his assistant coach, Mike Nykoluk, the player will respond. If Shero is questioned for his nonconformist behavior, he is respected for his success.
His current coaching success has the Rangers closing in on the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1972. The Rangers hold a 2-1 lead and the home ice advantage in their best-of-seven semifinal series with the rival Islanders. Game 4 will be played Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers took advantage of soft Garden ice (put down after an afternoon performance of the circus) and a brillant defensive effort to slow down the Islanders, 3-1, Tuesday night.
Phil Esposito shattered a 1-1 tie in the second period and Steve Vickers finished the scoring midway through the final period.
Meanwhile, in Boston the Bruins won their first semifinal game against the Montreal Canadiens, 2-1. When Brad Park skated the length of the ice to score with slightly more than three minutes to play.
The Canadiens hold a 2-1 advantage with the fourth game Thursday in Boston. Shero certainly will have an eye on the scoreboard while his Rangers carry out his orders.
"To instill confidence and courage, some coaches go about beating their breasts and threatening somebody," Shero said. "I have tried that approach before, but after 21 years of coaching, I have come to realize that a pep talk has little value. A word of encouragement is one thing, but threats are quite useless.
"You have to reach your players emotionally, not by hitting them over the head. If I call a player into my office for a 15-minute corrective talk, I'll spend 13 minutes talking about the good things he's doing, and slip in the one bad thing in the other two minutes."
Shero likes to compare his role with that of a parent, but he realizes a parent as some advantages over a coach.
"Wise parents have the opportunity to become wiser as they learn the art and science of parenthood," Shero said. Fortunately for them, time is on their side. Often a second or third chance is given to them to try out modified ideas of raising a son or daughter."But the coach of a professional team does not have time on his side. Above all, he suffers from a handicap that does not afflict parents. A coach is always racing against time.
"The daily span of 24 hours is insufficient time for the thinking, planning and worrying that must be done. Successful coaches, therefore, have to do all their thinking and planning long before they reach the major-leagues."
Shero, now 53, began thinking of a coaching career as a teen-ager. Then he spent 13 years in the minor leagues, an inordinately long time for a man so obviously competent.
Yet he concedes that his refusal to play politics with management types probably was the reason NHL clubs did not bring him up sooner.
"I found out a long time ago that only one thing wins for you, the players," Shero said. "Maybe that's why it took so long for me to make the majors. I catered to no one but them."
Ed Snider and Keith Allen, weary of their Flyers floundering in Philadelphia, gave Shero his chance in 1971. He made them look clever by driving the Flyers to two Stanley Cups, the only expansion team to do so.
As soon as the winning ceased, though, there was evidence Snider and Allen could no longer tolerate Shero's independence, while Shero was fed up with management interference.
The final blow came last year when Allen sent Nykduk, Shero's man Friday, on a season-long scouting assignment. Shero wanted Nykoluk behind the bench, but Allen no doubt could see Nykoluk on that assignment permanently, with Shero moving up to take Allen's job as general manager.
There was much screaming in Philadelphia when Shero, with one year left on his contract, resigned last spring. But there is a belief it was orchestrated for the purpose later achieved when Shero joined the Rangers, the securing of a first-round draft choice.
"I told them I didn't want ot coach any more," Shero said. "I wanted to be a general manager. Shouldn't a man have the right to accept a better offer? How much did they really want me? Did they offer me one penny more to keep me?"
Shero, who suffers from a chronic back ailment, operates from the bench and technically holds both jobs, as required by terms of his five year, $1 million contract, as coach and general manager. However, he introduces Nykoluk as the club's coach and delegates to Nykoluk such functions as handling practice sessions, choosing a starting lineup and discussing problems with the players.Meanwhile, he is off in that fog developing overall strategy.
"I feel younger now than I did 20 years ago," Shero said. "The biggest factor in life is how well you control your emotions. I don't mean hiding your emotions. I mean letting little things build up and control you.
"I've been terrible at it. It's almost destroyed me many times, but I've learned not to let little things upset me. For instance, if someone cuts in front of you on the highway, are you supposed to go crazy?
"I hate to cry. I don't like to show emotion. When I'm going to show emotion, I go off by myself. I'm a loner. I have 11 brothers and sisters and I don't know any of them."
"Many players are my life. I'd do more for my players than I would for members of my family. Not all players are equally talented and a coach has no right to demand more than a player can produce. A few players always perform better because they have an instinct to anticipate plays.
Shero always has been cognizant of the advantages of size, and he won with the Flyers by using size to intimidate the opposition. Yet two of the Rangers' standouts in the current series with the Islanders have been Eddie Johnstone (5-9, 175) and Bobby Sheehan (5-7, 155).
"I've always leaned to bigger guys, but sometimes I think I'm wrong and a lot of people in hockey are wrong." Shero said. "Size is no good unless you use it to your advantage. It's no help to have a big guy if he's only tough with his wife."
Shero has studied Soviet methods and has lectured at the Soviet Institute of Sport.
"Without the Russian drills and our team's acceptance of them, we wouldn't have won the Stanley Cup in Philadelphia," Shero said. "The drills made us a better team. The Russians are very steady, but they don't have the North American killer instinct."