Two years ago, when the Rangers whipped the favored Islanders in the Stanley Cup semifinals, Craig Patrick was unemployed, waiting in his Mitchellville, Md., home for the phone to ring after he had completed an undistinguished professional hockey career as an orphaned farmhand of the Washington Capitals in Tulsa, Okla.
The phone did ring, with Herb Brooks at the other end, and Patrick would become a key figure in the miracle at Lake Placid, serving as assistant manager and assistant coach of the gold-medal U.S. hockey team.
That task concluded, Patrick was hired as an administraotr by the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States and prepared to enjoy the scenic wonders associated with his new home in Colorado Springs, Colo.
One more phone call, from Sonny Werblin last summer, brought Patrick to the Rangers as director of operations, charged with bringing order to the chaos created by Fred Shero. Before long, Shero would lose what vestiges of authority remained and Tuesday night, when the Rangers once again battle the Islanders in the Stanley Cup semifinals at Nassau Coliseum, Patrick will be behind the bench, at age 34 filling the dual role of general manager-coach of the team his grandfather, Lester, founded in 1926. o
There is another semifinal opening Tuesday, in Calgary, with the Flames facing Minnesota, but only loyalists of those two clubs will be paying much attention. Instead, hockey aficionados will be absorbed by the bid of the 13th-place Rangers, lowest-finishing hockey club ever to progress this far, to unseat the defending Stanley Cup champion Islanders.
There were skeptics when Werblin installed Patrick at the operational helm and skeptics abounded throughout a season in which the Rangers did not clinch a playoff berth until a mere two days remained, but the unassuming young man a sarcastic writer once dubbed "Mr. Excitement" has quietly lifted the Rangers back to respectability.
Despite his portrayal as a boob in that lightweight television production "Miracle on Ice," Patrick is given considerable credit in some quarters for the Olympic gold, because, unlike Brooks, he was able to relate to the players and smooth out the rough spots.
Patrick has accomplished the same with the Rangers. While the team struggled early amid devastating injuries, he refused to be critical. Asked after one defeat whether he ever expected to be unhappy after a game, he replied, "I hope not. I don't think so. I believe in this team."
In February, during a dry spell, Patrick broke up a Vancouver-Los Angeles trip with a three-day sojourn in San Diego, where he met individually with each player, besides conducting several team meetings. Then, in March, after a 4-3 home-ice loss to Colorado, Patrick finally blew up.
"If we keep playing like this, we won't get another damn point," Patrick said. "It's a team game and you can't do it by yourself. We don't have 19 superstars out there."
Patrick called a team meeting, forced the players to watch films of their mistakes and, apparently, was rewarded when they accepted the criticism from a man who had been on their side even during the November dog days of 19th place. Since that night, they have gone 13-5-2, mucking into the Stanley Cup semifinals over the corpses of No. 4 Los Angeles and No. 2 St. Louis.
"The thing that changed our season around," Patrick said, "was that the players with 10 games to go looked at the standings and the remaining schedule, which was tough, and said, 'Hey, we've got to start playing playoff hockey now even to make the playoffs.'
"At the beginning of the year, I thought we could finish in the top eight, but there have been a lot of changes this year, a lot of disrupting factors. We've had injuries, retirements, a change of coaches; they just seemed to keep coming.
There is mere casual reference to "retirements" and "change of coaches," but there is general belief that the midseason farewell to Phil Esposito and the dismissal of Shero rid the team of two notable "disrupting factors." The elevation of defenseman Barry Beck to the captaincy disposed of further disruptive influences. There has been speculation that Beck, who tends to disorient the opposition on the ice, banged a few heads in the dressing room, too, before the current state of togetherness was achieved.
Patrick, however, who pursued expatriate Nick Fotiu in Hartford until he brought him back, because both dressing room and arena needed Foitiu's flamboyance. Yet Patrick does not hesitate to bench Foitiu, as he did in Friday's finale against St. Louis.
If Patrick ignores fan opinion as to who goes on the ice, he is aware that the spectators' current state of unbounded enthusiasm is preferable to the jeers of a few weeks back.
Asked how he felt about the rivalry with the Islanders, Patrick said, tongue slightly in cheek: "I pick up my feelings from the fans and there seems to be an awful lot of rivalry there."
In the next two weeks, he will see how much. It might even rival the last days at Lake Placid.