Blog favorite George Grimm has given me a few columns to use. I’m running one today, and then three in August, including two previously unreleased interviews. He has a book coming out in September about the Emile Francis era that you should all definitely buy multiple copies of. Thanks, George, and great work as always!
Reminiscing with Billy Fairbairn
by George Grimm
“Everybody liked Billy Fairbairn. Billy Fairbairn was quiet. He hit, he worked hard, he took his hits and he played up and down that wall. And you could trust him every step of the way. You knew what he was gonna do, and he didn’t play dirty. He was a good guy” – Derek Sanderson.
Bill Fairbairn was one of the most dependable right wingers the Rangers have ever had. Signed by the Rangers in 1964 at the age of 17 as a free agent, Fairbairn played his junior hockey for the hometown Brandon Wheat Kings scoring 125 goals and adding 190 assists in four seasons. ‘Bulldog’ as he came to be known because of his tenacity, then moved on to Omaha of the CHL. In two full seasons with the Knights Billy scored 51 goals with 80 assists and finished second in team scoring both seasons behind teammate Juha Widing.
Fairbairn made a brief appearance for the Blueshirts in February 1969, but the
22-year-old 5-foot-10, 190-pound right winger stuck with the team right out of training camp the next season.
Bill Fairbairn: “It was a very big change coming from Brandon to Omaha to New York. Playing in front of maybe 3,000 people to 17 – 18,000 was a very big change right off the bat. I guess I was a little nervous for the first couple of months but then after that everything settled down and it was good.
I was lucky right if off the bat, when I came up to New York I roomed with Brad Park. We roomed that first year together and since he’d been there a year he kind of took me under his wing, made me feel quite welcome. He knew his way around so I just kind of hung with him and saw the sites and everything else and got to the rink with him. He was the driver, he was a chauffeur for me but it was a good fit rooming together with him.”
Originally expected to be used in a checking role, Billy was moved up to the Walt Tkaczuk –Dave Balon line when winger Bob Nevin was injured. The trio became known as the “Bulldog Line” and was so effective that Coach Emile Francis kept them together even after Nevin was able to return to the lineup. The line recorded 203 points that season finishing ahead of the Goal-A-Game line that included Jean Ratelle, Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield. Fairbairn wound up with 23 goals and 33 assists that season and finished second behind Chicago’s Tony Esposito in the voting for the Calder trophy as the NHL’s Best Rookie.
Bill Fairbairn: “I think it was because I went to good team. I played with Walter and we clicked right off the bat and if I hadn’t started off with him I wouldn’t have been runner up for the rookie of the year. We just sort of gelled when we went to training camp and then when we started playing together Emile took us both aside and said ‘look you guys are the young guys on the team and we’re going to have you killing penalties.’ So the extra ice time really helped me during that year.”
The next season however Fairbairn’s production dropped as he came down with a case of Mononucleosis. He missed 22 games due to the illness and was less than 100% for the remainder of the season.
Bill Fairbairn: “I thought it was the flu and that I would shake it off. But I had it for quite a while. I think we were in Oakland and Teddy Irvine was my roommate and I just told him I can’t go to practice this morning. I can’t get out of bed. And that’s when they flew me back to New York and found out that I had mono. Where it came from I had no idea. I went to Lenox Hill and I was in the hospital there for quite a while.”
By the fall of 1971 Dave Balon who had led the team in goals the previous season was beginning to experience weakness in his legs and arms. As it turned out, Balon was in the early stages of Multiple Sclerosis that wouldn’t be diagnosed until after his playing career was over. He was traded to Vancouver and after a succession of wingers were given tryouts on the left side of Tkaczuk, Steve Vickers was finally given the job and the second incarnation of the “Bulldog line” was formed.
Bill Fairbairn: “Dave and Steve were both good goal scorers. They were magic with the puck around the net there and it was pretty much up to me and Walter to get them the puck. They were the go to people Dave and Steve both, because they were kind of natural goal scorers and they were close to the net all the time so they weren’t too hard to find. Steve especially because he was always right off the post there and he stayed away from the defensemen and if you could get him the puck he made sure it went in. The same with Bozey, he was a hustler. We were called the bulldog line because we worked hard to get the puck and when we got the puck Dave or Steve would find a way of putting it in. I enjoyed playing on that line. I played most of my career with Walter it was very enjoyable it made hockey fun to play.
We were the checking line. We were put out against the top lines and we’d kill penalties and we were second on the power play. Ratty, Rod and Vic were the number one power play line but we were second up so we got a lot of ice time and that helped me and Walter because we were chunky guys and we needed the extra work out during the game to stay in shape.
I liked going along the boards. I didn’t go off my wing too often but if I could get the defensemen to take the body on me then Walter would be wide open and then there’d be a two-on-one with either Steve or Davey. I didn’t mind taking the hits, I’m starting to feel them now though, but back then I didn’t feel them. Now the aches and pains a coming out in the hips and shoulders and everything else but that’s old age setting in too.”
Fairbairn’s best offensive season was in 1972-73 when he scored 30 goals with 33 assists for 63 points which placed him fourth in team scoring behind Jean Ratelle, Rod Gilbert and Walt Tkaczuk.
Bill Fairbairn: “I don’t know how I got those goals because I had one of the worst shots in the league. I think the goalies were kind of surprised when I shot the puck because when I let it go it was like a changeup in baseball and that would be my hard shot. I wasn’t known for having a hard shot, as a matter fact once in practice Eddie Giacomin said give me your best shot. So I came over the blue line and let a slapper go and Eddie threw off his trapper and caught it in his bare hand. That’s how slow my shot was. But it was accurate and I had help from my two line mates to get the 30 goals that year. As a line we really clicked well. I could never have played on a better line. Steve ended up getting rookie of the year that season.”
In the summer of 1974 Emile Francis acquired Derek Sanderson from the Bruins, a move that initially was not well received by Fairbairn and a number of his teammates.
Bill Fairbairn: “I always hated him but yet when he was on our team I became friends with him, like he was a good guy. I never thought I would do that, you know change that quickly. I couldn’t stand him when he was in Boston, I just hated him. But then when he came to us he was just like one of the guys he wanted to win. At first I didn’t think it was a good move but then after a while it turned out it was. There’s nothing wrong with a guy who played his heart out and tries to win.”
The following spring, the Blueshirts lost to the Islanders in a best of three series, the final game ending with J.P. Parise’s goal 11 seconds into the first overtime. It was a devastating loss and proved to be the beginning of the end for that group of Rangers that had been together for so long.
Bill Fairbairn: “That was kind of a heartbreaker. I still remember that because Parise scored that goal and it was very, very disappointing to lose right in the Garden like that. That was the start of their dynasty but it was very upsetting really.”
The next season, the Blueshirts got off to a bad start and soon veterans like Ratelle, Park, Giacomin, Villemure and even Emile Francis were no longer part of the team.
Bill Fairbairn: “That was pretty sad, we still had a good team and why it was broken up I’ll never know. You can’t just take the top players and bring in other top players from other teams and make it work because you are taking two players and putting them with 15 other players. That was kind of the decline of the team when that happened and with ‘the Cat’ leaving that kind of demoralized a lot of the guys that played for him back then. We were like a family, we stood together pretty well all the time. Even after practice in Long Beach we would go out for lunch as a group. I had never been on team like that. You could say that we were kind of like brothers and ‘the Cat’ was the father because it was like one big family. We backed each other up right from the get-go. When the team was broken up you tried to put out but it was different, a lot different.
When Ferguson came in he didn’t like the style that me and Walter played. He didn’t like that at all. He was kind of on us all the time about different things even in practice he would get kind of ticked off at us because they would be working on the power play and we’d be the penalty killers and we would get the puck and wouldn’t give it back. He got kind of fed up with that and he wouldn’t let us kill penalties in practice”.
In November of 1976 Fairbairn was traded along with Nick Beverly to the Minnesota North Stars for Bill Goldsworthy. A year later, the North Stars put him on waivers and he was claimed by The St. Louis Blues who by that time were being run by Emile Francis.
Bill Fairbairn: “For me it was like going from a broken family to a team where the players didn’t hang around together. There were a lot of college players on the team when I went there and it was hard to fit in. There weren’t many players who had played in the league long. Tom Reid was there for a long time, Dennis O’Brien, Gary Smith and Ernie Hickey so I kind of hung around those guys and enjoyed their company like it was in New York in the early days. But it wasn’t the same, not nearly the same. Hockey wasn’t as much fun when I got traded there and my back was giving me problems then too so I missed a lot of games because of it.
After I went from Minnesota to St. Louis nobody hung around together. You went to the rink and practiced and then you wouldn’t see them until the game. It wasn’t a team that looked out for each other, but that’s the way a lot of the teams were. I guess playing in New York so long I had no idea. I would think that Boston was like New York with the players that they had in their heyday. It’s a lot better when you know that everyone is your friend and they’ve got your back.
The funny thing is that I started and finished my career with ‘The Cat’. The reason I quit was my back was bad. I’d go down and I couldn’t get up. I had to stay on my feet because if I got knocked over I couldn’t get up. You know if you can’t help the team or play up to your potential then you shouldn’t be playing. So that was my main reason for quitting. I talked it over with my wife and she said you know you can’t play because you can’t skate so that’s what happened. And it was very fitting to start off with ‘the Cat’ and end with him
Billy Fairbairn played in 536 regular season games for the Rangers scoring 138 goals and 224 assists for a total of 362 points with 102 penalty minutes. Included in those goals were 25 power play goals, 12 short-handers and 25 game winners. In 52 playoff games he scored 13 goals with 21 assists. In all he played in 658 NHL games scoring 162 goals with 261 assists.
After he retired Billy moved back to Manitoba and got into Real Estate but he still has fond memories of his days in New York.
Bill Fairbairn: “I still love New York and I love the team I played with. It was very disappointing all the years I was there that we were contenders but we just couldn’t come up with the cup. That was the only bad part about being there. But my life wouldn’t be as it is now if I hadn’t gone to New York and played with the players that I was with. I couldn’t have played for a better coach than Emile Francis, I can’t say enough about him. I made a lot of friends and still have a lot of friends from the game. I love New York and still love the Rangers. They are my only team.”
George Grimm is the former publisher of Sportstat, The Ranger Report and columnist for the Blueshirt Bulletin. His book about the Emile Francis Era Rangers “We Did Everything but Win” is scheduled to be released in September 2017 by Skyhorse Publishing. . He currently writes the Retro Rangers column for Insidehockey.com and is working on a book about the history of Ranger goaltenders.