On breakup day, after the Rangers were eliminated by the Buffalo Sabres in 2007, Tom Renney addressed the media. Right after he was finished, I handed him the newest issue of New York Sportscene with an article I wrote on the coach.
Usually when you hand sports figures press on themselves, they take it, thank you, and you never hear about it again. Not this time. A week later, I received a call in the Sportscene office from a girl who worked for the Rangers, saying Renney really liked the story and thanked me for the story. She also asked if he could get copies for his family and friends. Of course, I obliged and send out the extra issues.
That was Renney, a classy gentleman, who was a rarity in the coaching ranks. Over the past four years, I spoke with many people involved in the NHL. To a man, each had glowing things to say about the Rangers coach. And many even said they secretly root for the Rangers, just to see Renney have some success.
That’s why yesterday was such a bitter sweet day for the organization. Businesswise, a change had to be made. The team seemed to tune out Renney over the last few weeks and if winning is the bottom line, something needed to be done. Remember, you can’t fire the players.
But no matter how John Tortorella does as Ranger coach, the organization lost some class yesterday. When Renney took over at the end of 2004, the team was a laughingstock, with no direction, and a place where players came to collect their checks before they retire.
Then came the lockout and a fresh start for Renney. The lockout allowed the coach to mold the team in his own image. Unlike the pseudo-coaches the team employed in the past, Renney was a true hockey man, who brought organization to his practices, while becoming successful in renewing pride in the Blueshirt.
While doing all of that, he treated the players with class and dignity. He first won over Jaromir Jagr, and then Brendan Shanahan, and that allowed the coach to defer the leadership to the dressing room. When the players needed to be motivated, Jagr and Shanahan took care of it. When Aaron Ward and Marek Malik caused disruptions at different times over the years, the Hall of Famers kept it in house and the problems were solved in the room. They were so good at it, they even kept Sean Avery in check, which is no easy task. Just ask the Stars.
Yet, by having two strong personalities like Jagr and Shanahan, Renney was allowed to be an administrator, rather than a disciplinarian. And it proved to be his downfall. When the team chose not to re-sign either player, there was a void at the top. Neither Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, nor Markus Naslund have the personalities or resumes of a Jagr or Shanahan and wouldn’t or couldn’t control the dressing room like their predecessors. And since it wasn’t in Renney’s nature to knock around some heads, the Rangers lacked the fire needed to succeed over an 82 game season.
So Tortorella now comes in and it will be his job to light a fire under the club. It’s a good hiring and a step in the right direction for the Blueshirts, but there is a price. The Rangers may have become a better team yesterday, but lost some class and dignity and that’s something that’s hard to replace.