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NY Rangers Fire Head Coach Campbell

February 19, 1998 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ With Colin Campbell gone, New York Rangers general manager Neil Smith’s first priority is a coach who will give the team both a quick fix and long-term stability.

After firing Campbell on Wednesday, Smith immediately refrained from naming a successor. He said only that an announcement would be made within the next 48 hours, which would give the new man less than a week to prepare for the resumption of the season following the Olympic break.

The top candidates for the Rangers’ coaching job are reportedly John Muckler, the former Edmonton coach, and E.J. McGuire, coach of the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Hartford.

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While Smith deferred ``from talking about the candidates,″ he did say that McGuire has done a ``first-class job″ at Hartford.

``He’s improved our talent base _ he’s right up there as a member of our organization.″

Based on the Rangers’ history, McGuire would seem to be an obvious choice. Smith has shown a preference to promote from within the organization.

The only clue about the Rangers’ next coach was Smith’s philosophical guidelines.

``I want to have someone who has the best possible chance to turn this team around in the short time we have,″ he said. ``Secondly, I want someone to guide this team in the future.″

In firing Campbell, Smith said he ``waited as long as I could for the team to turn the corner, and I never saw the corner turned. Obviously, I couldn’t wait any longer.″

Campbell was in his fourth season as coach of the Rangers and appeared to be secure in the position, at least for three more years. Just this past summer, Campbell signed a two-year contract extension through the 1999-2000 season after leading an injury-depleted Rangers into the Eastern Conference finals against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Smith had called Campbell the most important factor in the Rangers’ playoff success.

However, the Rangers began this season slowly. The Rangers are 17-24-16 and six points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference despite a payroll of $44 million, highest in NHL history.

``We haven’t been on track through the whole four months (of the 1997-98 season),″ Smith said. ``We had an amazing amount of ties, bad luck, Murphy’s law. Also significant underachievement from players whose expectations were higher. I don’t have to single any of them out _ you know who they are.″

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Smith obviously referred to, among others, defenseman Brian Leetch and goalie Mike Richter, both perennial All-Stars who are having subpar seasons. Wayne Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time scoring leader, only has 13 goals so far.

Gretzky, the team’s highest-paid and highest-profile player, said he was ``a little surprised and disappointed″ by Campbell’s firing.

``I feel bad for Colin,″ Gretzky said in Nagano, Japan, where he is playing for Canada in the Olympics. ``He was good to me and he’s a good person. But whenever you’re not winning, a coaching change is going to be made. I’m frustrated that as a team we didn’t do better.″

Campbell, 45, was associate coach under Mike Keenan of the 1994 Rangers, who won the team’s first Stanley Cup in 54 years. He became head coach when Keenan left after winning the championship and had a regular-season record of 118-108-43 in 3 1/2 seasons.

In each of Campbell’s three full seasons, the Rangers got at least to the second round of the playoffs

Even after firing Campbell, Smith isn’t convinced the Rangers can make the playoffs this year.

``We may still be out, we’ve got a tough hill to climb,″ Smith said.

Smith added, ``This is one last chance for our team to respond to a different voice.″