On Friday, hockey lost a legend. Andy Bathgate passed away at the age of 83. A former Ranger who spent 12 seasons on Broadway starring on teams in the 1950’s and early 60’s at the original Madison Square Garden, Bathgate was the Rangers’ best player during an era where the team only made the playoffs four times. The original number 9 whose number was retired in a long overdue ceremony with Harry Howell (No. 3) in February 2009, is the franchise’s fourth all-time leading scorer registering a then franchise record 272 goals with 457 assists for 729 points in 719 games.
His NHL career began in ’52-53. After totaling five points in parts of two seasons (38 games), he became a regular in ’54-55 tallying 20 goals and 20 assists with 37 penalty minutes in 70 games by age 22. Bathgate would go to become one of the league’s best players. Appearing in eight straight All-Star Games, he achieved elite status during ’58-59 when a career high 40 goals with 48 assists for 88 points were third best in the league behind Art Ross winner Dickie Moore and Jean Beliveau, who both starred for Stanley Cup champion Montreal. Despite missing the postseason, Bathgate won the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
It was also a Bathgate slap shot changed hockey history forever. As payback for being poke checked and cut by Jacques Plante, he got his revenge on Nov. 1, 1959. Having already injured two goalies with his famed slap shot, a Bathgate fired a backhand into Plante’s face that cut him. After the first period, he returned wearing a mask. It became the first goalie mask in NHL history.
“When he came out with the mask on, we were surprised that he’d gone that far,” Bathgate remembered in an article that appeared on NHL.com in ’09 honoring the 50-year anniversary. “He was very innovative when it came to goaltending, so it wasn’t surprising he’d be the one to try it. We had heard he had one, but we were surprised it covered his whole face.”
“When we played, we had to take things into our own hands in some situations. You couldn’t run a goalie because his whole team would come after you. But I thought Jacques had tried to injure me, very deliberately and not necessary. I was fortunate not to break my neck and I was very upset with what he did.”
“He cut my ear and my face. He could have broken my neck,” Bathgate said. “Next shift, I went down the left wing and I was trying to score around the net. I used the backhand and gave him a ‘little bowtie’ on the face.
After reaching the postseason between in three consecutive years spanning ’56-58, the Blueshirts only made it once more with Bathgate in ’62. They missed the playoffs five of his last six seasons as a Broadway Blue. During the ’63-64 season with Bathgate having another outstanding campaign with 59 points including 43 helpers in 56 contests, the Rangers traded him to the Maple Leafs with Don McKenney for five players including Rod Seiling, Bob Nevin, Dick Duff, Bill Collins and Arnie Brown.
A blockbuster trade that broke my Dad’s heart. Like many baby boomers who bled the Blueshirts, he would sneak into the old MSG and catch his favorite player. Bathgate joined Toronto and helped them win a third consecutive Stanley Cup. After tallying three goals and 15 assists in 15 games, he added five goals and four helpers with 25 penalty minutes to become a Stanley Cup champion.
Bathgate spent one more season with the Leafs posting 16 goals and 29 assists in 55 games while scoring once in six postseason games. He was dealt to the Red Wings and spent the next two years in Detroit. During league expansion in 1967, the Penguins selected him in the expansion draft. At age 35 in the Pens’ inaugural season, his 20 goals and 39 assists for 59 points along with 55 PIM paced them.
Following two years away playing for the Canucks back in the WHL, he returned for a final NHL season in ’70-71. In 76 contests with the Pens, Bathgate had 15 goals and 29 assists with his 44 points ranking third in team scoring. Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978, he totaled 349 goals and 624 assists finishing with 973 points and 624 penalty minutes in 1,069 career games.
For a long time, Bathgate and Howell weren’t recognized by the Rangers for their Hall of Fame careers. Eventually, the Original Six franchise honored both in a wonderful pregame ceremony seven years ago. To be there with my father, brother and best friend up in the old blue seats in Section 411 was really special.
It meant everything to Dad, who always felt Bathgate was the best Ranger he saw. Interestingly, he had the chance to speak to all-time franchise leading scorer Rod Gilbert who went on to a brilliant Hall of Fame career starring on some very good Blueshirts teams that challenged for the Stanley Cup. Playing on the GAG Line (Goal A Game), Gilbert produced a Rangers’ record 406 goals with 615 assists totaling 1,021 points in 1,065 games all spent on Broadway.
The elegant number 7 whose number also hangs at The Garden admitted to my father that Bathgate was a player he looked up to. Gilbert came up just as Bathgate was on the way out. What if they had kept him? Who knows.
It was ’94 Stanley Cup hero Adam Graves, who also had his No. 9 retired who introduced him as “the greatest player to ever wear No. 9 for the New York Rangers,” during the jersey retirement. Bathgate leaves behind wife Merle, son Bill, daughter Sandee and six grandchildren.