Having spoken to my Dad a lot about the sad passing of New York Rangers legend and Hall Of Famer Rod Gilbert, I’ve definitely gotten a new perspective on how much Number 7 meant to the franchise and the loyal older generation of Blueshirt fans. Seeing the outpouring of support and pleasant memories of what made Gilbert so special to so many have been eye opening.
Of course, I knew of the history because it’s been passed down from my father’s generation to the younger Rangers fans. I have always admired what those Emile “Cat” Francis teams achieved. It wouldn’t have been possible without Gilbert, who also keyed Francis in on the great center of what became the GAG Line, Jean Ratelle. He convinced Francis to sign him. Along with rugged power forward Vic Hadfield, the cohesive trio carried those classic Rangers teams as far as they could.
As MSG paid tribute tonight with four hours of classic images and videos from The Vault, it was special to again watch some games at a newer Garden. Dad attended many games back then. As I mentioned previously, he was there when the ’71-72 team lost the Stanley Cup to the Bruins in six games. The biggest reason they didn’t win was some guy named Bobby Orr. From getting the chance to see most of Game Six, I understood what they were up against. With the game scoreless, Orr took a puck and did a spin a rama before whipping a shot past Gilles Villemure for a 1-0 Boston lead. He’d score another in what became a 3-0 Bruins win to take the series and Cup.
It definitely was strange to see the Cup already out on the ice as the Bruins and Rangers shook hands in hockey’s best tradition. No over the top presentations. Just the handshake and Stanley Cup at center ice. I’ve always liked the sportsmanship shown and respect factor after a hard fought series. That’s what separates hockey from the other sports. Not that there aren’t good moments in the other major sports. But it pales in comparison to hockey and soccer where you also see similar congrats exchanged following a big game.
Seeing those Rangers teams battle the Bruins, Blackhawks and Flyers was interesting. Of course, nobody wore a helmet except the goalies by then. You still had guys finishing their checks and some of the fisticuffs we’ve seen. But there seemed to be more of a respect factor. Maybe due to the players playing without helmets. No real careless stick swinging which we see too much of these days. Or predatory hits that cause serious injuries resulting in suspension. It was a different game played in a golden era when expansion had just come in.
I really enjoyed the clips from MSG’s The Vault that featured Al Trautwig, Stan Fischler and even Gilbert himself providing unique commentary on those games and series. You could tell from one segment, he and former teammates weren’t pleased about Francis trading away Hadfield to the Penguins in ’74. But what I liked is how carefully Gilbert chose his words. The epitome of class. He definitely wished he and GAG line mates Hadfield and Ratelle, who would later be traded in the infamous Phil Esposito deal with Boston, could’ve had one more crack at it.
They were very close to winning in ’72. It was the broken ankle to Ratelle, who wasn’t as effective when he returned for the Finals, and the performance by Orr that prevented that Blueshirts team from winning the Cup. He also noted how close they were to beating the Flyers in the ’74 Semifinal. They lost by a goal in seven. He felt they would’ve beaten the Bruins after having handled them in ’73.
You really could feel those words. It isn’t so much regret as Gilbert was later quoted as saying even though they didn’t win, he didn’t have any regrets. He retired in 1978 and became the first New York Ranger to have their number retired by the franchise in ’79. Of course several former players before his time deserved that same honor and still do. But that’s not the focus of this post. For that, I recommend friend Sean McCaffrey, whose new book, The New York Rangers Rink of Honor and the of Rafters of Madison Square Garden can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com.
I appreciated the video of Gilbert being honored by the Rangers from his jersey retirement ceremony in ’79. The legendary Marv Albert emceed it. Who else would it be? It’s hard to believe his legendary broadcasting career finally came to an end when he called the NBA Eastern Conference Final on TNT. I met Marv once on my first real job when I worked in the city on the Upper West Side over by Columbus Avenue. He was respectful. Of course, I’ve met his son Kenny a few times at games. He’s got a great personality. We all met Gilbert at Rangers functions. I can recall a hot summer day in Greenburgh, NY when they held a meet and greet with fans. It was great. I have a photo with the classy Gilbert from that day. Ditto for Stephane Matteau and Glenn Anderson. It was a fun time.
As hard a loss as this is for so many fans who loved Gilbert due to how he handled himself off the ice as the Team Ambassador, it gives us an opportunity to pay tribute to how special a person he truly was. Even my Mom was upset calling me up late Sunday night to talk about him. I think that goes to show you how largely popular he is. I say is because Rod Gilbert will always be remembered. He’s a legend. Legends Are Forever. Legends Never Die!