Rod Gilbert was remembered both emotionally and light-heartedly Tuesday by family, friends and former teammates, the life, career and legacy of the New York Rangers icon celebrated at the Church of St. Monica in Manhattan.
Gilbert, in the view of many the most popular player in Rangers history, died Aug. 19 at age 80.
The 75-minute memorial featured tributes by two of Gilbert’s daughters, Brooke and Holly; Rangers teammates Jean Ratelle, Gilbert’s close friend since their boyhood in Montreal, and John Davidson; former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, who wore No. 7 as a salute to Gilbert; New York sportscaster Bruce Beck; and New York restaurateur Tom O’Neill.
Entertainer Joe Piscopo, a longtime Gilbert friend and emcee of the tribute, performed a personalized version of Frank Sinatra’s legendary anthem “New York, New York,” then in closing sang a duet of Sinatra’s “That’s Life” with New York Police Department Lt. Luigi Moneta.
The service ended with a traditional Catholic prayer service and blessing, conducted by the Rev. Donald C. Baker.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET, also at St. Monica’s, about 3 1/2 miles from Madison Square Garden, where Gilbert became the face of the Rangers and one of the most exciting players in NHL history.
Beck spoke of Gilbert’s “humility, humanity and nobility,” which would be a common theme for speakers throughout the tribute.
“Some of us were teammates, but he made everybody feel like teammates,” said Davidson, the Columbus Blue Jackets president. “I’m sure a lot of you here who have gotten to know Rod over the years know that it didn’t matter if you didn’t play hockey, you became a teammate of his. One of the great things in life is … if you’re a good teammate, it goes a long way.
“The World’s Most Famous Arena was his home, here in the world’s greatest city, New York City. Can you imagine that? Eighteen years old from Montreal, coming down here, and you become a special person in a special place for that long?”
Indeed, Gilbert, a native of Princeville, Quebec, who called Montreal his hometown, played every one of his 1,065 regular-season NHL games for the Rangers from 1961-77, scoring 1,021 points (406 goals, 615 assists). His points and goals remain Rangers records, his assists second only to the 741 of defenseman Brian Leetch.
In 79 Stanley Cup Playoff games, Gilbert scored 67 points (34 goals, 33 assists).
The eight-time NHL all-star, who represented Canada in the historic 1972 Summit Series against a team from the Soviet Union, most famously played right wing on the Rangers’ G-A-G Line (Goal-A-Game), with Ratelle at center and Vic Hadfield at left wing. His No. 7 was the first of now 10 numbers retired by the Rangers, raised to the Garden rafters Oct. 14, 1979.
Overcoming two back-fusion surgeries to become one of the most dazzling players of his generation, Gilbert was awarded the 1975-76 Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey, elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1984, and awarded the 1991 Lester Patrick Trophy for contributions to hockey in the United States.
From his retirement in November 1977 until almost his death, Gilbert worked tirelessly for charities in his adopted home of New York, raising funds for and awareness of myriad causes. Almost impossibly, he was even more popular off the ice than he was on it.
It was Ratelle, a fellow Hockey Hall of Famer who has lost his best friend, who probably sounded the most poignant note of the night.
“Rod Gilbert touched us all with the joy that hockey brought to him and to me from the age of 12 years old,” Ratelle said, briefly charting the path the two would walk and skate together for more than six decades. “When Rod was sick, we spoke every day until he couldn’t speak anymore. He was at peace. In the end, he was ready for the next life. I want to thank you, Rod. I would not be here without you. I love you, my brother. Rest in peace.”
Photos: Hockey Hall of Fame; St. Monica’s: Gini Parent