“Rod Gilbert wasn’t just my best friend in hockey,” Ratelle said Sunday. “He was my best friend, period.”
It had been a week since the New York Rangers announced Aug. 22 that Gilbert, the legend known as Mr. Ranger, had died at age 80. On Sunday, having just appeared at a collectibles show in Wilmington, Massachusetts, Ratelle was on the road back to his home in Cape Cod. Himself a Rangers icon, Ratelle would think a great deal about his late friend during the 80-mile drive, their bond unshakable for nearly seven decades.
“This man was bigger than life,” he said of Gilbert, who was nine months younger than Ratelle. “There’s no way that you can imagine how close we were. Rod did so many great things in New York, he was involved in so much. He enjoyed every second of it too. It was to his credit that he was good to everyone.”
Their bond was formed as teens in the mid-1950s at a Catholic school in the east end of Montreal, and strengthened on the local rink where Ratelle and Gilbert dominated organized games and endless hours of pick-up hockey.
They were teammates for Roussin Academy in a bantam tournament at the Montreal Forum, the first of many games they would play in the Montreal Canadiens’ home arena.
Rod Gilbert (right) and Jean Ratelle chase Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Rick Ley behind goalie Bruce Gamble.
“I think we lost because Rod had the flu and didn’t play very much,” Ratelle said with a soft laugh. “But what a thrill it was to play in the Forum.”
Together they would play three seasons of junior hockey, the last two for future Rangers coach Emile Francis, each steered to Guelph, Ontario by Yvon Prud’homme, a Junior B coach and Rangers scout in Montreal who saw their potential.
They each made their NHL debut with the Rangers during the 1960-61 season, and starting in 1962-63, they would spend most of 14 seasons on Broadway as linemates, Ratelle at center, Gilbert on his right wing.
That ended Nov. 7, 1975, a trade sending Ratelle and defensemen Brad Park and Joe Zanussi to the Boston Bruins for forward Phil Esposito and defenseman Carol Vadnais.
Shockwaves still were being felt in New York, the Rangers a week earlier having waived hugely popular goalie Ed Giacomin, when Ratelle was awakened by a call in the Oakland hotel room that he shared with Gilbert, his roommate on the road.
Jean Ratelle plants himself in front of Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Johnny Bower, covered by defensemen Tim Horton (right) and Allan Stanley.
“It was Ron Stewart, our coach, telling me to come down to his room,” Ratelle recalled. “It’s 7 o’clock in the morning. Rod and I thought someone was playing a trick on me. But I went to Ron’s room and Brad was there. We were put on the phone to Emile back in New York at 10 o’clock, who told us we’d been traded.
“I was shocked, but I was 35 and the Rangers were trying to get younger. Hockey is a business. I went back up to our room and told Rod, and he wasn’t very happy. We’d been friends and teammates for 20 years, and now we were opponents.”
They had worn the same school sweater, that of a junior team, minor-pro teams in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, and Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, the Rangers, and the red and white of their country, having played for Canada in the historic 1972 Summit Series against an all-star team from the Soviet Union.
But their friendship easily weathered this NHL separation, their bond enduring until the very end. Gilbert played all 1,065 of his games for New York from 1960-77. Ratelle played 1,280 games from 1961-81, 861 for the Rangers, 419 for the Bruins.
They would be reunited in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Gilbert’s 1982 induction preceding Ratelle’s by three years simply because Ratelle played three seasons beyond Gilbert’s retirement.
Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 2, 2018, for the ceremony to retire Hadfield’s No. 11, uniting the Rangers’ GAG Line in the arena rafters.
“I congratulated Rod when he was elected to the Hall and hoped that sooner or later I might make it too,” Ratelle said.
A member of the Bruins family for 26 years as a player, assistant coach and scout, Ratelle’s Boston address did nothing to weaken a friendship with Gilbert that had been drawn even tighter from the late 1960s into the 1970s when Francis put Vic Hadfield on their left side to form the Rangers’ potent “GAG (Goal-A-Game) Line,” nicknamed for its ability to score at least one goal per game.
In retirement, Gilbert would call on Ratelle to make Rangers alumni appearances, and most every time he was turned down, with regret.
“I’d tell Rod, ‘I’d love to do it, but I’m in the Bruins family now,'” Ratelle said. “But I’d retired from the Bruins when the NHL asked me in 2017 which sweater I should wear for their Centennial event in Los Angeles. I’d played for the Rangers for 14 years, so I told them I should wear that sweater.”
Vic Hadfield, Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert on the New York Rangers bench.
A year later, on Feb. 25, 2018, the Rangers would retire Ratelle’s No. 19 at Madison Square Garden, the ninth number so honored by the team. It joined Gilbert’s No. 7, in 1979 the first Rangers number to be retired, the GAG Line reunited nine months after the Ratelle ceremony with Hadfield’s No. 11 raised to the arena rafters.
Gilbert introduced Ratelle on Garden ice, celebrating a friendship that took hold during their youth in Montreal, two French-Canadian players somehow eluding the NHL grasp of the Canadiens.
“We used to play, ‘Keep the Puck,’ and Jean was the absolute best at it,” Gilbert said of the game they played on the school rink.
Ratelle still gets goosebumps when he recalls that night at the Garden.
“That was really, really fantastic,” he said of his ceremony. “It’s very hard to explain the emotions, to be introduced by Rod. You’re there with your friends, guys you’ve played with so long. It was a very nice gesture. I just can’t put it into words.”
Center Jean Ratelle races up ice with Rod Gilbert, his lifelong friend.
The two men last spoke in the days before Gilbert’s death, the latter’s health growing more fragile.
“Rod was very positive all along,” Ratelle said. “It was incredible. Sometimes you didn’t even think he was sick, he was so positive.
“Everyone I’ve ever heard has always said that Rod was a great guy, always signing autographs, always posing for pictures, appearing everywhere for charities, always smiling and laughing. The Rangers were great for him but he was also great for the organization. He was a wonderful ambassador for the team.
“Fans are going to really miss Rod because he did a lot of good things for New York. I’m going to miss not just a friend. I’m going to miss a brother.”
Photos: Hockey Hall of Fame; Getty Images