For Mr. Ranger, whose death at age 80 was announced by the team Sunday, his first thunderous brush with Detroit Red Wings icon Gordie Howe forever was magical.
“My second game in the NHL, 1961-62 at the Detroit Olympia,” Gilbert recalled at an NHL Alumni gala a few years ago. “I’d heard the legend of Gordie’s elbows, but I’m not even a rookie. He doesn’t have a beef with me, right?
Rod Gilbert in an early 1960s New York Rangers portrait, and with the team during his 1970s prime.
“Never saw Gordie, or his elbow. I’m waking up on the ice to ammonia and smelling salts, seeing the lights in the ceiling, and as I’m being helped off, the linesman skates by and almost whispers to me, ‘It was No. 9 …’
“I figure, ‘OK, I’ll pick my spot and get my revenge.’ We played in the League together for nine years, but it just never happened.”
More than four decades later, Gilbert and Howe were at a banquet at the 2004 NHL All-Star Game, at different tables, and Gilbert was regaling fellow diners with the story.
“What I want,” he told his audience, “is to live long enough to visit Gordie in his retirement home, come up behind him in his wheelchair, dump him on the floor, walk away, and have one of the nurses lean down to him and say, ‘It was No. 7 …'”
New York Rangers famous line of Rod Gilbert (left), Jean Ratelle (center) and Vic Hadfield at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 2, 2018, for Hadfield’s jersey retirement.
Laughs all around until the following morning, when Mr. Hockey saw Mr. Ranger at breakfast and wandered over wearing a look of purpose.
“Did I ever get you, Rod?” he said.
“Gordie, who did you not get? You got everyone,” Gilbert replied.
“Are we OK?”
Gilbert, now squirming a bit: “Sure we are. Why do you ask?”
“I just wonder why you’d want to dump me out of my wheelchair in a nursing home. Do you still intend to get me back?”
“Not yet,” he replied, two old friends laughing.
A young Rod Gilbert chases Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Al Arbour behind the net at Madison Square Garden in the mid-1960s.
This was one in an encyclopedia of stories that Gilbert had filed away from his remarkable career with the Rangers, the team that for 18 Hall of Fame-bound seasons was his only NHL address.
The only other jersey he wore professionally was that of Canada, for whom he played in the historic eight-game 1972 Summit Series against an all-star team of Russia players.
From his native Montreal, Gilbert would find his way to fame and fortune in New York via the Rangers’ junior system in Guelph, Ontario, he and fellow future New York legend Jean Ratelle developed by coach Emile Francis. There has been no one in team history who better embodied what it was to be a Ranger than Gilbert, no one who loved the franchise quite as much.
It was a triumph that he could lace his skates, much less play 1,065 games and set team records for goals (406) and points (1,065), all of which stand 44 years since his final game, on Nov. 23, 1977.
Rod Gilbert in pursuit of Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Bobby Baun during a 1970s game.
Twice Gilbert confounded doctors by returning to play following major back surgeries.
“I’m lucky Gordie didn’t dump me out of my wheelchair,” Gilbert joked.
The first in 1961, during Gilbert’s junior career, required spinal fusion to repair an injury sustained when he stepped on debris thrown onto the ice. The operation was performed only after he’d been in traction for 10 days for what was believed to be a pulled muscle.
The fusion didn’t go according to plan, and an infection in his left leg left him hospitalized for two months. But Gilbert recovered and from 1962-65 he played three consecutive 70-game seasons for the Rangers, scoring 11, 24 and 25 goals.
Rod Gilbert with the New York Rangers in the 1970s, and with Team Canada for the 1972 Summit Series.
He re-injured his back in the fall of 1965 while pulling a boat out of the water. A second spinal fusion was done after Gilbert no longer could play, having skated 34 games that 1965-66 season wearing a steel-ribbed back brace.
There were complications from the second surgery too, during which a bone from his pelvis was used to fuse three vertebrae. Infection set in and he nearly died when he lapsed into unconsciousness for several minutes, choking on medication that had lodged in his throat.
Not only did Gilbert return from that, he showed tremendous durability, scoring 25 or more goals in 10 of his next 11 seasons, with a career high of 43 in 1971-72.
In retirement, Gilbert championed myriad worthy causes and waded into the spotlight of New York, his thousand-watt personality a Manhattan beacon. He admitted that it was a bit selfish, the embrace of his city and Rangers fans as important to him as was his ability to raise funds and awareness for charities.
Rod Gilbert camps in front of Toronto goalie Jacques Plante during an early 1970s game.
Indeed, the Rangers were his lifeblood. Gilbert adored his teammates, especially Goal-A-Game (G-A-G) linemates Ratelle and Vic Hadfield. Reached on Sunday night, Hadfield was shattered, unable to speak about his late friend.
Gilbert, whose No. 7 became the first jersey retired by the Rangers in 1979, was bursting with pride when Ratelle’s No. 19 and Hadfield’s No. 11 joined him 10 months apart in 2018. It was on Madison Square Garden ice, during Ratelle’s ceremony, that Gilbert announced that Hadfield’s would join them the following season, the rugged winger reduced to tears.
At every turn, Gilbert promoted the Rangers brand and history as a team ambassador, community relations representative, the locomotive for the Garden of Dreams Foundation and the Rangers’ director of special projects.
The coronavirus pandemic, he said 16 months ago, shoved a stick in the spokes of a free-wheeling man who genuinely loved people.
Rod Gilbert’s charity endeavors involved work with Ronald McDonald House. Here, in 2019, with two children for the 25th Annual Skate With The Greats at The Rink at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
“For a social guy like me, distancing has been pretty tough,” Gilbert said, his mingling with fans reduced to Zoom chats and phone calls with season-ticket holders. “I love to yak and shake hands and hug and tell the fans how much I appreciate them. Not being able to do this is a little depressing, to tell you the truth. I love to socialize with fans. They’re my family, actually.”
A month into the pandemic, Gilbert expressed his awe for the work being done by New York’s front-line workers by saluting them from the 33rd-floor Upper East Side apartment he shared with his wife, Judy.
Every night at 7 p.m., beginning in April 2020 and continuing for some months, he would go out onto his balcony with a wooden stick. And then for a few moments he would bang his Sher-Wood on the metal railing, tapping out his thanks to New York’s health-care professionals and countless others who were working at great personal risk to protect and serve the population.
Gilbert would have hollered his appreciation to accompany the percussion of his stick, but it probably wouldn’t have been heard over Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” that he had blaring in the background.
Rod Gilbert and his wife, Judy, attend the National Meningitis Association’s Give Kids A Shot gala at the New York Athletic Club on April 28, 2014, in New York City.
He had long ago found his place, happiest in the public eye, delighted to dig into his encyclopedia of stories, always finding something for the occasion. The word “no” wasn’t in his vocabulary, and everyone who wanted to bask in his glow knew it.
In Gilbert’s youth he worshipped Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau, one of the greatest ambassadors hockey ever has known. It was from that cloth that Gilbert would cut his own fine suits.
“I feel like I’m a bit of a statesman now, a little like Jean was,” Gilbert reflected a few years ago.
“Every morning I open my eyes and say that life is for the living. You’re going to go out there and not get upset or create turmoil. Be peaceful and don’t allow anyone to break that. Be happy with your production and be of service to people.”
Photos: Hockey Hall of Fame / Getty Images