Given that the New York Rangers legend spent most of the summer flat on his back in bed, even gentle movement causing him searing pain, that was a significant achievement.
Hadfield lay 12 hours on an operating table in an Oakville, Ontario hospital in May, having four abdominal aortic aneurysms surgically removed. Slowly recovering, he spent through August mostly in bed, getting up only a little to exercise his legs, which grew dramatically weak from lack of use.
It was for that reason that Hadfield was unable to attend a Sept. 7 memorial service and Sept. 8 funeral in New York for his dear friend and linemate, Rod Gilbert, the Rangers icon who died at age 80 on Aug. 19.
“I was in so much pain I didn’t even know where I was,” Hadfield said Monday from Oakville, having dropped into his Vic Hadfield Golf and Learning Centre for a short visit. “It really bothered me that I couldn’t say goodbye to Rod. We vacationed together as families, played in golf tournaments and did charity functions.
“I talked to him every day while he was sick but it was still a shock when his death was announced. I couldn’t sleep for three days when I got the news … I couldn’t function. We were very tight. We’d known each other over 60 years.”
New York Rangers legendary G-A-G Line of Rod Gilbert (left), Jean Ratelle (center) and Vic Hadfield at Hadfield’s Dec. 2, 2018 number retirement at Madison Square Garden.
With Gilbert at right wing and Jean Ratelle at center, Hadfield was the muscle on the Rangers’ G-A-G (Goal-A-Game) Line of the 1960s into the 1970s. The three skaters are united in the Madison Square Garden rafters. Gilbert’s No. 7 was retired Oct. 14, 1979, the first of 10 Rangers numbers so honored. Ratelle was the ninth, on Feb. 25, 2018, and Hadfield’s No. 11 was pulled aloft Dec. 2, 2018.
Next to be celebrated will be goalie Henrik Lundqvist, his No. 30 to be retired Jan. 28, 2022.
“I’ve always known what Hank has meant to the club,” Hadfield said of Lundqvist. “He popped in when they hung my sweater, we had a bit of a chat that night. He was an outstanding individual for the Rangers and he does excellent work with his foundation.”
Health permitting, Hadfield hopes to be in New York for the goalie’s ceremony.
Hadfield played 841 games during 13 seasons with the Rangers, from 1961-74, scoring 572 points (262 goals, 310 assists) with 1,041 penalty minutes, and captain of the team from 1971 through his trade to the Pittsburgh Penguins on May 27, 1974. He was the first Rangers player to score 50 goals in a season, in 1971-72, and remains the only player in franchise history with at least 200 goals and 1,000 penalty minutes.
The G-A-G Line, assembled in the 1960s by coach Emile Francis, was the first in NHL history to have each of the three players score at least 40 goals in the same season: Hadfield’s 50, Ratelle’s 46 and Gilbert’s 43 in 1971-72.
Vic Hadfield as New York Rangers captain in the early 1970s.
On Sunday, Hadfield phoned Ratelle on the latter’s 81st birthday.
“I always remind Jean that he’s older than me. Just a day, but he’s older,” Hadfield said with a laugh, his legendary sense of humor still intact.
Hadfield was pleased to have the opportunity to chat with Ratelle; the silky center practically is a blood brother, as was Gilbert to them both.
A routine blood test in late April was fine, Hadfield said, but a follow-up ultrasound his doctor requisitioned revealed four abdominal aneurysms. They were within fractions of a centimeter of being very dangerous, even potentially lethal.
“A little bit larger and I could be belly-up,” he said. “We had a little bit of time but I said, ‘Why wait? Let’s do it now.’ My surgeon said it’s the longest operation he’s ever done. I was on the table for 12 hours. It kicked the [stuffing] out of me. I was in the hospital before the surgery and at one point I said, ‘I’ve had enough, pull the plug.’ I couldn’t take it anymore. They strapped me down so I wouldn’t move.”
Hadfield said he’s lost 20 pounds in recovery, though he could think of easier ways to lose weight. He hasn’t been on a scale but said his daughter-in-law had to buy him a smaller pair of pajamas.
Out of bed as his health slowly improved, a rainy, hot summer made it difficult to get out even for a walk around the block.
Vic Hadfield with his 1968 Rangers O-Pee-Chee card outside Madison Square Garden before his Dec. 2, 2018 number retirement.
“It’s been about two weeks that I’ve been using a walker and cane, the last week just a cane to steady myself,” Hadfield said. “I’ve come up to the office the past week for about an hour, sign checks and look at the files. I’m not lifting anything and working to get strength back in my legs. Last Monday I went for another test to make sure everything was OK. I’m awaiting results on that.”
Hadfield had no wild plans to celebrate his 81st birthday Monday but rather a very early night in bed, stretching out eliminating any pulling in his abdomen. He expects to be put on a rehab program soon, one that will involve walking and maybe some swimming.
“Am I a good swimmer? I will be,” Hadfield said with a chuckle. “My best stroke is a glass of wine. The Olympics are coming up (2024 in Paris), so I should be ready for that.”
Then, with a laugh:
“But I don’t have a swimsuit. Will that be a problem?”
Photos: Hockey Hall of Fame; Getty Images; Doug Ball