One look at Rod Gilbert and you see all what it means to be a legendary athlete in New York. He had the dashing good looks, the swagger in which he carried himself and the poise and humility to handle all that is the Big Apple.
He may have been born on July 1, 1941 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, but he is all New York and most certainly a legend in the hearts and minds of not only Rangers fans but fans of all New York sports.
Gilbert was an amateur scoring star with the OHA’s Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters, and was part of a Memorial Cup triumph in 1959-60. In 1960-61, when the team was renamed the Royals; Gilbert led the OHA with 54 goals and 103 points.
He came close to winning consecutive scoring titles but lost the scoring crown to Chico Maki on the last day of the 1959-60 schedule. As luck would have it, Gilbert had just received word that he was an emergency call-up to the Rangers when disaster struck.
In the last junior game of the year, he skated over some debris thrown on the ice that caused him to fall awkwardly into the boards. The impact resulted in a broken fifth vertebra in his back. To repair the damage, doctors removed bone from his left leg and used it to bind the fourth, fifth and sixth vertebrae together. It would be an injury that would hound him his whole career.
He eventually made his debut with the Rangers on November 27, 1960 vs the Chicago Blackhawks and gained his first NHL point with an assist on a goal by Dean Prentice. The following season he played for the Kitchener Waterloo Beavers of the OHA EPHL and again would receive a one game call up to the Blueshirts. He would also be called up back to the team in an emergency during the playoffs; appearing in 4 games and registering 5 points (2goals – 3 assists).
Finally in the fall of 1962, he became a permanent fixture on the Rangers; earning a roster spot out of training camp. He would go on to play 70 games his official rookie season, notching 11 goals and 20 assists.
LIGHTING UP BROADWAY
Over the next few seasons, Gilbert put up some modest numbers. He followed up his rookie season with point totals of 64 and 61 points respectively. Unfortunately, his chronic back issues raised their ugly head again and Gilbert missed about half of the 1965-66 season. Even with special equipment made for him to try to ease the pain in his back, Gilbert was unable to perform and he was shut down and had a second surgery. There was concern throughout the Rangers organization that they had seen the last of Gilbert.
However, he came back and contributed to the Rangers offense by potting 28 goals and 18 assists for 46 points in 64 games. The Rangers brass sighed with relief. Gilbert’s production rose the following to seasons as he scored a career high (at that time) of 29 goals in 1967-68 and points 77 (1967-68, 1968-69). His efforts propelled the Rangers into the playoffs for the first time in 5 years.
In the 1970-71 season, Gilbert was united with Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield and his career – and theirs – took off. The line was called the GAG line (Goal-a-Game) and their dominance throughout the league over the next several seasons was felt.
The three of them had such different styles but meshed so well they were almost unstoppable. Gilbert had the speed and finesse, Ratelle was the classic play making center that could delay and delay; drawing his opponents in only to dish off to Hadfield; who possessed the strength and brute force necessary to thrive in the NHL. It was sheer artistry on ice.
Hadfield would go on to notch the only 50 goal season in Rangers history (until Adam Graves in 1993-94, then Jaromir Jagr in 2005-06), Gilbert would hit career highs in goals (43), assists (54) and points (97) in 1971-72. it wasn’t a coincidence then that the Rangers as a team also took off and became one of the more consistent playoff bound teams in the league.
They reached the Final in the 1971-72 season and squared off against the Boston Bruins led by 2 other legends named Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. Gilbert averaged nearly a point a game in the playoffs (16 games / 15 points) but it was not enough as the boys from Beantown took home The Cup.
Gilbert played in the Summit Series against the Russians in 1972 and that was a source of national pride of the Canadian native. It was a career highlight for him to represent his country in such a way. In addition, the new WHA had made several attempts to lure him to play in the fledgling league but he declined citing a sense of loyalty to a Rangers organization that stood by him when he had issues with his back and had treated him very well.
Over the next several seasons, both Gilbert and the Rangers would make a run at the Cup but it was never enough. Gilbert matched his career high of 97 points in the 1974-75 season but the Rangers didn’t have enough in the tank for any type of playoff run. As it turned out, it would be the last playoff run for Gilbert.
During the course of the 1975-76 season, Gilbert would go on to record his 300th career goal. In the 1976-77 season he would also record his 400th career goal and 1000th career point thereby becoming the only Ranger to do so. He would also be awarded the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance after the 1975-76 season.
RETIREMENT AND AFTER
While Gilbert posted solid numbers of 86 points (1975-76) and 75 points (1976-77), it was painfully obvious that the Rangers were no longer a serious Cup contender. The team had a window of opportunity to win the Cup and that window had slammed shut. Key veteran’s had gotten old and youngsters that were being counted on to step up hadn’t done so.
Following a bitter and at times nasty contract dispute with new GM John Ferguson, Gilbert reported for the 1977-78 season. However, it was quick to see that maybe Ferguson had been right to have hesitations on re-signing the veteran winger. Gilbert was not the same player he had once been and even he was aware of it. After 19 games and 9 points, Gilbert decided to call it a career. He would play his last game on November 23, 1977 vs the Colorado Rockies. In a career that spanned 1065 games, Gilbert tallied 406 goals and 615 assists for 1021 points, all Rangers records. In the playoffs he posted 67 points on 34 goals and 33 assists in 79 games.
Gilbert’s Number 7 was the very first number retired in the long history of the Blueshirts, when the Rangers bestowed this honor on October 14, 1979. Since he retired, Gilbert has remained a fixture of the Rangers organization throughout he myriad of organizational changes. He tirelessly gives of himself to many charitable organizations and is always there for The Garden of Dreams foundation.
Recently, when the talk was all about Derek Jeter and his retiring and how he has carried himself with dignity and poise over a career that spanned almost 20 years all in NY, it dawned on me this wasn’t new.
Before Derek Jeter, there was the Rangers’ Rod Gilbert. He lived and loved the lifestyle that comes with playing in NY and embraced it. He truly is not only a Rangers and NHL legend but a true NY sports icon.