A younger fan reached out on Facebook the other day and asked me who the best New York Ranger of all time was. This is not a simple answer given the almost 100 years the Blueshirts have been in the NHL, a lot of people immediately point to the newer guard. Whether that be Brian Leetch or Mark Messier, people assume it will be a player from that 1994 Stanley Cup-winning roster.
While I think we can all admire the greatness of those players, I’d like to take you back to the 1960s and 70s to introduce you to someone who is seemingly unknown by the newer generation of Rangers faithful, Rod Gilbert. His sad passing 2 years ago today after losing his fight with cancer may still be in the mind of older fans that remember watching the Quebecois winger back when he was dominating the NHL.
Before we even get to his Rangers career, we need to go back to his time in the OHA. Playing with the Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters, Gilbert ended up skating through some garbage on the ice that made him trip and collide awkwardly with the boards. It broke a vertebrae in his back and it left him with temporary paralysis. One of the greatest careers in NHL history almost never happened.
As he went under the knife to try and fix the damage to his spine, things went wrong as he was starting to hemorrhage in his leg. It seemed that the hockey gods would not allow him to fulfill his NHL dream, and it may have even cost him his quality of life as doctors had to consider amputation for the issues. Thankfully, Gilbert did not need the drastic correction and was able to get back to the ice.
Gilbert came to the Rangers in 1960, 3 years before the introduction of the NHL Entry Draft. He wanted to come to this great city and become an icon for this organization. But it almost didn’t get the chance to become anything more than a token gesture as Gilbert would need another spinal operation in his fifth year in the league, and his back would continue to plague him throughout his illustrious career.
Despite all the health issues, Mr. Ranger would go on to play 1065 games for the Blueshirts, scoring 406 goals and 615 assists for 1021 points. His line with Vic Hadfield and Jean Ratelle was known called the goal-a-game line for its frequent production and how dominant it was when they were on the ice. It’s no coincidence that these three are considered among the best of the best to ever grace Madison Square Garden’s ice.
To this day, Gilbert’s totals in goals and points remain the all-time franchise record. His assist total is second with only the excellent Brian Leetch able to surpass the iconic Ranger’s totals. It is a sad day every year when we must mourn the loss of such a franchise icon. He was the face of the Blueshirts and if you’ve been to a game at Madison Square Garden, his number 7 hangs above the ice proudly.
Gilbert was rightfully selected for the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1982 after hanging up the skates at the end of the 1977-78 season due to a contract dispute with John Ferguson. A franchise icon and someone that was one of the faces of the league before the 1967 expansion, Gilbert is bigger than so many of the players that have graced the ice at MSG. There have been a ton of players for the Blueshirts over the years, but none like Gilbert.
At the conclusion of his playing career, Gilbert opened a restaurant on Third Avenue. He would do some work on Wall Street, but hockey and the Rangers had a special place in his heart. He would re-join the organization in 1989 becoming part of the community representation core at MSG and helping with some of the stuff behind the scenes. Later, he would become President of the Rangers Alumni Association.
Hockey and the New York Rangers became part of Rod Gilbert, and the two were almost interchangeable. He joined the Garden of Dreams Foundation making appearances for kids in the area and was trying to give back to the community that had given him so much. He had accomplished so much on and off the ice and impacted a franchise, a league, and the biggest city in the world more than he could have hoped as a kid in Guelph.
He won the Bill Masterton trophy in 1976 for his perseverance with his back issues. Gilbert captured the Lester Patrick Award in 1991 which is awarded to someone who has made an impact on hockey in America. He was a great player, but to show you the kind of man Rod Gilbert was, he won the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 2010 because of what he had done off the ice. On top of all of that, his number 7 was the first ever lifted to the rafters by the Rangers.
A great man and a great player we are each tasked with mourning every year. A life that was cut way too short due to the foul disease that is cancer. Make no mistake, the City of New York is better for having been lucky enough to welcome someone like Rod Gilbert. Beyond his loyalty and competitive edge, there was a heart that would have done anything for this city. May he rest well.