Old school hockey guys call them “sweaters.” That’s because back in the day, hockey jerseys were made of wool. Often sporting knightly lace-up necks, they were iconic symbols of hockey’s golden era, which for me was the 1960s, in fact, my golden era for all sports. I often refer to my childhood idols of that era as “my guys.” Guys like Tom Seaver, Rusty Staub, Bobby Hull, Jean Beliveau, Russ Jackson and Gump Worsley. Rod Gilbert was one of “my guys.”
Gilbert, who died Aug. 19 in Manhattan, spent his entire 18-year-career with the New York Rangers. He remains to this day the Rangers’ all-time leading goal scorer with 406. He often played with pain, the result of a severe back injury he sustained playing for the Guelph Biltmores of the Ontario Junior A hockey league. The injury required two back operations. Like most players in the NHL at that time, Gilbert was born in Canada, though, unlike many of his compatriots, he was not born in one of the small towns with colorful names like “Moose Jaw” and “Trois Rivieres” (Three Rivers) that dot the vast Dominion. He was born in Montreal.
He liked big cities and when Rangers coach and general manager Emile Francis, fearing big city debauchery, banished most of the Rangers players to suburban Long Island, Gilbert chose to stay in Manhattan, where, perhaps because of his matinee idol looks, he became one of the Big Apple’s most eligible sporting bachelors. He played with elan and owned a lethal shot. He would form one-third of perhaps the Rangers most potent offensive combination, the Gag Line, playing with the smooth fellow French Canadian star Jean Ratelle at center and power forward Vic Hadfield on his left. He remained with the Rangers after his retirement in a variety of roles and he and his wife, Judy, continued to live in Manhattan. Gilbert’s No. 7 was the first Ranger number to be retired.
One Christmas my wife, Charlene, a woman of great forbearance, bought me a “throwback” Rangers No. 7 sweater manufactured by a “nostalgia” company called Mitchell and Ness out of Philadelphia. Yes, it was made of wool, thus passing my stringent, some might say unreasonable requirement. I loved that sweater so much, for a long time I wouldn’t wear it.
I had encountered Gilbert once as we were both coming out of Saturday evening Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church near the Garden. We were both on our way to the Ranger game that night. I didn’t say anything to him. I was perhaps, a little shy, actually seeing one of my hockey heroes from my youth in person.
I finally got up the nerve to wear my No. 7 Gilbert sweater to a Rangers playoff game several months later. Call it a miracle, providential or an amazing coincidence but that night, the first time I ever wore my “Gilbert” in public, who was sitting about four rows in front of me but Rod Gilbert himself. During a stoppage Rod was introduced to the Ranger faithful on the big scoreboard at center ice. I jumped up shouting “Rod! Rod!” When he turned around to acknowledge the applause coming from behind, I turned around to show the big No. 7 on the back of my jersey. He gave me a thumb’s up! The guy sitting next to me said, “you gotta get down there and get his autograph.” But I had neither a pen nor anything for him to autograph. Desperately I thumbed my wallet until I found a card for my next dental appointment. The back of the small business card was blank. Great! I threw caution to the wind literally jumping over three rows of seats to get down there between periods. Overcoming my shyness, I asked Rod if I could have his autograph, forgetting that I didn’t even have a pen. “That’s okay, I have a pen,” said the Ranger idol, casually pulling one from his sports jacket. I don’t remember much else about that game, other than the Rangers lost. But I was one happy beyond middle-aged ‘60s kid going home with an autograph from one of my guys. I was going to get it framed. I pictured it on my bedroom wall. Living in Manhattan myself, I don’t have a “man cave” to decorate, though I’m sure my wife would beg to differ. “The whole freaking apartment is a man cave,” I’m sure she would say. But when I tried to find an 8x10 glossy of Rod Gilbert, I couldn’t find one at any memorabilia shop in town. At least I couldn’t find any that wasn’t autographed and didn’t cost a couple of hundred dollars.
One of my Catholic New York colleagues, Business Manager Matt Schiller, is as sports obsessed as I am. I told him of my difficulty in finding a Gilbert picture. Then I forgot about the discussion. Matt, a huge baseball fan, goes up to Cooperstown every summer for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. When he returned from his pilgrimage later that summer, he pulled out a beautiful 8x10 glossy of Rod Gilbert from a manila envelope and put it on my desk. Cooperstown is lined with baseball memorabilia shops and among all the baseball pictures, he told me, there was one bin with pictures of hockey players. Matt remembered my story. He is a nice guy.
I had the picture and the autograph on my dentist’s business card framed in red with a royal blue mat at a shop on West 57th Street. It hangs on our bedroom wall next to another framed Bruce Springsteen concert poster.
This has been a bad year for “my guys.” A lot of them have passed away, including Tom Seaver, Hammerin’ Hank Aaron and Tony Esposito, to name a few. And now the greatest Ranger of them all, a kind, quality person considered a gentleman and class act by all who met him.
Rest in peace, Rod.