Tonight the New York Rangers will retire the number of Hall of Fame center Jean Ratelle. His number 19 will hang in the rafters of Madison Square Garden alongside Ed Giacomin, Mike Richter, Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Adam Graves, Harry Howell, Andy Bathgate, and Ratelle’s lifelong friend Rod Gilbert.
Gilbert spoke to Blueshirt Banter about Ratelle’s number joining his in the rafters at the Rangers 24th annual Skate with the Greats.
“This is pretty emotional for me because Jean Ratelle has played a major role in my life,” Gilbert explained. “I grew up with him. We met when we were 10-years-old in Montreal. We went to the same school, played peewee together, and then we graduated to the juniors, and then we came here.
“Along with Vic Hadfield we became a successful line,” the President of the New York Rangers Alumni Association continued. “I was devastated when he was traded with my other good friend Brad Park. I was sad, disappointed. It almost put an end to my career. But I was happy when he continued to flourish in Boston and had some really great years there.”
Ratelle’s greatest season with the Rangers was cut shot by injury. In 1971-72 the graceful skater put up 109 points in 63 games. The only Ranger who scored more in a single season was Jaromir Jagr in 2005-06. Ratelle almost certainly would have become the first Ranger to score 50 goals in a season, but a broken bone in his ankle paved the way for Hadfield to reach that milestone.
Gilbert is more than just a friend and former teammate of Ratelle; he’s also fan. He was was quick to point out that Ratelle is the third highest scoring Ranger in team history, behind himself and Leetch. Gilbert considers his old friend to be one of the most underrated Rangers of all time. He’s wanted the Rangers to honor Ratelle and his career in New York for decades, but his old friend is a humble man. Gilbert even joked that if not for the influence of Ratelle’s seven grandchildren, this night may have never come.
“[His number] belongs next to all the other greats; Andy Bathgate and Harry Howell,” Gilbert shared. “He never wanted to be honored. He has no ego whatsoever. He didn’t need it for his image, so he always resisted the acknowledgement.”
Ratelle, one of the game’s greatest gentlemen, won the Lady Byng twice during his career. He also brought home the Lester B. Pearson Award (now called the Ted Lindsay Award) in 1972 as the league’s MVP as voted by its players. Ratelle was celebrated for playing a complete, elegant game. In his playing career he embodied a rare and enchanting combination of brilliant skill and unselfish play.
Gilbert warmly describes his old friend as a simple man. Even for the 1960s and 1970s Ratelle was something of a throwback; he refused to use a curved blade. He chose to play with a flat blade because he felt that it made him a better passer. In many ways that anecdote describes what Ratelle was all about as a hockey player. He did things his own way; he played with class and respect and as a result he earned the admiration of both his teammates and opponents.
New York has known its fair share of stars, icons, and characters since 1926. But there will only ever be one Gentleman Jean Ratelle.