Rangers greats reunite to honor a traded legend

NEW YORK — Jean Ratelle last played for the New York Rangers in 1975, but his smooth-skating style and gentlemanly demeanor have never been far from the consciousness of the team’s fans.

Each had a chance at 50 goals in 1971-72 before Ratelle broke an ankle late in the season.

The linemates will reunite at Madison Square Garden on Sunday as Ratelle’s No. 19 joins the numbers of other franchise luminaries in the rafters before the Rangers’ game against the Detroit Red Wings.

“Glen called me and said, ‘Jean, we’d like to retire your sweater,'” said Ratelle, referring to the Rangers’ president, Glen Sather, who also was his teammate in New York. “I said, ‘Glen, it would be a great honor.'”

Ratelle, 77, played parts of 16 seasons for the Rangers before a stunning trade on Nov. 7, 1975, when he and defensemen Brad Park and Joe Zanussi were sent to the Boston Bruins for Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais.

The trade came a week after the Rangers had waived popular goaltender Eddie Giacomin, who returned two days later in goal for the Red Wings when Ratelle played his last home game as a Ranger.

The seismic roster shift sent shock waves through the fan base. The Ratelle trade was even on the front page of The New York Times. (By coincidence, the Rangers, who have said they are planning to rebuild, will be honoring Ratelle the day before the trading deadline.)

Ratelle, 35 at the time, went on to play six seasons with the Bruins, for whom he wore No. 10. His time in Boston included trips to the Stanley Cup finals in 1977 and 1978 before he retired at 40 in 1981. Ratelle finished his career with 491 goals and continued to work for the Bruins for another two decades, first as an assistant coach, then as a scout. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1985.

“I felt loyalty to the Bruins,” he said. “I was with them for 26 years.”

Ratelle developed a bond with Jeff Gorton, the Rangers’ general manager, who spent 15 years in the Bruins’ front office before joining the Rangers in 2007.

“I used to go to high school and college games with him,” Gorton said. “I remember those times. You look at his numbers, everything he’s accomplished, and you look up to the rafters knowing Jean Ratelle belongs there.”

Ratelle will be the ninth Rangers player to have his number honored, joining Giacomin (1), Gilbert (7), Harry Howell (3), Andy Bathgate (9), Mark Messier (11), Mike Richter (35), Brian Leetch (2) and Adam Graves, whose No. 9 hangs next to Bathgate’s.

“It’s just the right time,” Ratelle said.

He will be joined on Sunday by his wife, Nancy, their three daughters and their families.

“My wife and I were watching a Rangers game last winter, and they were talking about the players with their sweaters retired,” said Ratelle, whose No. 19 was worn most recently by Jesper Fast until he switched to No. 17 this season. “She said, ‘The Rangers should really retire your sweater because you had a great career in New York.’ ‘OK,’ I said. ‘If Glen calls me, I will say yes.’ A month later, he called.”

Ratelle will be on the ice with other former teammates, including Park, Giacomin, goaltender Gilles Villemure and forward Pete Stemkowski.

“Jean didn’t say much,” said Stemkowski, who played seven seasons with the Rangers. “He wasn’t a rah-rah guy, and I don’t think I ever heard him swear. He just worked hard at his craft.”

Also expected to partake in the festivities will be Ratelle’s longtime coach and general manager, Emile Francis. He first coached Ratelle when he was a teenager playing for the Rangers’ junior team in Guelph, Ontario.

“I couldn’t be happier for Jean,” said Francis, 91, who lives in Florida and remains close with his players from the GAG line era. “No doubt about it, he was one of the best players who ever played for me.”

That group is synonymous with a glorious but unfulfilled Rangers era. The chance to stand together again on Garden ice is special.

Hadfield, who became the first Ranger to score 50 goals in a season, on the last day of the 1971-72 season, was more enforcer than goal scorer throughout the 1960s, when the Rangers failed to win a single playoff series. Hadfield, who was born one day after Ratelle in October 1940, joined the Rangers in 1961-62 and stayed through the 1973-74 season, after which he was traded to Pittsburgh.

Hadfield said what made Rangers teams of that era unique was the players’ closeness, exemplified by the mild-mannered yet intense Ratelle, whose 109 points in 1971-72 are second-most in franchise history (behind Jaromir Jagr’s 123 in 2005-06).

“Jean was not only an excellent hockey player, but he was an excellent individual,” Hadfield said. “As a team, we all hung out together because we all lived on Long Island. We always had five or six guys and our wives together for dinner. That’s how it was. We won as a team and we lost as a team.”

Gilbert played until 1977, finishing with 406 goals and 1,021 points, still franchise records. He has never left New York, and he works for the Rangers as director of special projects and community relations representative. He marvels at the happenstance that created a lifelong bond with Ratelle, who is from Lac Saint-Jean, Quebec.

“It was pure luck we were brought together as kids in Montreal,” said Gilbert, a Montreal native. “Then we have this great career together through juniors and with the Rangers. And now we’re both in the Hall of Fame. It’s magical.”

The Hall of Famer Yvan Cournoyer, who played against Ratelle throughout his career, said there was a parallel between Ratelle and the Montreal Canadiens great Jean Beliveau, Cournoyer’s longtime teammate.

“Jean Ratelle had the same elegance and style as Jean Beliveau,” said Cournoyer, a 10-time Stanley Cup winner with the Canadiens. “And he was a gentleman off the ice. What is too bad is that Jean Ratelle never won a Stanley Cup. But the Rangers were a team we respected because of Jean and Rod and all their guys.”

In 1971-72, Ratelle and his linemates were on pace to break all sorts of records and possibly lead the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup since 1940. But in early March, Ratelle’s ankle was fractured by a shot taken by his teammate Dale Rolfe, and he was not a factor in the playoffs. The Rangers beat Montreal in six games, then swept Chicago to set up a showdown against Bobby Orr and the Bruins in the finals.

Ratelle had only one assist in six games as the Rangers lost to the Bruins, who lifted the Cup at the Garden that May 11.

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, whose No. 30 will surely take its place above the Garden ice one day, said he had enjoyed visiting with the greats of yesteryear. Ratelle and his linemates attended the team’s preseason golf outing last September.

“They are all super nice and funny, those guys, and you can see they care for each other,” Lundqvist said. “It was a different time that’s for sure — a different game and a different approach. But it looks like they always had fun.”

For Rangers followers of his era, the chance to honor Ratelle feels like a long-overdue welcome-home party.

“Time goes by,” Ratelle said. “It will be nice to be with the guys. This will be very special for me because we had some great teams in New York. And there’s only one New York.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

ALLAN KREDA © 2018 The New York Times


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