Rod Gilbert, the leading scorer in the history of the New York Rangers and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, died Sunday. He was 80 years old.
Gilbert played his entire 18-season NHL career with the Rangers, scoring 1,021 points (406 goals, 615 assists) in 1,065 regular-season games and 67 points (34 goals, 33 assists) in 79 Stanley Cup Playoff games. He ranks first in New York’s history in goals and points, is second in assists and third in games played.
“Rod Gilbert’s impact on the National Hockey League and the New York Rangers over the past 62 years was profound — both on and off the ice,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “As a player, he was revered by his teammates, respected by his opponents and absolutely beloved by Rangers’ fans. Throughout his 18 NHL seasons, all with the Rangers, he was among the greatest offensive players of his era and truly entertained fans across the League on a nightly basis.
“His contributions to the game were appropriately recognized with hockey’s highest individual honor — induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1982. Rod’s impact on our game was equaled, if not surpassed, in his retirement. For 32 years, he was one of the greatest ambassadors that our League has seen in its 104-year history. The time that he devoted to countless charitable causes and the passion that he brought to every interaction with hockey fans at not only Madison Square Garden but across the NHL was both incredible and inspiring.”
Born in Montreal on July 1, 1941, Gilbert signed with New York and also urged Yvon Prudhomme, who was hired by the Rangers to start a Junior B team, to sign boyhood friend Jean Ratelle, who became his longtime center in New York.
After overcoming a broken back and spinal fusion, Gilbert would make his NHL debut as a 19-year-old in 1960-61. However, his first big impact came in the spring of 1962, when he was called up during the Stanley Cup Playoffs and scored two goals to help the Rangers win Game 4 of the semifinals against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I am deeply saddened by the passing of Rod Gilbert, one of the greatest Rangers to ever play for our organization and one of the greatest ambassadors the game of hockey has ever had,” New York executive chairman James Dolan said. “While his on-ice achievements rightly made him a Hall of Famer, it was his love for the Rangers and the people of New York that endeared him to generations of fans and forever earned him the title, ‘Mr. Ranger.’ Our thoughts are with Rod’s wife, Judy, and the entire Gilbert family during this difficult time. They will always be a part of the Rangers family.”
Gilbert scored 11 goals for the Rangers in 1962-63, his first full season, then scored 24 and 25 the following two seasons, doing so despite wearing a corset because of his back operation.
He would reinjure his back in the summer of 1965, but after having surgery again in February 1966, he would play the rest of his career without further problems.
Gilbert had back-to-back 77-point seasons in 1967-68 and 1968-69, then scored 30 goals for the first time in 1970-71. His breakout season, though, came in 1971-72, when the trio of Gilbert, Ratelle and Vic Hadfield became one of the best in the NHL. Gilbert finished with 43 goals and 97 points, and the “GAG (Goal-A-Game) Line” helped carry the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final. But with Ratelle still not fully recovered from a broken ankle, they lost to the Boston Bruins in six games.
Gilbert continued to put up big offensive numbers until 1976-77, when he scored 75 points (27 goals, 48 assists) in 77 games. However, the Rangers’ time as a Stanley Cup contender had passed and after a slow start the following season, the 36-year-old retired in November 1977.
“Everyone in the Rangers organization mourns the loss of a true New York icon,” Rangers general manager Chris Drury said. “Rod’s remarkable talent and zest for life personified this city and endeared him to hockey fans and non-hockey fans alike. Growing up a young Rangers fan, one of the first names I ever heard about was Rod Gilbert – he was synonymous with Rangers hockey. It was an incredible privilege to get to know Rod. His passion and dedication to the Rangers will forever be a source of inspiration for me.”
Gilbert was the first player in New York’s history to have his number retired when they raised his No. 7 to the rafters of Madison Square Garden on Oct. 14, 1979. Three years later, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.