And how ironic is this? Sunday was the 45th anniversary of Bathgate's trade to the Maple Leafs, for whom he scored the series-winning goal in the 1964 Stanley Cup Final.
"So, who should I root for tonight?" Bathgate teased the capacity crowd, who bathed him and Howell in repeated rounds of applause. Veteran Rangers broadcasters Al Trautwig and Sam Rosen hosted the ceremony.
Bathgate and Howell bring to eight the numbers retired by the Rangers, and the other six retired players were on hand to welcome them to the exclusive club. The group includes Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Adam Graves from the 1994 Stanley Cup championship team and Ed Giacomin and Rod Gilbert from the 1972 group that reached the Stanley Cup Final.
Howell and Bathgate were joined on the ice by their wives of over 50 years, Merle Bathgate and Marilyn Howell, and many teammates from the 1950s and 1960s, including Bob Nevin, Larry Popein, Dean Prentice, Earl Ingarfield, Eddie Shack, Red Sullivan, Lou Fontinato, Bill Gadsby and Arnie Brown. Red Kelly, representing the Detroit Red Wings, Dickie Duff, representing the Montreal Canadiens, Frank Mahovlich, representing the Toronto Maple Leafs and Stan Mikita, representing the Chicago Blackhawks, also joined the ceremony.
Bathgate and Howell were never able to deliver a Stanley Cup to Rangers fans, but they won a Memorial Cup while playing for the Rangers' junior team in Guelph, Ontario. They were called up to the Rangers on the same day in 1952.
Howell, 76, played a Rangers' record 1,160 games and ranks fifth among defensemen in team history with 263 assists and 345 points and sixth with 82 goals. Howell was as durable as they come, missing only 40 of the 1,200 regular-season games during his tenure. He served as captain from 1954-57 and was glad to get rid of the "C," he said, because he played better without the added pressure.
Howell also played for the Oakland Seals, California Golden Seals, and Los Angeles Kings, recording 94 goals and 324 assists for 418 points. He won the 1967 Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman and played in six NHL All-Star Games. Howell was named to the NHL First All-Star Team in 1967 and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979.
Bathgate, 76, played for the Rangers from 1952-64 and was captain from 1961-64. He ranks fourth all-time among Rangers with 272 goals, 457 assists and 729 points. He was the first Rangers' player to score 40 goals in one season, 1958-59, and set a team record by scoring at least one goal in 10-straight games during the 1962-63 season. Bathgate tied Bobby Hull for the NHL scoring championship in 1961-62 when he had 28 goals and 56 assists for 84 points. He was twice named to the NHL First All-Star Team.
Bathgate was traded to the Maple Leafs in 1964 and helped them win the Stanley Cup, scoring the series-winning goal against Detroit. He later played for the Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins, retiring in 1971. He appeared in eight NHL All-Star Games and won the 1959 Hart Trophy. Bathgate was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978.
"Andy Bathgate played the game the way it should be played," Giacomin said, "with finesse and great stickhandling ability. With Harry Howell, it was like having a father on the hockey club. That's how he affected me. Harry was a leader in the dressing room as well as on the ice, but also a great leader off the ice."
Gilbert read the tribute to Howell and then Graves similarly honored Bathgate. Graves and Bathgate wore No. 9 in different eras and have become very close.
"Harry Howell was so strong, we called him 'Harry the Horse,'" Gilbert said. "It's a very, very special evening. This night has been on my wish list for a long, long time. I was only 18, playing for Guelph, and for some reason I knew about you two guys who had preceded me and were legendary."
Gilbert recalled being called up to the Rangers for the first time.
"I was standing on the blue line during the national anthem, with you two next to me. That was an incredible start to my career here in New York. Harry was a big strong defenseman and a pillar of strength on the blue line," Gilbert said.
Gilbert recalled Harry and Marilyn Howell inviting him over for a pot-roast dinner when he was a rookie. He said that was the Howell family's way of looking out for young players and creating a team-as-family atmosphere.
"Congratulations, Andy and Harry, you are finally back home, forever," Gilbert said, in turning the microphone over to Howell. "My teammate and my friend, Harry Howell."
"Thank you for those kind words, Rod ... and all in English, too," Howell teased.
Howell said former coach and general manager Emile Francis couldn't be here because of an illness in the family and that he missed him.
"Emile used to say if you didn't pay attention, 'I'll send you so far away, The Hockey News won't be able to find you.' That would get your attention.
"Rod mentioned the night they had for me in 1968 in the old Madison Square Garden. I had played my 1,000 game as a Ranger in Boston. … I was only the third player in history to play 1,000 games with one team."
Howell said they gave him a lot of gifts that night but the one he remembers was receiving a brand new Plymouth Cougar, a muscle car in the big-car, big-engine era.
"It was a 1967 Cougar, first year of the Cougar," Howell recalled. "To top it off, they drove it to center ice and opened up the two doors and out jumped Red Sullivan and Lou Fontinato. For me, that made the whole night.
"It is an honor and a privilege to have my No. 3 raised to the rafters, along with the players from the 1994 Stanley Cup team, Eddie Giacomin, Rod Gilbert and Andy Bathgate," Howell said. "Thank you very much."
Graves then introduced Bathgate.
"Andy Bathgate, the name says so much," Graves said. "Pride, class, dignity. Mr. Bathgate was respected by teammates and opponents not only because he was a gifted player and leader but because he was gritty and tough."
Graves said that Bathgate and Bobby Hull were tied for the 1961 Art Ross Trophy when Bathgate informed the League an earlier assist was improperly credited.
"He exemplifies the New York tradition of what it means to wear Rangers blue at Madison Square Garden. Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest player to ever wear No. 9 for the New York Rangers, Mr. Andy Bathgate."
Bathgate stepped to the microphone and thanked Graves.
"Thank you very much, Adam. You are a class act every day."
He then turned to the crowd.
"Is there a better place to play hockey in the whole damn world than in New York?" Bathgate asked to a round of rousing applause. "There are two things I disliked, backchecking is the first and the other is public-speaking arrangements. As I look around here, I feel very honored so many players are here tonight. This is beyond our furthest dreams, believe me. Little did I realize, growing up in Winnipeg, that one day I would lace up my skates and put on my sweater and play in the Big Apple, but it happened and thank you for your support."
Bathgate then thanked an array of teammates and other Rangers greats.
"Dean Prentice was my left wing for almost all my time in New York and he covered up a lot of mistakes because I hated to go back in my own zone. Thank you, Larry Popein. I was in the minors three times … I never expected to come back. I hooked with Larry and he started my production. I have to thank him very much, he turned me from an also-ran to a player."
Ingarfield replaced Popein later as Bathgate's center but Bathgate said there was no impact on his production.
"Earl Ingarfield kept up the same momentum," Bathgate said. "I have to thank him for keeping everything moving and he always had a smile on his face. My Hall of Fame friend, Bill Gadsby, was my partner on the power play."
Bathgate loves to talk about hockey while Howell sometimes acts like words cost money. Howell watched with amusement Friday as Bathgate spoke at length about all aspects of hockey, until Bathgate looked over and asked, "Can I get a little help here, Harry?"
Bathgate was certainly not at a loss for words Sunday night.
"This is the ultimate award for me to receive, particularly being in Madison Square Garden, the greatest sports arena in the world. Hockey has been a major part of my life. I owe a great deal to the game but especially to the Rangers and all the great Rangers fans, who supported me and helped me keep my mind on the game at all times."
Rangers defenseman Michal Rozsival, who has been wearing No. 3 in recent seasons, then skated out to Howell, handed him his No. 3 sweater and revealed he will be wearing No. 33 from now on. Then Rozsival, Chris Drury, Scott Gomez and Markus Naslund helped raised both banners to the rafters as Howell and Bathgate watched.