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Gilbert recalls touring Canada for preseason

by Evan Weiner

The New York Rangers will be spending a good chunk of training camp in Europe playing in a preseason game in Switzerland and participating in the Victoria Cup. This season's camp is nearly 180 degrees different from Rod Gilbert's first Rangers preseason experience in 1962.

The Rangers did a lot of traveling then too, except for different reasons. The players got in shape by playing about 25 preseason games from coast to coast in Canada, and the owners of the then-six NHL teams received guaranteed money from promoters who wanted to bring NHL teams to parts of Canada that didn't have a team.
"We used to use training camp to get into shape, now these guys come in in shape and they go into their season prepared and ready to go," Gilbert said. "We were making only $7,000 for the whole year and then we played 25 extra games so they could pay for their training camp for the expenses of flying all the players. I remember starting in Vancouver and playing all throughout Canada, across Canada and our 25th game was in Moncton, New Brunswick. I played every night, every game because I was a rookie. Our training camp was over a month, like a month and a half, so we played 25 games in about 35 days."
The Rangers had some grizzly veterans in those days like goaltender Gump Worsley, and according to Gilbert, Gump didn't like the set up. Of course Gump wasn't much for training under any circumstance.
The Rangers during the 1960s never set up training camp in the New York City area.
"We used to go to Kitchener. We trained in Vancouver a number of times and another number of times in Winnipeg," Gilbert said. "It depended on who invited us to play against them."
There were always other considerations when it came to determining where the Rangers trained in the early 1960s. Because the Rangers' best player, Andy Bathgate, was from Winnipeg, the Rangers ended up spending part of training camp in Manitoba.
"Andy Bathgate was right there in St. Boniface, (Manitoba) and we had some connections there at the rink," Gilbert said. "It is a big hockey town."
Because Gilbert ended up with the Rangers instead of his hometown Montreal Canadiens, he probably saw more of western Canada in the preseason than he would have if he signed with his hometown team. Becoming a member of the New York Rangers was quite accidental.
"That is a fairly good assumption that every single kid that grows up in the Montreal area winds up, if they had the talent, with the Canadiens," said Gilbert. "In my case and Jean Ratelle's, we were actually going to a boarding school and they were independent and had their own rink and maintained their own rink. But if you played in the (Montreal) city's parks and recreation, you automatically at the age of 6 or 7, you belonged to the Montreal Canadiens.

"By the time I was 14, somebody had saw me play and I wasn't associated with anyone. I said this other player, we have been playing together since we are 10-years-old, Jean Ratelle, he is better than me. So they sent us to Guelph, Ontario. By the time we were 16, we were signed by the New York Rangers' farm team which was in Guelph, Ontario. There were six teams and they all had their individual Junior A team."
Gilbert actually wasn't a "real" rookie in the 1962 Rangers training camp. He played in the New York-Toronto opening round playoff series, replacing the injured Ken Schinkel and scoring two goals in his first playoff appearance. In that series, he had five points in four games, but the Rangers were eliminated by the Maple Leafs. Toronto would go to the next round and beat Chicago to win the Cup.
Ratelle would join Gilbert in New York in 1962 and the Rangers, who seemed to annually be battling Boston to see who would not finish last in the six-team league, improved and became a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Oddly enough, Gilbert became a certified New York City star in a game at the Montreal Forum on Feb. 24, 1968 when he scored four goals in a Rangers' 6-1 victory against the Habs. Gilbert had a record 16 shots on net that night. Ratelle had a goal that night and set up three of Gilbert's goals.
"I had one of my best games ever in front of my family, it was very exciting to go back to Montreal because I had grown up there and my parents would be at every game I had played in," Gilbert said. "That particular game, I wasn't exactly feeling that great, I had a 103 (degrees F) fever, but I had purchased 15 tickets, so I had to play and everything fell in place. It just happened to fall into place. Montreal is a hockey town, the ice (at the Forum) was always faster and the fans are knowledge, you felt the energy, so it was like going to Yankee Stadium, if you are a baseball player."

"We used to use training camp to get into shape, now these guys come in in shape and they go into their season prepared and ready to go." -- Ron Gilbert on how NHL training camp has changed over the years

Gilbert would score 29 goals in 1967-68, and after years of scoring 20 or more goals, he finally scored 30 in 1970-71 and in 1971-72, he netted 43. That earned him an invitation to play for Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union, and one of the stops Team Canada made after finishing the eight-game series with the Soviets was a game in Prague on Sept. 30 against the Czechoslovakians. The game ended in a 3-3 tie.

Gilbert has a far different memory of being in Prague that present-day Rangers might not appreciate now that the Cold War has been over for nearly two decades.
"I love Prague," Gilbert said. "I had the pleasure of playing in Prague three different times with the World Championship and when we played that famous series, the Summit After we beat the Russians, we wound up in Prague. They were very anti-Communist then. It was kind of dangerous for us and we went to a couple of places and the chant was "nyet, nyet, Soviet and da da Canada. The Czechs are saying, tone it down because the walls (hinting that listening devices were hidden inside the walls), this is a dangerous place."
The 2008-09 Rangers along with their Prague opponents, the Tampa Bay Lightning, probably won't have to worry about listening devices in the walls during their stay for the Oct. 4 and 5 regular-season games between the two teams. Gilbert, who has been part of the Rangers family since 1957, noted the difference between the Rangers' 1962 and 2008 training camps. There is still a lot of travel, but that is the only thing they have in common. There are far fewer preseason games and players are not just training in North America, it has become a global game and that is a major difference between his first training camp and today.

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