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Howell, Bathgate relive past glory with media

by John McGourty
Two old friends and New York Rangers teammates, Andy Bathgate and Harry Howell, sat down Friday for a long chat with the New York media in advance of Sunday night's ceremony at Madison Square Garden to retire their numbers. They were called up to the Rangers on the same day in 1952. Now, 57 years later, they will have their Nos. 9 and 3, respectively, retired before Sunday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Bathgate, 76, played for the Rangers from 1952-64 and was captain from 1961-64. He ranks fourth all-time in club history with 272 goals, 457 assists and 729 points. He was the first Ranger to score 40 goals in a 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 title in 1961-62 when he had 84 points (28-56). He twice was named to the NHL First All-Star Team.

Bathgate was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1964 and helped them win the Stanley Cup, scoring the series-winning goal against the Detroit Red Wings. 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.

Howell, 76, played in 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 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.

"Rangers history is enriched by players like Andy Bathgate and Harry Howell, who laid the foundation for what a Rangers player should be," said Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather. "They will now take their rightful place in The Garden rafters alongside those players who have carried their tradition throughout the years."

Howell and Bathgate told rollicking stories for more than an hour about a very different NHL that existed more than 50 years ago when they were young, stressing the inherent imbalance in the League, where the Detroit Red Wings' owner also owned the Rangers' building and scheduled the circus into Madison Square Garden each year at the exact time the Stanley Cup Playoffs were being held. If the Rangers made the playoffs -- and they rarely did, making it just four times for a total of 22 games in Bathgate's tenure -- they had to play at another NHL building. Their practice facilities were not too good, either.

"We practiced on the fourth floor, in a figure-skating rink, because there was something scheduled every night in Madison Square Garden," Bathgate said. "They had wrestling on Monday, the Knicks on Tuesday, us on Wednesday, I forget what on Thursday and Friday was boxing. We had new ice every night and it was choppy, really bad behind the net. Eventually they put a cover over the ice, but the Knicks didn't like it because it caused moisture on the court floor."

The practice rink was short, narrow and eventually, asymmetric.

"There was a big elevator shaft at one end so they didn't have room for a regulation-size rink," Howell said. "It was about 25 feet from the middle to the boards and they were made of aluminum so I had a headache all the time from Andy's shots banging off them."

Bathgate said something like "baloney, there was no room to get off a shot or get around Harry so I took some big hits from him up there."

"We'd been practicing there for years and one October we reported and were surprised to see a corner had been taken out of the rink," Howell said. "They decided to install a restaurant so people could watch the figure skaters. They didn't care about us. I remember Carol Heiss and Don Jackson practiced there for a year before winning gold medals in the Olympics."

"Yeah, Dean Prentice tried to copy Don Jackson," Bathgate cracked.

Bathgate and Howell teamed with some excellent players over the years, including Prentice, Camille Henry, Lou Fontinato, Gump Worsley, Bill Gadsby, Red Sullivan, Larry Popein and Andy Hebenton, yet they never succeeded. It was a different League then, with Detroit, Montreal and Toronto making the playoffs almost every season and Chicago, Boston and New York fighting for the final spot. Chicago was a dumping ground for disgruntled players. Boston was frozen out due to ancient feuds with Toronto and Montreal, and the Rangers were guests in their own building.

Meanwhile, Toronto, Montreal and Detroit had territorial rights to the top two 16-year-olds within a 50-mile radius of their buildings. Howell and Bathgate named a few NHL stars whose families were moved into the 50-mile radius when they were 15 so they could be signed at 16.

"The deck was stacked," Howell said. "Montreal had the rights to every player in Quebec. Who were we going to get in a 50-mile radius of New York City?"

"We'd been practicing there for years and one October we reported and were surprised to see a corner had been taken out of the rink. They decided to install a restaurant so people could watch the figure skaters. They didn't care about us." -- Harry Howell
That's why the Rangers had so many players from the Canadian prairies in those days.

"I was one of seven Winnipeggers on the Rangers," Bathgate said. "And I had a Montreal Canadiens scout who almost lived in my house the year I was 15. But I've been a New York Ranger since I was 10. They sponsored our junior-hockey league. I played two years with Harry at Guelph and 10 with the Rangers."

That's not the only connection between the two. Bathgate was traded for defenseman Arnie Brown, who teamed with Howell for most of the 1960s on one of the NHL's best defensive pairings. Brown said he went to New York with some trepidation.

"The Rangers had all left-handed shooting defenseman and I didn't want to have to play on the right side," Brown said earlier this week. "They immediately put me with Harry and he'd been playing the right side all his life. We made a very comfortable pairing and had very good communications. Harry is one of the best who ever played the position.

"It was no fun playing against Andy because he was fast and strong, had a lot of courage and a hard, hard shot, one of the best in the League, if not the best."

Bathgate often is credited as being one of the inventors of the slap shot, along with Bobby Hull and Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion.

"I had skated with a hooked stick in Winnipeg," said Bathgate. "My brother, Frank, was three years older than me and we would put nets on opposite sides of the boards and try and score long shots on each other. Had to be below the knees. My brother could raise the puck, up to eight feet, they'd go whistling past my ear. That was no good because fights would start. I put a hook in my stick and pretty soon I started to be able to control it pretty good.

"I put more hook into it when I got to Guelph. We'd use hot water to soften the wood and then bend it. One night I took a shot and it went straight over the boards and hit a lady in the mouth. Our coach, Alfie Pike, bent my stick straight. But I'll tell you, I used to go through hundreds of sticks at Gerry Cosby's to get the ones with the right grain. Wrong grain, they broke right away. Right grain, they'd stand up indefinitely."

Bathgate had a major impact on the adoption of goalie masks. He badly injured three NHL goalies with his shot, including Jacques Plante, the first to wear a mask. He fired a shot Nov. 1, 1959, into Plante's face from near the net. Plante went to get stitches and returned wearing a mask.

Bathgate said he never could beat Plante from an angle, so he would take the puck around the net and try to tuck it in. Plante usually was waiting for him and this night, the goalie brought his stick up fast and intentionally caught Bathgate in the face.

"He cut my ear and my face. He could have broken my neck," Bathgate said. "Next shift, I went down the left wing and I was trying to score around the net. I gave him a 'little bowtie' on the face. How do you get back at a goalie? They're a brick short anyway. I thought he looked better with the mask, to tell the truth. He comes out with these bars all over his face and we were all wondering, 'What on Earth?'"

Bathgate said players then tried flipping pucks high in the air, hoping goalies would lose sight through the eye bars of the mask.

"I remember Camille Henry flipping one up and goalie Harry Lumley was searching around his feet for the puck when it came down and went in off his back."

Bathgate said he is honored to be joining Adam Graves, who later wore his number and recently had a similar retirement ceremony at The Garden. He credited him with winning the 1994 Stanley Cup, the Rangers' first in 54 years. It was something he and Howell tried to do but were unable.

Bathgate said the retirement ceremony means more to him than his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"To me, this is the ultimate," Bathgate said. "The Hockey Hall of Fame is an honor from hockey people. This is from the people of New York. It's been 45 years since I was traded away, so this is the culmination of something I've waited for a long time."
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