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100 Greatest Players

Jean Ratelle: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Graceful skater centered Vic Hadfield, Rod Gilbert on Rangers' famed 'GAG Line'

by Stu Hackel / Special to NHL.com

Elegant. Willowy. Graceful.

They're not the most commonly used adjectives for describing an accomplished professional hockey player. But they often found their way into stories about Jean Ratelle. He was, after all, an uncommon hockey player.

 

Video: Jean Ratelle finished career sixth all-time in points

 

How uncommon? Consider that he learned to skate as a 5-year-old wearing his father's size 10 boots and blades "over my socks, my shoes and my galoshes all together, so they'd fit." It didn't inhibit his development into one of the NHL's more exquisite skaters.

Consider that he resisted the late-'60s stampede to the curved stick, even though most of the game's top scorers -- including his partners on the Rangers "GAG (Goal-A-Game) Line," Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield -- adopted the "banana blade." Ratelle preferred the straight blade so his passes would remain true.

And consider that he played his entire 21-year career -- which included the pugilistic '70s -- so cleanly that he never incurred a major penalty. He was held in such high regard by opponents that they did unto him as he did unto others. Boston's renowned antagonist Derek Sanderson explained to hockey historian Stan Fischler that, "Jean commands so much respect because of his ability and his style, it's impossible to get yourself mad enough at him to try any dirty stuff."

 

JEAN RATELLE CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,281 | Goals: 491 | Assists: 776 | Points: 1,267

 

Long, lean and rangy, Ratelle (6-foot-1, 180 pounds) combined high-level skill, an unselfish approach and gentlemanly play to get remarkable results: His 491 goals, 776 assists and 1,267 points in 1,281 games placed Ratelle sixth on the NHL's all-time scoring list when his career ended in 1981.

He scored 20 or more goals 14 times -- including 13 consecutive seasons -- and scored 25 or more goals 13 times. He had three consecutive 32-goal seasons, twice topped 40, and should have had a 50-goal season in 1971-1972, but he broke his ankle, missed the final 15 games and finished with 46. Ratelle got 40 assists or better in 12 seasons, getting at least 60 three times, with a high of 69 in 1975-76. He topped 70 points 12 times and twice broke the 100-point mark.

His numbers were impressive, and so was his style. While other players darted around, chasing the puck in short bursts with choppy strides, he would swiftly glide among them, propelled by long strides, taller and more erect than others, moving faster and, seemingly, with less effort. In 1970, Sports Illustrated's Gary Ronberg called Ratelle, "perhaps the league's smoothest center."

When others chased the puck, it was often Ratelle they were chasing. He safely transported it through traffic and gave it up only when he was good and ready.

"He's so unselfish," said former Canadiens captain Jean Beliveau, Ratelle's boyhood hero and to whose style he drew comparisons. "[He was] always feeding passes to his two wingers."

Ratelle excelled without the puck, too, regardless of whether he wore number 19 on his red, white and blue Rangers sweater or sporting number 10 in Bruins black and gold the final five-plus seasons of his career.

"I've been coaching Ratelle for 13 years now, starting in junior hockey," Rangers coach/GM Emile Francis told Fischler in 1972, "and I can't remember his ever having a bad practice, let alone a bad game. He's the most consistent player I've ever seen."

"I always knew he was a good player," Boston general manager Harry Sinden said. "But I didn't know how good he was until he joined our team. I always recognized his offensive ability, but I hadn't realized he was such an excellent defensive player, too."

Quiet, modest and unassuming, Ratelle's gentlemanly play earned him the Lady Byng Trophy twice, and he was among the top five vote-getters for the award another six times. The media called him "Gentleman Jean" for good reason.

His teammates, however, called him "Ratty" and they held him in their highest regard. Rangers defenseman Brad Park, who was traded with Ratelle to Boston in 1975, called him "our straight arrow." He told Fischler, "Ratty is without a doubt the model hockey player, totally dedicated to the sport and the team. He plays hockey according to the rule book and would never think of elbowing or smashing a guy or doing anything physical. He's just a beautiful hockey player."

That esteem reached its zenith in 1971-72 when the NHL Players' Association selected Ratelle the winner of the Lester B. Pearson Award (now the Ted Lindsay Award) as the League's top performer, revealing the extent of the admiration he had won.

In that season, Ratelle led the scoring race at the midway point, ahead of Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr. On Feb. 20, 1972 against the Detroit Red Wings, Ratelle scored his 42nd goal to become the first NHL player that season to reach 100 points -- and the first Ranger in history to hit the mark. The fans at Madison Square Garden gave him one of the loudest, longest standing ovations in Rangers history.

"Ratelle briefly and modestly acknowledged the cascading applause and, looking embarrassed, skated back to the bench," Fischler wrote. He'd add another goal and assist that night.

But on March 1 against the California Golden Seals at Madison Square Garden, with Ratelle's point total at 109, one behind Esposito, teammate Dale Rolfe's shot hit Ratelle's right leg, cracking a bone above his ankle. With 15 games remaining, he was done for the regular season, stuck on 46 goals. Hadfield would become the Rangers' first 50-goal scorer a month later.

"Yes, the 50 goals was on my mind," a subdued Ratelle told The New York Times. "Unless your name is Hull or Esposito, you don't get a chance at 50 too often."

Ratelle finished third to Esposito and Orr in scoring and many believed he would have not only captured the Art Ross Trophy, which Esposito won, but the Hart Trophy, which Orr received. The Pearson vote showed what Ratelle's peers thought of his performance.

He made a valiant return for the 1972 Stanley Cup Final against Boston but, playing at less than 100 percent, managed just one assist as the Rangers lost in six games.

Ratelle was born Oct. 3, 1940 in Lac St-Jean, Quebec, about 300 miles north of Montreal. His father, Leo, was a dentist, originally from Montreal, and moved the family back there when Jean was 10. Attending Academie Roussin on the east end of Montreal Island, Ratelle befriended schoolmate Gilbert and they became linemates on Roussin's successful hockey teams and other youth teams, the first organized hockey Ratelle ever played.

When the 16-year-old Gilbert landed with the Rangers' Junior A team in Guelph, he urged scouts and coaches to get Ratelle, too, telling them, "He's better than me." Ratelle still needed some seasoning but, a year later, the pair were linemates again in Guelph. In his final junior season, 1960-61, with Francis as the coach, the 20-year-old Ratelle led the Ontario Hockey Association in assists with 61 in 47 games, and he and Gilbert each topped 100 points. He also played a three-game stint with the Rangers, collecting two goals and an assist.

Turning pro the next year, Ratelle made the Rangers out of training camp but didn't stick, and for three seasons he shuttled between the big club and New York's top farm teams. The Rangers wanted him to play more physically, which wasn't his style, and more experienced centers bumped him down the depth chart.

He became an NHL player for good in 1964-65, and once Francis became coach the next season, he reunited Ratelle with Gilbert. Francis later added the rambunctious Hadfield, giving them all the ingredients of a classic line, a sniper, a passer and a banger. Ratelle responded with his first 20-goal season.

"We're like perfectly meshed gears," Ratelle told Fischler in 1972. "We have a pretty good idea of where each guy is going to be on any given play."

In 1971-72, the GAG Line reached its peak, with Ratelle third, Hadfield fourth and Gilbert fifth in scoring. They totalled 139 goals and 312 points, the most productive threesome in the League.

After '72, despite two seasons of 90-plus points from Ratelle, the Rangers drifted lower in the standings and made less postseason noise. Hadfield was dispatched to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1974, and a mediocre start to the 1975-76 season prompted Francis to further dismantle the club, shockingly dealing Ratelle, Park and Joe Zanussi on Nov. 7 for Esposito and Carol Vadnais. Francis called it "the toughest trade I ever had to make."

Now 35, Ratelle finished the 1975-76 season with 105 points, 90 with Boston, led the Bruins in regular-season and playoff scoring and won the Lady Byng Trophy for the second time. Despite advancing age, Ratelle led Boston his in scoring the following season and, over the next three seasons, he remained among the Bruins' top four point-producers and led them in postseason scoring a third time.

Observers initially believed Esposito would outperform Ratelle after the trade, but Ratelle proved them wrong. Each played six more seasons, with Ratelle totaling 450 points to Espo's 404. Their six-season plus-minus differential -- Ratelle a plus-131, Esposito a minus-116 -- revealed Ratelle's value as a complete player.

"I very rarely saw an opposing center score a goal from the slot with Jean on the ice," teammate Greg Sheppard said.

Ratelle helped rejuvenate the late '70s Bruins, who could never get past the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They dropped Cup Final to the Canadiens in '77 and '78 before famously losing the '79 Semifinal in overtime of Game 7. Ratelle had seven goals that spring, including a hat trick in Game 4 of the Semifinals, capped off by the overtime winner that had the Boston Garden still chanting his name while he sat in the dressing room answering reporters' questions.

Ratelle's back condition forced him to retire two years later, at the age of 40. Until the end, Ratelle inspired marvelous descriptions of his uncommon elegance, none better than The Boston Globe's Bob Ryan: "Others skate, but Ratelle glides," he wrote. "Others arrive at the scene as if escorted by 17 motorcycle cops, but Ratelle is already there."

 

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