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Ratelle honored to have No. 19 retired by Rangers

Hall of Fame center spent first 16 seasons of career with New York

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

Jean Ratelle is thinking about which NHL defensemen were a special challenge during a career that spanned the 1960s into the 1980s for the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins.

The Hall of Fame center arrives at the often-impenetrable Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe, the "Big Three" of the Montreal Canadiens powerhouse teams of the 1970s who anchored the team that won the Stanley Cup from 1976-79.

And now Ratelle is chuckling at the memory of the gala at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles to celebrate the 100 Greatest NHL Players on Jan. 27, 2017, a Centennial-celebration list that included himself, Robinson and Savard.

"There was a room for the players to gather that evening, and I got to the doorway and the first people I saw were Larry and Serge," Ratelle said during a recent conversation in Boston. "I looked at those guys and I said, 'How am I going to get in here between you two?' Larry just stepped back and said, 'Go ahead, Jean.' I looked at him and said, 'So nearly 40 years later, now you let me go, for crying out loud.'"

At Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Ratelle will think about Robinson, Savard, Lapointe and surely many hundreds of the men he played with and against during his Hall of Fame career when his No. 19 is retired by the Rangers in a ceremony before their game against the Detroit Red Wings (7:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, MSG, FS-D, NHL.TV).

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

He will be celebrated by many in the Rangers organization, for which he played 861 games between March 1961 and November 1975, and by others from around the NHL in video tributes. Playing special roles in the ceremony will be friends and former linemates Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield, as well as Emile Francis, his Rangers coach and general manager who is coming from Florida.

Ratelle finished his career in Boston, playing 419 games for the Bruins from 1975-81 following the stunning trade that sent him and defensemen Brad Park and Joe Zanussi for center Phil Esposito and defenseman Carol Vadnais.

Using a thick, flat-bladed stick that he would curve only very slightly late in his career, the silky playmaker and pinpoint passer scored 817 of his 1,267 points (336 goals, 481 assists) for the Rangers. He's second on New York's all-time goal list, third in assists and points, and sixth in games played.

Ratelle won the Lady Byng Trophy as the NHL's most gentlemanly player in 1972 and 1976. He never had a fighting major and he's the only player in NHL history to score more than 1,200 points and have fewer than 300 penalty minutes. Ratelle's 276 penalty minutes translate to an average of one minute for every 4.6 NHL games he played.

He was just as clean off the ice. Good luck finding anyone who's heard him mutter even a single obscenity, no less have a hair out of place.

In 1971, Ratelle was voted winner of the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for his qualities of perseverance and sportsmanship. The following year, he received the Lester B. Pearson (now Ted Lindsay) Award, the NHL's most valuable player prize as voted by the players themselves. 

Ratelle's number will be the ninth retired by the Rangers; the others are his lifelong friend and former linemate Gilbert (No. 7); goalies Ed Giacomin (1) and Mike Richter (35); defensemen Brian Leetch (2) and Harry Howell (3); and forwards Mark Messier (11), and Andy Bathgate and Adam Graves (9).

It will be the first to be hung from Garden rafters since 2009, when Bathgate and Howell were honored.

The call to Ratelle's Florida home came last winter from Rangers president Glen Sather, the offer to retire his jersey quickly accepted. For a long period, Ratelle felt that he was off the Rangers radar. Having been a part of the Bruins organization as a player, assistant and scout for 26 years from his 1975 trade to Boston until he retired from the front office in 2001, he admits a strong loyalty to the Bruins clouded his New York state of mind. But the fact is that, for years, he has rarely attended games of either team, airports and air travel causing him often excruciating pain.

Ratelle had spinal fusion surgery at age 23 and despite returning to play for 17 years, he suffered horribly with spinal stenosis. Riding trains early in his career, before teams flew regularly, was torture when he was consigned to upper berths, the veterans sleeping below."I think my back is getting a little better," said Ratelle, who now can play 18 holes of golf for the first time in more than a decade. "For a long time, just a jug of milk was too heavy for me to carry."

Unable to travel comfortably, the pain simply too great from the raw nerves in his spine, Ratelle felt disconnected from the Rangers, no matter how much the team and its fans meant to him.

But he's getting out more now, having attended the NHL Centennial festivities in Los Angeles during All-Star Weekend last January and a Bruins alumni event in Boston earlier this month. 

"Gentleman Jean," as Ratelle has been known for as long as anyone can remember, is as graceful and unassuming a man as you'll find in hockey, nothing at all like the nickname "Ratty" used by his teammates. He is cut from the same humble cloth as late Canadiens icon Jean Beliveau, one of his boyhood idols first in rural Quebec, then in east-end Montreal.

Ratelle vividly recalls his first time in the Montreal Forum, playing alongside his early teens friend Gilbert for a mid-1950s Montreal city championship that wasn't to be.

"It was such a big ice," he said of the Forum's 200-by-85-foot surface, dazzled to be skating in the same hockey shrine as Beliveau, Maurice Richard and the Canadiens superstars of the day. 

Neighbors, classmates, best friends, teammates on the baseball diamond and later golf partners, Ratelle and Gilbert would wind up together playing for Francis' junior Guelph (Ontario) Biltmores before graduating to the Rangers in the early 1960s.

With Hadfield, the pair eventually would form the GAG (Goal-A-Game) Line, a trio with tremendous firepower. In 1971-72, after being acquired a decade earlier to be a muscular checker, Hadfield implausibly became the first player in Rangers history to score 50 goals; Ratelle had 46 that season, leading the League with a 25.1 percent shooting percentage, and Gilbert scored 43.

Ratelle might have been the first to 50, but he missed the final 15 games of the season after a shot by teammate Dale Rolfe on March 1, 1972, broke his ankle. He returned for the Stanley Cup Final but was far from the complete player he was when fully healthy. A six-game loss to the Bruins was as close as he'd come to a championship.

Ratelle sounds eager but a little uncomfortable talking about having his No. 19 retired. He's deeply honored to be the center of attention but will breathe a sigh of relief when it's over.

"There will be many people I'll want to thank," he said of a speech he's been working on for some time. "I want to cover my life, my line, my trade to Boston with Brad Park. I'll thank Emile Francis and (former Bruins coach and GM) Harry Sinden, because I worked for the Bruins for years after I retired."

Ratelle was one of four alternate captains for Sinden on Team Canada in the historic 1972 Summit Series against an all-star team from the Soviet Union. He recalls the pressure of those eight games as something far greater than anything he experienced in the NHL and he ranks that series, his Hall of Fame induction, making the greatest-100 list and now his jersey retirement as his career highlights.

Ratelle says that he'll also thank Rangers owner James Dolan, Sather and GM Jeff Gorton for the evening in his honor, and he'll tell Rangers fans how much it meant to play for them.

"I think I'll be nicely welcomed in New York," said Ratelle, who will be joined for the ceremony by Nancy, his wife of 54 years, their daughters Catherine, Carolyn and Christy, eight grandchildren and other family members.

 

"I had a great career there. People have said to me, 'It's about time your number was retired.' I don't worry about that. This will be an emotional time for me, I just hope it's not too much. This won't be an easy thing to do.

"I'm proud that I played 21 years in the NHL, and that Rod, Vic and I played together for so long with the Rangers," he said. "My wife said to me last winter, 'You know, they should retire your sweater.' I said, 'Do you think so, hon?' I thought about it and decided that if Glen called, I'd say yes.' It's going to be a very, very special evening."

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