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Classy Ratelle still most popular

Former Rangers teammates Gilbert and Park credit much of their success to influence of No. 19

by Dave Stubbs / Columnist

NEW YORK - They have been brotherly close since their days together playing minor hockey in the east-end of Montreal, as classmates, baseball teammates, linemates in junior hockey and with the New York Rangers, NHL road-trip roommates and, later, fellow golfers.

On Sunday, they were to be reunited above Madison Square Garden ice, Jean Ratelle's No. 19 joining Rod Gilbert's No. 7 in the arena rafters, retired forever.

"I give Jean a lot of credit for my career, not just in hockey but in golf," Gilbert says playfully, a fellow Hall of Famer who with Ratelle and Vic Hadfield formed the Rangers' mighty GAG (Goal-A-Game) Line in the early 1970s.

"Jean's statistics tell you what you need to know about his hockey career. He wasn't a rah-rah guy but he was always there when you needed him. Of course, he made me a better hockey player, but I owe him for golf, too. On the road, and we'd take a broken stick and practice golf in our room with 'Ben Hogan's Five Lessons.'"


[RELATED: Francis returns to Madison Square Garden for Ratelle number retirement]


As youngsters, the two rode Montreal buses together to and from hockey and baseball practices and games. Gilbert recalls them having their first beer together at age 18, "though in his entire life, I'm sure Jean hasn't had more than three at a time. Not after a big win, not ever."

Gilbert believes that Ratelle was a success on the ice, and off, as a husband, father and grandfather, because he has embraced the four virtues that Gilbert believes one must have to find happiness in life.

"No. 1, reverence," he says. "Jean loves people. He revered his teachers, nature, animals. He's never destroyed even a hockey stick. No. 2, honesty. He's very religious, very honest with himself. He's the most honest man I've ever known. No. 3, kindness. I've seen Jean's kindness to everyone, whether he's known the person or not. And No. 4, being of service to others. He's always had time for everyone, especially kids who have asked for his advice. It's not by accident the won the Rangers' Player's Player award over and over again, the most popular man among his teammates for the way he lived his life."

When Ratelle was traded to the Boston Bruins in 1975, Gilbert was so despondent about the departure of his best friend that he asked to be shipped out of New York. He was told that he'd not be leaving the organization, ever.

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

Brad Park, the best defenseman of his generation not named Bobby Orr, played 13 seasons with Ratelle, first with the Rangers, then the Bruins after the two were famously traded together on Nov. 7, 1975 in exchange for forward Phil Esposito and defensemen Carol Vadnais and Joe Zanussi.

Emile Francis, the former Rangers general manager who traded the pair, strongly believes that Park's No. 2 should now be retired and hung alongside Ratelle's No. 19 at the Garden.

Ratelle was coming into his prime in 1968-69, having played 259 games for the Rangers when Park broke into the NHL with New York at age 20.

"Watching Jean day in and day out in practices and the games, he basically taught me the game," Park said. "It was just amazing. And because of him, my practices were harder than the games.

"Jean was the consummate professional. One thing that always stood out in my mind was that whatever the play dictated is where the puck went. He could be playing with somebody he hated, it didn't matter. If that was the play, that's where the puck went. You'd see him on lines where one guy was a shooter and the other guy an enforcer. If the play called for the puck to go to the enforcer, that's where it went. Everything was on the money."

Former Bruins forward Stan Jonathan laughed when told that Ratelle didn't have a single fighting major in his 1,403 NHL games, regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"I would have given him a few of mine," Jonathan joked recently in Boston, where he was a teammate of Ratelle for six seasons. "We had a few injuries in 1977-78 and I got to play on his line. If someone bothered him or took a run at him, I was there for him.

"Jean showed me little things to help my skating that year and I wound up with 27 goals, believe it or not. Jean told me, 'Just keep moving, don't stop and I'll get it to you.' I was 22, he was 38, and I couldn't keep up to him. When he retired in 1981, he came up to me, shook my hand, gave me a hug and said, 'Thank you for giving me an extra couple of years in the League.' He's a classy, classy man. It was an honor to call him a teammate."

Francis has countless Ratelle stories through the years, but to him there's one that best illustrates the team-first qualities of his stately center.

"We came home to New York from Toronto early one Sunday morning and went straight to our hotel near the Garden, with a game Sunday," Francis recalls. "My phone rings at maybe 3 a.m. and it's Jean's mother. She says to me, 'Would you tell Jean something for me? His dad has just passed away and I don't know if I'll be able to tell him.'

"I told her, 'Don't worry, I'll take care of it and I'll get back to you.' I called Jean into my room, broke the news to him and said, 'I'll have your ticket (home) all set first thing in the morning.' He said, 'No, my dad would want me to play. I'll leave Monday, we'll have the funeral on Tuesday and I'll be back for our game on Wednesday.' 

"Jean missed practices Monday and Tuesday but he was there for the game, I'll tell you. And that's just the kind of team player he was."

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