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Penalty shot remains Bathgate's biggest highlight

by John Kreiser
Andy Bathgate was the greatest player to put on a New York Rangers jersey from World War II until the "Rise of the Rangers" era in the late 1960s. Of his 973 NHL points, 729 came in 719 games as a Ranger. The right wing made four All-Star teams in an era that also included right wingers by the names of Gordie Howe, Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion. Having his No. 9 raised to the rafters at Madison Square Garden is a fitting tribute to a Hall of Famer who is also one of the game's overlooked stars.

Bathgate, a Winnipeg native, came to the Rangers in the early 1950s along with a passel of talented, young players that included Hall of Famers Harry Howell, Bill Gadsby and Gump Worsley. His smooth skating and deft puckhandling were Hall of Fame caliber, but it was his shot that made goalies cringe. The great Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens became the first modern goaltender to use a facemask after a Bathgate backhander cut him during a game at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 1, 1960.

He also was one of the first to master the slap shot, and in an era where face masks were still the exception rather than the rule, the site of Bathgate racing down right wing and winding up for a slapper was enough to make even the best goalies want to make sure their insurance was paid up.

Bathgate led the Rangers to the playoffs in 1956, 1957 and 1958, though they lost in the first round all three times. But his best season was 1958-59, when he became the first Ranger to score 40 goals in a season and added 48 assists for 88 points. He won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, even though the Rangers stumbled down the stretch and missed the last playoff spot on the final night of the season.

While the Rangers returned to their struggling ways in 1959-60 and 1960-61, Bathgate continued to excel. In 1961-62, he scored one of the most famous goals in franchise history, giving the Rangers a 3-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on March 14, 1962, that propelled New York to its only playoff berth between 1958 and 1967.

[The game started slowly ... Bathgate struck first, with an early goal at 3:02 of the first period, his 26th of the season. He would have no idea that his 27th would probably be the most important one of his career.

Claude LaForge would tie the score for the Red Wings at 17:40 of the first. The great Gordie Howe would score the 500th goal of his magnificent career at 17:10 of the second period, lifting a backhander past Lorne "Gump" Worsley after putting the puck through Harvey's legs and scoring shorthanded. Howe thus became the second NHL player to reach 500, and the Garden crowd gave him a long, standing ovation.]

"You know, I don't even remember that," Bathgate said 24 years later. "There were so many guys who seemed to get milestone goals against the Rangers. I just don't remember it."

However, the Rangers quickly pulled even at 2-2 on a goal by Earl Ingarfield. What happened next is something Bathgate remembers with great clarity more than four decades later.

"Actually, Dean Prentice should have taken the penalty shot," he said. "I had given him a pass and he got tripped (Detroit goalie Hank Bassen actually threw his stick at Prentice) when he went in, and Dean hit the boards pretty hard. He was just kneeling there, trying to get his wind back -- I guess he had the wind knocked out of him, more than anything. The referee [Eddie Powers] came up, called for a penalty shot and pointed at me. I looked and I didn't say anything. The Detroit guy came up and said, 'He wasn't tripped. Dean was tripped,' But the referee had pointed and me and said, 'You take it.'

"Hank Bassen was the goalie for Detroit. I hadn't made up my mind what I was going to do, but when I got in over the blue line, he started moving out at me. I thought he was going to come out and back in, but he came out and tried to give me a poke check. I stepped around him, and it was very easy to put it into the empty net, because he was maybe 10 or 12 feet out of the net after he tried to make the poke check, and he fell down. I think I was going to go to my right, and he went for it, fortunately.

"I was very surprised that the goalie moved out that quickly on me. I played with [Bassen] later in my career, in Detroit, and he would make up his mind what he was going to do. Once you're committed, you're dead, and luckily, I could get around him.

"I remember the goal very vividly, and I think a lot of people in New York, from my old bunch, they remember it too. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing really, especially the way the atmosphere was in the Garden that night. If I missed, I would have been a complete bum, but I scored, so I was a hero for years. No doubt that was one of the highlights of my career in New York. That put us in the playoffs and the Red Wings out."

"I remember the goal very vividly, and I think a lot of people in New York, from my old bunch, they remember it too. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing really, especially the way the atmosphere was in the Garden that night. If I missed, I would have been a complete bum, but I scored, so I was a hero for years."
-- Andy Bathgate

Emotionally, Bathgate's shot and the 3-2 victory against the Wings certainly gave the Rangers the jolt of energy they needed. But they still had four games left. They won twice and tied once in those four games and edged the Wings for the final playoff spot, 64 points to 60.

Despite the euphoria surrounding the "Bathgate Penalty Shot Game," as it came to be known, and the mad rush of fans to acquire Stanley Cup Playoff tickets, it was to be a short playoff run for the 1961-62 squad. They were unable to get past the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round. The teams split the first four games, but the Leafs won the next two, primarily on the strength of emerging superstar Frank Mahovlich. The Leafs would go on to win the Cup that year, their first of three in a row.

Bathgate was with the Leafs for the third one. The Blueshirts returned to their losing ways, and he was dealt to Toronto in February 1964 as part of a deal that helped the Leafs repeat as Cup champs and started the rebuilding of the Rangers.

Bathgate wasn't disappointed in the trade after more than a decade in New York.

"I was always treated very well in New York," he said of his years with the Rangers. "I would never say a bad word about the treatment I got from the fans. But you're playing and hoping to see some bright young star come along, like Rod (Gilbert) a couple of years behind me. There really wasn't a lot of high-caliber youngsters coming along behind me. Toronto and Montreal and Detroit were getting their hands on them before we could get them."

Bathgate was eventually acquired by the Detroit Red Wings, and then by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1967 expansion draft. He played his last NHL game with the Penguins in 1970-71. But hockey was still Bathgate's passion. He was player-coach with Ambri-Piotta in Switzerland for a season, and such was his renown that fans actually chartered trains to see him play.

Bathgate was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978. Initially, the Hall displayed Bathgate's final jersey with the Penguins. Andy quickly had that replaced with a Rangers sweater. Nearly 45 years to the date that he was dealt away, Bathgate's No. 9 finally hangs in honor at the Garden.

Excerpted from "Game of My Life: New York Rangers" by John Kreiser and John Halligan.

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