By Stan Fischler
As a hockey historian, I can assure you that Andy Bathgate is responsible for two of the most important changes in the manner in which hockey has been played.
What would The Game be like today without goaltenders wearing face masks, players using curved sticks and taking slap shots with them?
|Andy Bathgate scored many of his 272 Rangers goals with a unique set of moves few of his contemporaries were even capable of executing. |
The answer, of course, is that it would be a vastly different -- perhaps less exciting -- spectacle than what we've come to expect in the past three decades of puck-watching.
Hard as it may be for some to believe, but Winnipeg-born Bathgate was directly involved with the inception of goalie-masks, the slapshot and the curved stick.
I was there at Madison Square Garden when the first goaltender's face protector made its debut. But first, a bit of history.
Prior to a Rangers-Canadiens game on Nov. 1, 1959, goaltenders faced shots without facial protection. Masks were regarded as effete, un-masculine and non-macho.
One goalie thought otherwise, but that man, Jacques Plante, was forbidden from donning his metal mask by Habs coach Toe Blake. A Bathgate shot at Madison Square Garden changed all that.
The six-ounce hunk of vulcanized rubber struck Plante in the face, falling him in a pool of blood. After retiring for repairs, Plante returned to the ice wearing a plastic mask and won the game.
From that point on, the mask became a standard part of Plante's equipment.
As for Plante, in his first 11 games wearing the mask, he allowed but 13 goals. Jacques had Andy Bathgate to thank for that.
During that period, Bathgate had perfected the art of the slapshot and introduced a curved stick that soon was copied by virtually every sharpshooter in the league.
If there is one word that describes Andy Bathgate as both a player and person, that word is class. Like Montreal Canadiens majestic center and captain Jean Beliveau, Bathgate was the penultimate role model for young fans.
He was the epitome of artistry. He played the game cleanly, but was also an excellent fighter when the occasion demanded rough stuff.
How good was Bathgate?
He has been favorably compared to Bill Cook, who is considered the greatest of the early Rangers right wings.
Bathgate was the consummate performer. He combined the art of stick-handling and shooting to near perfection. His shot, which he endlessly practiced, became so devastating that it was in a class with the mighty blasts of Bobby Hull and Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, both of whom were his contemporaries.
Bathgate wasn't quite as flashy as Hull nor blessed with All-Star teammates as Geoffrion was, but he was good enough to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player in 1959 and was voted to the First All-Star Team at right wing in 1959 and 1962 as well as the second team in 1958 and 1963.
The Bathgate bloc could detail a litany of beauteous plays executed by its hero. One that qualifies among his best was a one-on-one play: Bathgate vs. the Chicago goaltender, Glen Hall.
At the time, Hall, alias Mister Goalie, was the best netminder in the business. On this occasion, Bathgate received a pass directly in front of Hall and slightly to the right of the net. Rather than simply shoot the puck, Andy performed a 180-degree pirouette, appearing at the left side of the cage with the puck still on his stick. Hall remained with Bathgate until Andy completely reversed the move with another pirouette, this time ending up precisely where he had begun. By this time, Hall's body was so contorted that he was literally unable to move, whereupon Bathgate deposited the rubber in the empty right corner for a goal. It was vintage Bathgate, and a play that few, if any, could duplicate.
Bathgate earned acclaim as one of the most threatening shooters in the game. "I worked on my shooting for at least 15 minutes every single day," Bathgate explained. "To my mind, shooting practice is one of the most overlooked aspects of the game. I see coaches emphasizing skating all the time, but to me, the most important thing is shooting the puck. When you shoot the puck, it's not how straight it is that counts; it's the quickness of the release, and that's what I kept working on when I was a Ranger."
Bathgate's most memorable goal as a Ranger took place on March 14, 1962. The significance of the match was this: the Blueshirts and Red Wings were in a neck-and-neck battle for the fourth and final playoff berth. The Red Wings were visiting Madison Square Garden for the game which would determine the last spot. Adding to the drama was Detroit legend Gordie Howe in pursuit of his 500th NHL goal.
The match before a roaring crowd had all the elements of a seventh game of a Stanley Cup Final. Howe added to the melodrama by beating Gump Worsley to reach his landmark goal, going around Rangers' Hall of Fame defenseman-coach Doug Harvey to make the score.
But that was only the beginning of the Alfred Hitchcock-like script. With the teams tied in the third period and the Rangers peppering Detroit goalie Hank Bassen, an unusual break occurred for the Blueshirts.
Worsley recalled that "Dean Prentice, our left wing, was skating toward the Wings' net on a breakaway when Bassen slid his stick over the ice to break up the play. Eddie Powers, the referee, called for a penalty shot and didn't object when Andy Bathgate skated out to take it. Powers forgot that the rules had been changed that season. Prentice, and not Bathgate, should have taken the shot.
"Bathgate gave Bassen a couple of his slick dekes on the way in. Bassen flopped on his face and Andy had an open net to shoot at. He didn't miss and we won the game 3-2."
Had Prentice taken the shot, it might have been a different story. Dean was a solid performer but he had none of Bathgate's skill as a stickhandler. The penalty shot was tailor-made for Bathgate and some wags say that had there not been a wooden barrier at the side of the rink, Bassen would have been faked into the Hudson River. Whatever the case, the quasi-illegitimate win gave the Blueshirts the victory they needed and propelled them into the playoffs against the Toronto Maple Leafs.