By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
Forty-five years ago tonight, Hockey Hall of Famers Andy Bathgate
and Harry Howell
faced each other as opponents for the first time in their hockey careers.
Three days earlier, they had played their last of more than 700 games as Rangers teammates at Madison Square Garden. Neither man knew it at the time, but more than four decades would pass before they returned to The Garden as a team to hear the fans cheer for them once again.
|Andy Bathgate, shown at last week's pre-event press conference and in an inset publicity shot from the 1950s, said he never thought he'd be coming back to MSG to see his number go to the rafters. |
Tonight, in a special 6:30 p.m. “Legendary Blue” ceremony prior to the Rangers-Maple Leafs game, Bathgate and Howell will become the seventh and eighth men to watch their Rangers numbers raised to the rafters of Madison Square Garden. No. 9 will go up for Bathgate, and No. 3 for Howell. Months in the making, this magical moment will come just 19 days after the most recent such ceremony for Adam Graves.
If you are at least 50 years old and have loved the Blueshirts for much of your life, you might have been fortunate enough to see these two great Rangers share the ice at MSG as players. But if you are any age and plan on watching tonight’s Legendary Blue pregame ceremony in person or on TV, then you only have to love the Blueshirts now to appreciate the importance of this event in Rangers history.
Having their numbers retired tonight is a fitting tribute to two great stars who never asked for personal accolades and were actually surprised to learn they would be in the spotlight tonight.
“I never expected it.” Bathgate said to reporters last week. “Truthfully, who isn’t surprised? Most of you never saw me play, so you are going on what you hear or looking at the record books.”
For Howell, tonight might offer a sense of déjà vu. In 1967, the Blueshirts held another pregame ceremony as a tribute to Howell’s having played 1,000 NHL games. The gala event at the Old Garden on Eighth Ave. between 49th and 50th Streets included every sort of tribute short of a number-retirement.
|Harry Howell will be the focus of a major pregame MSG ceremony for the second time tonight, becoming the only Ranger honored with pregame events at both the Old Garden and the current Garden. |
“It’s quite an honor. Like Andy, I didn’t really expect it to happen, but all of a sudden we’re both going in at the same time,” Howell said. “ I look at it as both a privilege and an honor to have your sweater retired. … Some people had mentioned (the possibility of a retirement event) to me, but I never brought up that subject.”
The Legendary Blue tribute to Bathgate and Howell makes history as the second jersey-retirement event in a single Rangers season and the first to honor more than one player at a time. The pairing, however, is perfect, since Bathgate and Howell played for so long as teammates and have remained close friends throughout their post-hockey careers.
The ceremony has one other twist. Because No. 3 is going to the rafters for Howell, it can no longer be worn by current Rangers defenseman Michal Rozsival, who will play his first game in his new No. 33 at The Garden tonight.
Tonight’s ceremony is sure to be emotional for longtime Rangers fans who will be able to share the moment with their children and grandchildren as well as for newer fans who will get a taste of the rich history of a Rangers organization that had already existed for nearly 50 years as the first and last word in New York hockey before another NHL team moved into the metro area.
Of course, the greatest emotions will undoubtedly be felt by Bathgate and Howell themselves as these two friends of nearly 60 years watch their numbers go to the rafters at the current Madison Square Garden. Despite the time that has passed since their playing days at MSG, these men remain the greatest of Rangers legends who thrilled a generation of Rangers fans like few others in history.
Bathgate was an artistic, creative forward who saw the ice like few others of his era. He was the Rangers all-time leader in goals, assists and points at the end of the Original Six era and still holds the team record of scoring goals in 10 consecutive games. His No. 9 will Graves’ in the rafters tonight, although Graves himself respectfully refers to Bathgate as the “greatest Rangers No. 9”.
Like Graves, Bathgate was known throughout his career for class and humility. When asked about his place in Rangers history last week, he could hardly keep the focus on himself.
“You’re only as good as your linemates,” he said. “If we don’t work together, you’re not going to be successful. I couldn’t dominate a hockey game like Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe and Johnny Bucyk and Rocket Richard. I needed good linemates like Dean (Prentice) and Larry (Popein).”
Bathgate, who found out his number was going to be retired last year when he received a surprise visit from Graves, said he is honored to share the No. 9 with a player from a later generation.
“I’ve always respected him (Graves) as a nice outgoing guy who always came to play,” said Bathgate. He was a real credit to (the Rangers). He’s a very nice person.”
Howell was a disciplined, steady defenseman whose greatness wasn’t fully appreciated until the latter stages of his career, when he became the last Original Six era blueliner to win the James Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best at his position. He remains the Rangers’ all-time games-played leader with 1,160. Given the nature of today’s free agency and salary cap restrictions, that could be the most daunting mark in the entire Rangers record book.
“I’ve always considered myself a Ranger,” said Howell. “I may have played 250 games or so elsewhere, but I have always been a Ranger. So, this is very special for me.”
Asked to compare tonight’s tribute to being inducted into the Hall of Fame 31 years ago, Bathgate didn’t hesitate to answer.
“To me, this is the ultimate for myself. I can’t go any further. The Hall of Fame was from the hockey people, but this is from the people of New York. It’s the culmination of what I did. When you are playing, you never dream you can do this, and now it comes so you take it in a good stride without bragging about it.”
While tonight is first and foremost about thanking Bathgate and Howell for their years of service to the Rangers, it is also a celebration of the Original Six era – a distinct quarter-century period when the NHL had only six teams and the special relationship between hockey player and hockey fans was solidified forever.
Bathgate and Howell will be joined at tonight’s ceremony by many of the greatest Rangers from the Original Six years. Stars from the 1950s and 1960s will parade across the ice a ceremony that could stir memories of the remarkable event celebrating the closing of the Old Garden in 1968.
On that night 41 years ago, the Rangers also brought back their biggest names from 30 and 40 years earlier in an even that also celebrated the Original Six era and remains one of the most memorable pregame ceremonies in all of New York sports history. Fittingly, Bathgate and Howell were both at that event, too.