Sunday's alumni gathering: (Front) Bob Nevin, Harry Howell, Ed Giacomin, Emile Francis, Vic Hadfield, Rod Gilbert. (Back) Nick Fotiu, Brad Park, Walt Tkaczuk, Andre Dore, Jim Schoenfeld, Anders Hedberg, Tom Laidlaw, Steve Vickers, Ron Duguay, Rick Middleton, Glen Sather, Adam Graves, Mark Janssens.
Five days into their 2007 training camp experience, Rangers players will take time out from their on-ice practices and weight-room conditioning regimen today to pay tribute to one of the most special and beloved people in the entire Rangers organization.
Following this morning's practice, the Blueshirts will be hitting the links to take part in the 25th Annual Rangers Golf Classic. The afternoon on the golf course will bring current Rangers face-to-face with some of the greatest players in the team's history, who have returned to New York this week to honor one of their own at a post-golfing dinner event.
Rod Gilbert, the highest-scoring Ranger of all-time, will be the guest of honor this evening. Gilbert, the longtime Rangers Alumni Association president, has been a driving force in the team's community relations efforts since rejoining the organization 18 years ago. In his additional role of Director, Special Projects and Community Relations Representative, he is a year-round ambassador for the team.
Now age 66 and nearly 30 years removed from his last NHL game, the Hall of Famer is still going strong. His involvement in countless charities, most notably the Ronald McDonald House, have kept him in touch with generations of Rangers fans, including all those members of the current Garden Faithful, who are reminded of Gilbert's place in history each time they glance up at his No. 7 in the rafters. That number has been up there since Oct. 14, 1979, when it became the first one retired by the organization.
Among his many Rangers Alumni Association, activities, Gilbert played a major role in the growth and development of today's golf outing, which honors a different member of the Rangers family each year. For the 25th anniversary of the event, the Rangers will be paying tribute to Gilbert himself, not just for his playing career but also for tireless efforts to help other Rangers alumni and raise millions of dollars for local and national charities.
On Sunday night, a large number of former players and coaches gathered with Gilbert in an annual meeting of the Rangers Alumni Association. The group featured players who shared the spotlight with Rod in each of his 18 seasons with the team. Many of these legends will be out on the golf course with the current Rangers today.
"What an exciting time of the year," Gilbert said on Sunday. "This golf tournament serves two purposes. First, we're helping with the Alumni Association, which assists former players in need. And second, we welcome back the present Rangers players and wish them well for the whole year. We let them know the former players are proud of them and we support them."
The current Rangers can certainly draw inspiration from all of the former stars joining them on the links today. The group includes former Gilbert teammates Eddie Giacomin, Emile Francis, Brad Park, Harry Howell, Vic Hadfield, Bob Nevin, Walter Tkaczuk, Ron Duguay, Nick Fotiu, Steve Vickers, Rick Middleton, and Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather.
"Rod signifies everything that being a Ranger is all about," said Adam Graves, who works closely with Gilbert on Rangers' efforts in the community. "The way he carries himself. The class and the appreciation of what it means to be a Ranger. If you don't understand that, you can just look at Rod and see how it oozes out of him. He lives every day to its fullest. He truly loves New York and loves having the privilege of wearing the red, white and blue and representing the New York Rangers.
"I think as a friend, you can look at him and see the way he treats people. He's got one of the softest hearts of anyone that ever played. He always has time for everyone. I certainly have grown to admire him greatly. Not just because of the way he played as a player, but more importantly, who he is as a person."
Former Rangers are not alone in their respect and admiration for Gilbert. Today's golf outing marks the second time the Blueshirts great has been honored this month. A couple of weeks ago, Gilbert was in Toronto to receive the NHL Alumni Association's Man of the Year Award. He became the sixth winner of this honor, a kind of post-hockey Hall of Fame for former players who have always gone to bat for others. Other winners have included Ted Lindsay, Andy Bathgate, Jean Beliveau, Al Arbour and Johnny Bower.
"It was very, very prestigious, because it's all my peers," Gilbert said. "There have been thousands of players in the history of the NHL, and they could have picked anyone. But I guess my association for the last 25 years here with the Rangers Alumni played a role."
Fellow Rangers legend Bathgate presented Gilbert with his Man of the Year Award,
"Andy Bathgate was my hero when I was (playing junior) in Guelph, and then I got to come up here and played with him. So it was very emotional," said Gilbert. "Having him introduce me was pretty touching. Because I picked up the baton from him here. Right when he was a star, I came up and had big shoes to fill."
Gilbert went on to eclipse many of Bathgate's career marks and remains the Rangers' all-time leader in goals (406) and points (1,021).
The evening in Toronto was a thrill for Gilbert, much like the day 25 years ago when he entered the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"The Hall of Fame is pretty emotional," said Gilbert. "As a player, you feel that you never could make that. You don't think about that until your career is well over."
In his speech at the NHL Alumni Association event, Gilbert spoke about his childhood relationship with his brother and having to learn English when he left his native Montreal. He even told stories about being mistaken for a forest ranger instead of a New York Ranger and stumping the entire panel on the popular game show "What's My Line?"
"I was the mystery guest on that show. They had a mask over my face, but I had them stumped with the mask and without the mask," Gilbert recalled. "They didn't even know who I was."
Everyone associated with the Rangers, however, knows everything there is to know about Rod Gilbert, and what he means to the organization. Tonight, they will be more than happy to toast his more than four-decade association with the team.
"I don't like to overuse this term, but he's a 'legendary' player," said Graves. "When you think of the New York Rangers, you think of Rod Gilbert."