Rod Gilbert's Ranger career was almost derailed before it even began. The 1959-60 OHA season was coming to an end, and Gilbert had received word he was an emergency call-up for the New York Rangers, but when he tripped over some debris in the season's final game and crashed into the boards, all considerations for the NHL would be put on hold.
Gilbert required surgery to fuse three verterbrae in his back, and used that Summer to recover, and he was back on the ice again to turn out for the Kitchener-Waterloo Beavers for the 1960-61. Now 19, the young Montreal native finally got another chance on November 27th, 1960 with a one game call-up in the Rangers' game against the Chicago Blackhawks. Gilbert would get the primary assist on the game-tying goal, combining with goalscorer Dean Prentice and Ranger legend Andy Bathgate to earn the club a point.
He'd go back to the EPHL that year, and would get another one game cameo the following season, before finally winning a full-time spot in 1962 out of training camp.
The Rangers weren't very good back in the 1960s, having been first decimated by the 1960s, and then partly at the mercy of the more Northern clubs who claimed most of the prime prospects as their own, well before the NHL Entry Draft was introduced and tweaked to make it more equitable.
Gilbert became a Rangers property courtesy of signing a contract with the Ranger sponsored Guelph Biltmores. He also helped the Rangers out too, by convincing the coach to sign fellow Montrealer Jean Ratelle, who he claimed was even better than he was.
In his first full season, Gilbert recorded 11 goals and 20 assists in 70 games, but quickly improved on that in 1963-64 when he more than doubled his output, with 24 goalls and 40 assists in 70 appearances. Despite the quick rise, the Rangers were heading for their fifth time missing the playoffs in six seasons. Quite the feat in a six team league.
A similar season in 1964-65 which saw him reach 25 goals for the first time to go with 36 points was followed up by more back problems in the injury marred following season. The bone graft that he'd had to help stabilize his back, was being rejected and it almost cost the young winger his life. In Gilbert's recollection, he "died" on the operating table, but heard his coach and General Manager Emile Francis tell the nurse that they had to save him because he was their best player. Gilbert it was enough for him to return to his body.
He was back again for the 1966-67 season and while his assist total dropped somewhat, he set a new career high with 28 goals, and equally important helped guide the Rangers back to the playoffs. The playoffs would be a common theme for the next decade, as he combined with Ratelle and left-winger Vic Hadfield to form the "Goal a Game" or GAG line, a name they easily lived up to.
The playoff run would last nine straight seasons, equalling the franchise's best streak from their inaugural year, and Rod Gilbert featured in all nine of them. His best chance came in the 1971-72 season, when the Rangers put up a staggering 4.06 goals a game. Hadfield became the first Rangers to record 50 goals, while Gilbert had 43 and center Ratelle 46 in just 63 games.
Unfortunately for the Rangers Ratelle's ankle was broken in the regular season, and it forced him to miss the last 15 games, as well as the first two rounds of the playoffs. Without their star center, the Rangers still made it past the previous year's champion Montreal Canadiens in six games, and then took care of the Blackhawks in a sweep, avenging the prior year's series loss.
For the final the team rushed back Ratelle, who later admitted not being fully ready. They faced up against the power house Bruins and NHL legendary defenseman Bobby Orr. Boston won the first two games a home by a goal apiece, with Rod Gilbert registering a goal in each. He'd step it up in Game 3 with two goals to bring the series back to 2-1, but the Bruins would ultimately win the series 4-2.
After that the Rangers began to fade. Hadfield got traded after the 1973-74 season, while Ratelle and Brad Park went a year later. Even fan favorite Eddie Giacomin was placed and claimed off waivers in that 1974-75 season, putting an end to an era.
Gilbert stayed on through it all and finally called it a career at the age of 36 after a contract dispute with GM John Ferguson took the passion out of the game for him and prompted him to retire part way through the 1977-78 season.
While the ending wasn't particularly graceful, the Rangers responded quickly by announcing that he'd be the first Ranger to receive the honor of having their number retired. On October 14th, 1979, Rod Gilbert watched as his #7 was raised to the rafters.
In total, Gilbert would finish with 406 goals and 1021 point as a Ranger, both franchise records. He played a total of 1065 regular season games, and a further 79 in the playoffs.
Following his retirement, Gilbert would continue working with the team, serving as an ambassador. Those who worked with him tell of his unselfishness, his positivity and his humbleness, and how he had a passion for the fans and the team.
He was there with Ron Duguay at the 1994 Stanley Cup win, celebrating the team's final breakthrough, and he was a fixture at the ensuing jersey retirements through the years. Always ready to be a part of the team, no matter who was playing or running the organization.
Through my entire 25 years of following the Rangers, Rod Gilbert has been a constant presence and part of the team, and it seemed like it would always be so, but age catches up with us all eventually.
To Rod Gilbert, Mr Ranger...Rest in Peace.