Friday, February 26, 2016

Andy Bathgate, 1932-2016

Say what you want about the New York Rangers, and I've said plenty, but there was a time when they didn't "suck." And they had honored 8 men with retired numbers, and all were still alive.

That is no longer the case.

Andrew James Bathgate was born on August 28, 1932, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He played in the minor leagues for 2 teams whose names would later be borne by NHL teams: The Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League, and the Vancouver Canucks of the Western Hockey League. He debuted with the Rangers in the 1952-53 season, and gave them his all for 11 seasons.

Were they good seasons? For him, yes: In 7 straight seasons, 1956-57 to 1962-63, under a 70-game schedule, he scored at least 26 goals. In 1958-59, he topped out at 40, a big number for the time (a pretty good number now), and won the Hart Trophy as NHL Most Valuable Player. He was named to 4 All-Star Games.

For the Rangers, not so much: In only 4 of his 11 seasons with them did they make the Playoffs: 1956, 1957, 1958 and 1962, never getting closer than within 2 games of the Finals, although they did lose to the eventual Champions in 3 of the 4. In 2 of those seasons, 1953 and 1960, they finished 6th -- and there were only 6 teams at the time.

The Rangers of the Eisenhower and Kennedy years weren't as bad as the worst teams of the post-expansion era, but when goaltender Lorne "Gump" Worsley was asked which team gave him the most trouble, he said, "The Rangers." (He was traded to the Montreal Canadiens in 1963, and helped them win 4 Stanley Cups.) Bathgate, Worsley, and defenseman Harry Howell, all future members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, were pretty much the only reasons to watch the Rangers at the time.

The January 12, 1959 issue of Sports Illustrated put him on the cover (didn't jinx him, as it turned out), and the cover story was titled "Andy Bathgate: Is He the Greatest Ranger of Them All?" Perhaps not: Frank Boucher, Captain of their 1928 and 1933 Cup wins, and coach of their 1940 win, probably was, and probably still is.

But Andy deserved to be in the conversation then, and still does now. Howell agreed, saying he was the greatest player ever to put on the team's jersey: "He was our star, our premier player, our marquee attraction, and deservedly so."

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Andy put his reputation as the holder of the Hart Trophy on the line in a big way. The January 1960 issue of True magazine published an article titled "Atrocities On Ice," with his name on it, but ghostwritten by Dave Anderson, a legendary sportswriter then working for the New York Journal-American. (Working for that paper in 1957, he claimed to have been the last person to leave the press box after the last game at Ebbets Field. He later moved to The New York Times, and is now 86 years old.)

"Unchecked brutality is going to kill somebody," Anderson quoted Bathgate as saying. He specifically cited spearing, the tactic of stabbing an opponent with the blade of the hockey stick. He named and shamed, including future Hall-of-Famers Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Doug Harvey, Tom Johnson and Fern Flaman. He also cited his own Ranger teammate, Lou Fontinato. "None of them," Bathgate said, "seems to care that he'l be branded as a hockey killer." In 2010, 50 years after the fact, Bathgate stood by his story: "Red Sullivan, I saw him speared right in front of our bench and have his spleen punctured."

Howe and Fontinato may have stuck in his mind because, the season before, Howe, the best player in the game but also a feared fighter, and Fontinato, the best-known goon in the game at the time, engaged in one of the nastiest fights that any building named Madison Square Garden has ever seen. Howe left Fontinato with a nose shaped like a crescent moon and red blood pouring down his blue Ranger jersey.

Responders to the article claimed that the Rangers ran interference, and that spearing was used to defend against it. The NHL fined him $1,000 (about $8,000 in today's money), at a time when he was making just $18,000 a year (about $144,000 now, and he was one of the best in the game), but it also changed the rule before the next season. "They still didn't give me my $1,000 back," Andy said. "It burns my ass at times, but you have to stand up for it. Sometimes, you've got to speak up for the betterment of hockey, because someone was going to get seriously hurt."

A few weeks before the True article, Bathgate brought about another change in hockey safety, and this time, it was unintentional. On November 1, 1959, playing for the Rangers at the old Garden, he fired a shot that hit Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante in the face.

Well, the end result was unintentional. The shot was on purpose: "It was deliberate on my part, because of what he did to me," Bathgate said, referring to a poke-check that sent him crashing into the boards, resulting in cuts to his face. "I thought to myself, 'Okay, I can't fight him, because the whole team would jump on me,'" he said, remembering that the Habs had the aforementioned Harvey and Johnson, and such talented hotheads as Maurice "the Rocket" Richard and Bernie Geoffrion.

"So I went into the dressing room and quickly got stitched up... His head was sticking out there, just like a chicken, just so he could see what was going on... It was actually a wrist shot. It wasn't a hard shot, but I tried to give it to him the same as me, and I guess I caught him. It was a shot with feeling in it. It wasn't a blast, and I wasn't trying to score, because the angle was really bad. But his head was sticking out, and I decided, if he wanted to play those little games... "

(In Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey, Todd Denault's biography from which this quote is taken, it just trails off like that.)

Does this make Bathgate a hypocrite because of his complaint against spearing? I don't think so. He had a hard shot, although not as hard as the slap shot that gave Geoffrion, a pioneer in it that inspired the nickname "Boom-Boom." If Bathgate really wanted to hurt Plante with a shot, he could have used a lot more force. He didn't want to end Plante's career, season, or even game: He just wanted to make a point. Message received: Plante never poke-checked him again.

Plante left the ice to receive treatment, and refused to return without the mask he'd designed, but hadn't been allowed to wear. Canadiens coach Hector "Toe" Blake, one of the people who would defend the use of spearing against the Rangers, relented, and Plante became the 1st goalie to regularly wear a mask in the NHL. (A 1920s goalie named Clint Benedict had briefly worn one after an injury.) Plante's confidence restored, the defending Champion Canadiens beat the Rangers, 3-1.

Ironically, Plante would be acquired by the Rangers in the trade for Worsley, each having worn out his welcome with his former team, and he and Bathgate would briefly be teammates. To extend the irony, Worsley would end up being the last NHL goalie to refuse to wear a mask, with the 1974 Minnesota North Stars: "My face is my mask."

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In 1961, the Rangers named him Captain. In 1964, they traded him to the 2-time defending Cup-winners, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Just the Rangers' luck, he finally won a Cup. In fact, he scored the winning goal in Game 7, past the legendary Terry Sawchuk, putting the Leafs on the board in what became a 4-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings.

"Finally," he said, "I knew what it was like to win the Stanley Cup, to hold it skyward, cradle it like a baby, and hug it like a loved one."

He was traded to the Red Wings in 1966, and reached another Stanley Cup Finals. He was an original Pittsburgh Penguin in the expansion season of 1967-68, scoring the 1st goal in franchise history, and played a bit longer in the minors. He closed his career as player-coach of the World Hockey Association's Vancouver Blazers in 1975.

He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame, and the Manitoba and Ontario Sports Halls of Fame. In 1998, in celebration of their 50th Anniversary, The Hockey News named their 100 Greatest Hockey Players, and listed him as Number 58. The next year, he was named the right wing on the Manitoba All-Century All-Star Team.

On February 22, 2009, the Rangers retired Number 9 for him -- having already done so for Adam Graves -- and Number 3 for Howell. Why they waited so long, who knows, but at least they were still alive at the time. They were joined on the ice by the Rangers' other honorees: Graves; 1, Eddie Giacomin; 2, Brian Leetch; 7, Rod Gilbert; 11, Mark Messier; and 35, Mike Richter. Later that year, the team released the book 100 Ranger Greats, and Bathgate came in at Number 8.
L to R: Gilbert, Giacomin, Richter, Messier, Leetch, Graves, Bathgate, Howell.
They are lined up in the order in which their numbers were retired.

To this day, 52 years after he last played a shift for the franchise, he ranks 4th on the Rangers' all-time scoring list with 729 points, behind Gilbert, Leetch and Jean Ratelle.

In retirement, he ran a golf driving range in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, and coached a team that included his grandson, also named Andy Bathgate, who now plays for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Andy Bathgates, at the elder's driving range

Andy Bathgate died this afternoon. He was 83 years old. As of yet, no cause of death has been released.

Until today, he was a living legend, a reminder of the days when the Rangers were the only hockey team in the New York Tri-State Area, and no one questioned that it should be so. He was a class act, who tried to make the game more of a class act. He should be remembered for his talent and his decency, as a man worthy of the Stanley Cup and the Hall of Fame.

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