Dan Rattiner's Stories

Who’s Here: Rod Gilbert, Hockey Legend

Rod Gilbert (pronounced jill-bear) has lived for the past 20 years at the crest of a hill in Sag Harbor, overlooking from his glass and wood house the sunset over Long Beach in one direction and the sunrise over Sag Harbor bay in the other. This spectacular view, from a house designed by his wife, Judy, is a fitting retirement home for one of the greatest figures in New York sports, a man who during his prime amassed records playing for the New York Rangers hockey team that have not been broken to this day. He’s scored more goals than any other Ranger. His total points exceeded 1,000 and that team recond has never been broken. And his number 7 was retired at the conclusion of his career in a ceremony at Madison Square Garden, the first ever retired by that team. It cannot be worn ever again by a player for the Rangers.

I sat with Rod by the pool on the deck overlooking the sunset and we talked about his career. He is neither big nor powerful. At 5 foot 9, he never stood out physically from his teammates. The speed, cunning and accuracy of his slap shots made him one of the greats. Many years ago he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and there are few hockey fans who do not recall him with great fondness.

Rod Gilbert was born in a suburb of Montreal, Canada called Pointe aux Trembles. He had two older brothers, an older sister, and one younger brother. It was a very tight-knit French Canadian family in a community that spoke entirely in French. He went to a Catholic school just across Rue de St. Jean deBaptist, the street they lived on. The school was Brothers of the Sacred Heart, and he went there from grades 1 through 12. He and his family went to church every Sunday, and every night at 7, just before dinner, the said the rosary, following Cardinal Leger speaking it on the radio. In French, of course. Rod told me he knew no other language but French until he was about 10.

“We were a very close family,” Rod told me. “For all my growing-up years, my family shared every meal together—breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was a strict, Catholic upbringing.”

It was also a very busy neighborhood. It was filled with children of all ages.

“My parents had five children. Most of the neighbors had 10 or 12 children. I have to say it was a wonderful upbringing. There were so many of us. We played baseball, gymnastics, hockey and all other sports.” There was always something going on.

Rod’s father was a blacksmith. He shoed horses, at first for the horses that towed the milk wagons through Montreal, and later for the horses that ran at the nearby racetrack.

The blacksmith shop was on the same property as the house. There were boarders upstairs at his house. All the boys in the family slept in one room, his parents slept in a second and his sister, the third.

“I worked for my dad as soon as I was old enough,” Rod told me. “I cleaned up after the horses, fixed up the shop. But I decided I didn’t want to be a blacksmith.”

I asked him if he liked being in Montreal. He told me he and his friends almost never went downtown. It was nearly an hour on a trolley car. They all thought, for the first 10 or 11 years of their lives, that this neighborhood was the world—the world where everybody spoke French, everybody was French Canadian, everybody had to shovel snow most of the year and it got down to 20 below.

“I didn’t know it was sunny and warm someplace else until I was 11,” he told me.

And he really didn’t learn more than a few words in English until he was found by a scout for the New York Rangers at the age of 14 and taken to a training camp in Ontario.

We spent a lot of time talking about his growing up. Everybody played hockey. The city had rinks on almost every block, but those who played at them had to shovel off the snow. “Ten guys with shovels,” Rod said. On the other hand, the school across the street had the best outdoor rink to play on, and the brothers hired people to keep it snow free.

Rod heaped high praise on the education he got at Catholic school. They studied mathematics, history, geography, spelling, writing. He remembered being envious of the kids in the neighborhood, though, who were not so devout as his family was. “On summer evenings, at 7 p.m., they were out playing. I was saying the rosary.”

He remembered staying home, reading. He loved detective books, particularly the series about Tintin. “He was a French boy. He went to the moon, he went to the bottom of the sea. He had a dog, a little Jack Russell, that went with him, Milu.”

And he remembered going to church with the boys sitting on one side of the aisle and the girls on the other, and he was 10 and would be caught looking at the girls. The nuns would report him to the brothers. And the brothers would beat him with a strap, “10 hits with the right hand, 10 hits with the left.”

And he remembered his older sister, at 14, having girlfriends over to the house for parties. He was 10. And they would dance with him and hold him close.

“You had to learn to dance in our neighborhood,” he said. “Everybody danced. You didn’t get kissed by a girl if you didn’t dance. So you learned. As for my sister and her friends, they thought I was 10, what could I do? But I knew, and I had thoughts. So I would have to go to confession.”

He remembered being taught by the brothers that the man who discovered America was named Christophe Colon, a Frenchman.

“Well, that’s what I thought they meant. It wasn’t until I was in Italy years later that I was told it was Christopher Columbus and he was Italian. I argued for a while about that. I was sure they were wrong.”

Gilbert’s skill as a hockey player was apparent from the very start. He was so good, he was always put into a league that was the next step up from his age group. There was the pee-wee league. He was put in bantam. When he was a bantam, they put him in midget. Hockey is the national sport of Canada.

“When I was about six, I’d go over to the blacksmith shop, and at that time there was this old man who came over to sit around with some of his friends and play checkers. He said he was the uncle to Boom Boom Geoffrion, who was the star player for the Montreal Canadiens at that time. Boom Boom had this terrific slap shot. Nobody could block it. Boom, it would hit the boards. Boom, it would hit the goal. I think I did a million slap shots that year, against the wall, against a target. I mastered it.”

Gilbert showed me how a slap shot is done. It’s not a flick of the wrist. It’s a whole sudden swing with the stick when the moment comes. Accuracy is difficult. He learned it. And he became known for it.

“My oldest brother became my mentor,” Rod told me. “He was a good player, but as a big guy he was a kind of fighter. I was good, but when the bigger guys would try to fight with me, he’d step in and flatten them. I felt protected.”

When Rod was 14, it was apparent that he would become a serious hockey player in Canada. He had learned strategy, had a great ability to see where everybody was on the ice, and was extremely fast with his great shot. He began playing on town teams. And, without his brother, he learned to protect himself. Hockey involves fighting. But Rod was not a fighter. But he was quick with his stick to strike anyone who would menace him.

“The other players would have to intimidate me to slow me down,” he said, “and I’d have to keep them off me.”

Rod described one particular outing. His brother had arranged for him to be part of an “industrial” team, a team of semi-professionals who were between 25 and 35 and worked in the factories in the area. “One day we drove 200 miles north to the mining town of Amos, to play a two-game tournament with the team up there. We lost the first game. In the second game, we were ahead and doing so well that at a certain point, the entire team of miners came down on the ice to get us. They wanted to kill us. Seven cop cars came and got us out of there.”

Soon after that, the coach of this industrial team became a scout for the New York Rangers. Rod was 16. He didn’t apply. They already knew him. And, at the urging of his older brother, the scout arranged for Rod to play in a higher league based in Ontario for a team from Guelph, based 50 miles out of Toronto.

“This was a problem,” Rod told me. “It was all in English. I was the only person who did not speak English and I had to learn fast. Did you know that in French a f—k is a kind of seal? But that word for seal is in everyday use among hockey players. Who knew?”

Rod played for the Guelph Bilmores for four years, and in the fourth year an accident happened that nearly ruined his career. During a practice, he simply slipped on the ice and hit the boards hard, hard enough to break a lower vertebrate in his back. He had to have spinal fusion surgery, was out a year, but then came back better then ever. That next year he won the Tilson Award, the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy in football. He was considered the best rookie hockey player in Canada.

And so, at 19, he went directly from Guelph to the front line of the New York Rangers.

“They knew what they got,” Rod grinned. But, he told me, they didn’t pay much. In those early years, he couldn’t afford Manhattan. On a $7,000 salary, he lived in a boarding house in Weehawken, New Jersey.

Soon, he was the hero of the team. As as part of the fierce Ratelle-Hadfield-Gilbert offensive line, he was one of the most popular bachelors in the city. He wouldn’t marry until he was 32.

In those years, the Upper East Side of Manhattan was the location of choice for all the pro athletes in the city. They all knew one another and partied together. One of Rod’s friends was Jerry Philbin, a receiver for the NY Jets. Philbin also had a house in Quogue and in the summers they partied there.

“I believe there were about 4,000 airline hostesses living on the Upper East Side. And there was a revolution among girls. They were much freer. I felt I was challenging my skills in the ’60s in the best city in the world.”

It was not just girls and hockey. This French Canadian from Pointe aux Trembles had discovered the diversity and culture of New York. He went to museums, plays, events.

But the main focus was hockey.

“Here’s something, though,” he told me. “When I was growing up in Montreal, one of my best friends in our neighborhood also played good hockey. This was Jean Ratelle. As it turned out, for ten years he was with me on that Ranger offensive line every game. Someone from my childhood.”

I asked Rod to tell me his favorite experience in hockey. Oddly, it was not about playing on the All-Star Team in the National Hockey League. And it wasn’t about any of the victories he’d gotten with the Rangers. It was about a series of games played between a Canadian national team and the Russians.

This was the era of the Cold War when the Russians were competing with the Americans on every level. At the Olympics, the Russian National Hockey Team dominated and won all the golds. “The Olympic teams all had to be amateurs, though. In Russia, there was no such thing as pro hockey. So these were their best players. You will recall in those years the American Olympic hockey teams, just like the Canadian teams, were all college kids. The Russians mopped them up.”

One year, the Canadians laid down a challenge to the Russians. Let’s see how you could do against the pros from Canada. “We marshaled a professional team. I was asked to be on it. We practiced. There would be four games played in Montreal, and then four games played in Moscow. We’d learn who was best.”

The year was 1976. This is one of the best sports stories ever, but among the least known in America.

The Russians came to Canada and, in the first game, it looked like they didn’t stand a chance. The Canadians scored the first two goals. Final score? Russia 7, Canada 3.

At the end of the four-game series in Canada, the Canadians had won only one game. They tied one, and they had lost two.

“My brother shocked me. We were going off to Moscow. ‘You are all a bunch of bums,’ he said. ‘You are a disgrace to our country. Don’t think of coming back to Canada.’ This from my brother.”

The Soviets would make sure that they won in Moscow. The Canadians had special food, including steaks, flown over with the players. The food disappeared. In their Moscow hotel, the Russians saw to it that the Canadians were awakened in the night, every hour, on one pretext or another. At practices, when the Canadians came on the ice, the Russians would arrange that after just a short time, the lights in the arena would be turned off.

“This was a Russian team that had played together for 8 years. We were a team who had been together for 8 weeks. The referees were Communists. The crowds were against us.”

After the first game, which the Russians won, an incident happened that resulted in the Canadians announcing they would pack up and go home. “Three thousand Canadian fans had come with us to stay for the series in Moscow. They sat in a pack on one side of the stadium of 20,000. When the Russians would do something good, the Russian fans would whistle and stamp their feet. When we’d do something good, we had this man, Jean Plouffe, an Olympic water-skier, who played the trumpet. He’d stand a play ‘charge’ and the crowd would shout ‘CHARGE!!!’” The KGB secret police came down the aisle and tried to grab Jean’s trumpet. He’d hand it off, and it would be handed from Canadian to Canadian and the police could never get it. But that night, Jean Plouffe went to a bar and the KGB caught up with him, took his trumpet and arrested him and put him in jail.

“None of us could find out where he was,” Rod told me. “We refused to play unless Jean was returned to us. We made such a fuss. Finally, they did release him and we agreed to play, but he was not there for the second game. They put him on a plane back to Canada. But we won.

“The thing was, after that first game, we and our coaches studied the films and saw that they played entirely in a zone defense. That’s all they knew. They could play it better than anybody else. But when on occasion we would force them out of their game, they became confused. We decided to attack their zone.”

The Canadians came home to Montreal in triumph. They had won the second game in Moscow, and then the third. In the fourth, which would decide the match, they were behind 2 to 0 going into the final period and scored three times to win.

As they say in the beer commercials, it does not get any better than that.

Rod has written two books on hockey. One, written when he was 25, is My Life on Ice. The other is Play the Professional Way.

He has two kids from his first marriage, Justin and Chantal. In 1991, at 50, he married a second time, to his present wife, Judy, who had two daughters, Holly and Brooke, from her prior marriage. Rod and Judy, who works in advertising, have numerous charities they support, including the American Diabetes Research Institute and the Garden of Dreams.

Rod and Judy had both been coming to the Hamptons and Montauk for many years, often to Gurney’s. Now, however, they wanted to buy a house in Montauk. Unable to get the property they wanted, they bought vacant land on Cliff Drive in Sag Harbor and built their home.

Rod Gilbert, as the great star of the New York Rangers, now among others, is employed by the parent company of the New York Rangers, Madison Square Garden, as an ambassador of good will. He attends events, sign posters, and advocate for both the team and the sport.

In the city, he and Judy live on East End Avenue near Gracie Mansion on the 32nd floor of an apartment and have a wonderful view of both the sunrise and the sunset.

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