Hockey

Blittner’s Blue Line: Remembering Those We’ve Lost

By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com

Please pass the tissues.

The Hockey World has been through an emotional roller-coaster the past few days. Some of it has been good emotions, but most of it has been sad.

First came Friday morning’s press conference in Sweden in which Henrik Lundqvist announced his formal retirement from the NHL. Lundqvist, who did not play last season due to a heart condition that required surgery, last suited up for the Rangers during the 2019-20 season and spent 15-years as the leading goalie on Broadway. 

Even though Lundqvist was bought out of the final year of his contract and subsequently signed with the Capitals for the 2020-21 season — a season in which he did not play due to the aforementioned heart surgery — he was and will forever be remembered as a New York Ranger.  

Congratulatory messages poured in from all corners of the Hockey World as teammates, opponents, etc. all wished Lundvist well in his future endeavors. There were fond recollections of his sheer brilliance on Seventh Avenue, especially when the lights shone brightest during the Playoffs.

And the cherry on top was the Blueshirts’ announcement that Lundqvist’s number 30 will be raised to the rafters at Madison Square Garden at some point this season. 

While some expressed sadness that Lundqvist’s career would not continue, especially not getting to go out on his own terms, the Hockey World was nonetheless in a state of celebration for one of the greatest careers a goalie has ever put together.

However, later Friday afternoon was when the celebration waned and the sadness began. Lundqvist told a Swedish reporter that he is planning on undergoing a second procedure on his heart as some issues still remain. 

That gave way to sadder news Saturday morning as three hockey youngsters were tragically killed in a car crash in Surrey, British Columbia. 16-year-olds, Caleb Reimer and Ronin Sharma, as well as 17-year-old, Parker Magnuson, were all taken from us much too soon. Reimer played for the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings last season while Sharma was set to play for the Langley Rivermen (BC Hockey League) this season. 

Unfortunately, the news got even sadder for the Hockey World as Rangers’ legend, Rod Gilbert, 80, passed away on Sunday. 

Gilbert, known by many as “Mr. Ranger,” spent his entire 18-year career with the Broadway Blueshirts and still holds the franchise’s career records for goals (406) and points (1,021). When Gilbert retired he also held the franchise record for career assists (615). Brian Leetch broke that record on November 18, 2000. 

As a native Canadian, Gilbert grew up loving the frozen sport of hockey and was a self-admitted Montreal Canadiens fan; his favorite player being Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion. Eventually, Gilbert began his own hockey career as he suited up for Guelph of the Ontario Hockey League. 

A scary back injury in 1960 left Gilbert briefly paralyzed. Thankfully he was able to recover after undergoing spinal fusion surgery to fix his broken back. From there the Canadian native went on to star for the Seventh Avenue Skaters in the NHL. Although, he did need a second spinal fusion surgery during the 1965-66 season. 

Shortly after his surgery, Gilbert, along with Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield formed The GAG Line (Goal-A-Game) and went on to dominate the opposition until the line was broken up in 1974 when Hadfield was traded to the Penguins.

The 1971-72 season was the trio’s finest as Ratelle, Hadfield and Gilbert finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively, in scoring in the NHL as they led the Blueshirts to the Stanley Cup Final before falling to the Bruins.

Mr. Ranger outlasted his two linemates as a Blueshirt, remaining on Broadway until the conclusion of the 1977-78 season. His iconic Number 7 was later retired by the team (the first time such an honor had been bestowed upon a player in franchise history) on October 14, 1979. Enshrinement into the Hockey Hall of Fame followed in 1982. 

All honors were well deserved but they fall short of fully describing the man Gilbert was. 

In his retirement, Gilbert served as an Ambassador for the Rangers and had his hand in many community projects, as well as with the Garden of Dreams Foundation. He was a consistent presence at Madison Square Garden and was always willing to stop for a chat. 

During many of my walks around The Garden after the team’s morning skate ended, I’d run into Gilbert and we’d stop to chat and share a laugh. One such memorable time was when I informed him I was writing my first career book (Unforgettable Rangers: Games and Moments from The Press Box).

Without hesitation and without prompt, Gilbert offered to help me however he could and then offered a joke about who in their right mind thought it was a good idea to have me write a book. He then had me follow him onto the ice — I was in a suit, tie and dress shoes — so he could give me some comments for the book.

“Hi, this is Rod Gilbert,” Mr. Ranger began, “saluting all the Rangers fans and I want to acknowledge their passion and their support for the Rangers teams through the years. My goal is to meet all the Rangers fans, whether it’s at The Garden or a charity event, or even on the street. Please say hello and introduce yourselves and let me thank you personally. Be blessed and have a great time and LET’S GO RANGERS!”

That was classic Rod and I will always be grateful to him for those cherished conversations. 

I wish that was the end of the sadness, but unfortunately, the Hockey World was rocked again on Monday as Jimmy Hayes, 31, the brother of current Flyer and former-Ranger Kevin Hayes, was found dead in his home. 

Hayes had been a champion with Boston College and then went on to play seven-years in the NHL for the Blackhawks, Bruins, Panthers and Devils.

Hayes’ wife, Kristen posted a photo Sunday night of the happy couple celebrating their son Beau’s birthday. In the post, Jimmy appeared happy and well. This is just a tragic loss for the Hayes family and for the Hockey World. 

Myself, the staff at TheNYExtra.com and the Hockey World all extend our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those lost within the past few days.

Please pass the tissues.

Categories: Hockey

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