The honor will not only will belong to him, but to generations of Rangers fans, as well. Next season, Slapshots has learned, Jean Ratelle’s No. 19 will be retired in recognition of his selection as one of the NHL’s Greatest 100 and in conjunction with a yearlong 50th anniversary celebration of the current Garden.
“To have your sweater retired is the greatest honor a player can receive. You can’t ask for more than that,” the universally admired Hall of Fame center said by phone. “I’m really looking forward to being back at the Garden. My family will be with me. I’m going to enjoy it.”
Ratelle, 76, was notified of the Rangers’ decision to celebrate his career by one-time teammate and current club president Glen Sather a week after they had chatted over the Jan. 27-29 All-Star weekend in Los Angeles during which Ratelle wore the No. 19 Rangers sweater when introduced on the ice as one of the Greatest 100.
“Glen and I didn’t have a lot of time to talk when we were in LA. He said he’d be calling me,” Ratelle said. “This is something I really never thought about before.”
When Ratelle’s sweater is raised, he will become the ninth player in franchise history to be so recognized. It will be Ratelle with Rod Gilbert and Ed Giacomin from the Emile Francis generation, joining Andy Bathgate and Harry Howell from the ’50s and ’60s and Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Adam Graves from the ’94 Cup winners.
Thus, all of the giants of modern franchise history — excepting Henrik Lundqvist, of course — will forever be present up in the pinwheel ceiling of the Garden, which opened at its current location with a “Salute to the USO” show starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby on Feb. 11, 1968.Ratelle and Ryan McDonagh at the All-Star GameNHLI via Getty Images
About a mile away that afternoon, Ratelle scored the final goal of a 3-3 tie against Detroit in the final game at the old Garden located between 49th and 50th and Seventh and Eighth Avenues. The Blueshirts played their first game at MSG’s present location on Feb. 18, 1968, a 3-1 victory over Philadelphia in which Bob Nevin, Donnie Marshall and Orland Kurtenbach scored. Indeed, a Flyers game is expected to serve as the backdrop for the number retirement.
And it is anticipated the ceremony will feature the first reunion of the celebrated GAG Line — Ratelle, Gilbert and Vic Hadfield — since the trio was together at the Rangers’ 75th anniversary celebration that marked the opener of the 2000-01 season.
“The number one memory and highlight of my career is playing with those two great players on my line,” Ratelle said. “To be with them day-in and day-out made my career what it was. It was special.”Vic Hadfield, Ratelle and Rod Gilbert, in the late ’60s or early ’70s.Getty Images
What Ratelle did in New York over the span of 15 years following his debut as a 20-year-old in Toronto on March 4, 1961, in which he recorded a goal and an assist in a cameo promotion from Guelph of the OHA, is the stuff of Rangers legend: second all time in goals (336); third in points (817); third in assists (481); sixth in games played (817).
And his 1971-72 performance represents what is likely the greatest individual season in franchise history, one in which he recorded 109 points (46-63) in 63 games before going down for the year with a broken ankle he sustained on March 1 when struck by teammate Dale Rolfe’s shot from the point. It was an injury that might have deprived Ratelle of the Art Ross Trophy and probably prevented the Rangers from winning the Stanley Cup instead of losing a six-game final to the hated Bruins.
“We had a great chance that year, but I never really looked back and thought about what might have been,” said Ratelle, who won the Lester Pearson Award as player of the year as voted by the NHLPA. “Once it happened, there was nothing I could do about it. Like Bill Belichick says, ‘It is what it is.’
“It was a shame. What I really would have been proud of is if all three of us could have scored 50 goals. That never happened with three players from the same line.”Ratelle in 1975Getty Images
Hadfield got to 50 on the final day of the season to become the sixth player in NHL history — and the first of three Rangers, preceding Adam Graves (52 in ’93-94) and Jaromir Jagr (54 in ’05-06) — to hit the magic number. Gilbert, who had scored 39 goals on Ratelle’s right side, finished with 43.
The reference to the Patriots coach comes easily to Ratelle, who has made his home in Massachusetts since retiring in 1981 following his five-plus seasons with the Bruins, for whom he wore No. 10 and recorded 450 points (155-295) in 419 games after the trade in which … well, sadly, you know.
“I was surprised but not bitter about it,” Ratelle said. “I was 35, was going to a great place and great organization that I worked for [as a scout] for 26 years. But when I was at the All-Star Game for the ceremony and I had the choice of what sweater to wear, I was a Ranger. I was with them for almost 15 years. That’s where I was my best.”
Ratelle is perhaps the best player never to win a Stanley Cup, his Rangers losing the final in ’72 and his Bruins losing finals in ’77 and ’78 to Montreal.
“Of course that’s the biggest disappointment of my career,” Ratelle said. “That’s what you play for every year. I thought we were good enough in New York, but we just couldn’t beat the Bruins or Canadiens.”
Ratelle’s numbers in New York speak for themselves. But he was and is beloved because of the style, élan and class with which he graced the franchise. He is the Blueshirts’ Beliveau, a man of elegance for whom everyone has always had the utmost respect.
And next year, this all-time Ranger will have his sweater and number retired at the Garden, where it will be displayed for all time.
The honor will be his, but it will be all of ours, as well.