Andy Bathgate spent much of his career playing for the moribund New York Rangers, but that did not stop him from becoming one of the league’s most dominant players in the 1950s and early 1960s.
It was only fitting that when The Hockey News was writing a book on the Top 100 NHL Players of All-Time in 1997, Andy Bathgate was ranked 58th. That meant he did not have a chapter devoted to him in the book, instead being relegated to the players ranked Nos. 50 to 100 at the back of the book with a four-paragraph capsule devoted to his career.
Bathgate, who died on Friday at the age of 83, was underrated before the term even became in vogue in hockey. One of the greatest players of his era, Bathgate will be remembered as an unappreciated player who toiled for a conga line of really godawful teams, capturing his only Stanley Cup when he got traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1964. He did get some individual recognition with a Hart Trophy and induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, but he spent most of his career with bad teams. In his 15 full seasons in the league, his teams missed the playoffs eight times and were beaten out in the first round five times.
Bathgate had an indelible imprint on the game, indirectly becoming a part of history when his backhand shot split open the upper lip of Jacques Plante in a game in November, 1959. After receiving treatment, Plante emerged from the Canadiens dressing room wearing a mask, a trend that would lead to goaltenders adopting head protection. Bathgate said later his shot at Plante was payback for Plante getting his stick up on him earlier in the game and cutting him for stitches. “I thought he looked better with the mask, to tell you the truth,” Bathgate said on the 50th anniversary of the game. “How do you get back at a goalie? They’re all a brick short anyway. He comes out with all these bars over his face and we’re all wondering, ‘What on Earth?’ ”
But Bathgate should be first and foremost remembered as a wonderful player. After leading the Guelph Biltmores to the Memorial Cup in 1952, he broke into the NHL with the moribund Rangers. In his nine full seasons in New York, the Rangers failed to make the playoffs five times and were ousted in the first round four times, quite an impressive feat of futility considering they played in just a six-team league. Bathgate shone individually for the Rangers, winning the Hart Trophy in 1959 despite the Rangers not making the playoffs. In 1962-63, Bathgate scored goals in 10 straight games, which established a modern-day record that stood until it was broken by none other than Wayne Gretzky.
“For the first four years I was with the Rangers, we only had one goalie. In practices, we had a board in front of one net. It was ridiculous,” Bathgate said after his career. “We had better conveniences in Junior than we did in New York. It didn’t lend itself to winning hockey, that’s for sure. They were really just filling the Garden an extra couple of nights per week. There was wrestling every Monday, boxing every Friday, the Knicks would have two games a week and we would have two plus there’d be a concert or some other attraction. If we did make the playoffs, the circus would take over and we’d have to leave the Garden and play all our games on the road. There was no incentive to go out and make sure you won. It was a very poor situation. Maybe 5,000 or 5,500 people showed up when I first played in New York and then that changed. Within two years, we got some young fellas like Louie Fontinato and I started to produce, but it wasn’t a good atmosphere.”
Had Bathgate played for a better team for those nine years instead of wasting away with the Rangers, hockey fans would be talking about him as one of the all-time greats. In the nine seasons from 1955-56 through 1963-64, Bathgate dominated the league, scoring 253 goals and 702 points. The only player in the NHL to score more points during that period was Gordie Howe, and he scored only two more. In 1959, Bathgate became the first New York Ranger to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
“The perfect man,” said former teammate Johnny Bower, who played with him on both the Rangers and Leafs. “And he could really play hockey. When we got him in Toronto in 1964, I was the happiest guy in the world.”
That came late in the 1963-64 season when Bathgate was dealt to the Leafs in a massive blockbuster trade, coming to Toronto along with Don McKenney in exchange for Dick Duff, Bob Nevin, Rod Seiling, Arnie Brown and Bill Collins. It was in Toronto that Bathgate won his only Stanley Cup in 1964, the last of the three straight the Leafs won. It wasn’t long, though, before Bathgate was on the move again and involved in another blockbuster. This time it was to Detroit in the summer of 1965 along with Gary Jarrett and Billy Harris in exchange for Marcel Pronovost, Lowell MacDonald, Larry Jeffery, Eddie Joyal and Aut Erikson. The Red Wings lost the Stanley Cup final to the Montreal Canadiens and missed the playoffs the next year before Bathgate was picked up in the expansion draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he scored the first goal in franchise history.
An offensive dynamo, Bathgate was not a very good backchecker even by his own admission. But his ability to create offense was something to behold. He had a lethal slapshot, but Bower maintains his wrist shot was just as deadly. “He’d come down on me in practice and I wasn’t sure whether he was going to take a slapshot or a wrist shot,” Bower said. “He could really fool the goalie.”
Bathgate retired to the Toronto area after a one-year comeback with the Penguins in 1970-71, then appeared in 11 games with the Vancouver Blazers of the World Hockey Association in 1974-75. He operated a successful driving range for many years and helped along his grandson, also named Andy. The younger Andy played three seasons in the Ontario League for the Belleville Bulls and is playing this season with the Columbus Cottonmouths of the Southern Pro League.
Alas, time indeed marches on. Upon learning of Bathgate’s death, thn.com reached out to former teammates Harry Howell and Bill Gadsby, only to learn both are non-communicative. But Edna Gadsby, Bill’s wife and longtime friend of Andy Bathgate and his wife, Merle, offered this tribute: “He was a great hockey player, but he was also a wonderful, wonderful man.”