Many believe if Rangers Hall of Famer Andy Bathgate had played during his prime in Canada he would be “legendary.”
On a somewhat lesser scale, Andy Bathgate — who died at age 83 on Friday — was to the New York Rangers what Jean Beliveau was to the Montreal Canadiens.
Majestic is the best way to describe the manner in which Handy Andy carried himself both on the ice and away from the rink.
“Andy was a class act,” his former teammate Aldo Guidolin once told me on a Blueshirts road trip. “If Andy had played during his prime in Canada he would be legendary.”
As it was, Bathgate was Mister New York Ranger during the late 1950s although his tenure with the New York sextet was tumultuous at times.
During a visit to Manhattan when his No. 9 was retired, he and Hall of Famer Harry Howell lamented the fact that they never won a Stanley Cup for the Blueshirts.
“We were limited in some ways,” Bathgate once told me, “because we had to use this small practice rink (Iceland) on the top floor of the Garden. It was weird because it had aluminum side boards and when you shot the puck off the aluminum boards it sounded like you were in a boiler factory.”
Nevertheless Bathgate achieved many notable feats when the club played at the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets.
He was a Hart Trophy-winner in 1958-59 and was twice named to the NHL First All-Star Team at right wing and twice to the second team. Mind you, during that era he was competing against the immortal Maurice (Rocket) Richard and the no less remarkable Gordie Howe.
Although he later played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins, Bathgate is most associated with the Rangers.
When the Blueshirts sponsored a junior team in Guelph, Ont., Bathgate was the prize prospect on the Biltmore Mad Hatters. He, — along with Howell, Guidolin, Dean Prentice and Lou Fontinato led his club to the Memorial Cup championship in 1952.
Desperate for fresh legs, Rangers general manager Frank Boucher rushed several of the Biltmore players to the NHL ahead of their time.
Andy was elevated to New York for the first time in 1952-53 but was not ripe for the majors. He was shipped back to Vancouver, a Blueshirt farm team. In 1953-54 he again had a short stint on Broadway but alternated between Vancouver and Cleveland in the minors.
By coincidence, the year I worked for the Blueshirts in publicity — 1954-55 — was the year Andy was promoted to the Rangers and stayed with the big club. It was the start of a decade-long relationship with the Blueshirts.
“We knew Andy had the goods,” said Boucher, “but it would only be a matter of time before he fulfilled his potential.”
That became evident in 1955-56 when the New Yorkers gained a playoff berth under tumultuous coach Phil Watson. The line of Bathgate, Prentice and Larry Popein was one of the NHL’s best and later Earl Ingarfield replaced Popein at center.
“We had a lot of fun together,” Andy allowed, “but we never were able to beat the Canadiens during the playoffs to reach the final round and possibly win a Cup.”
Normally mild mannered, Bathgate proved to be one of the best NHL fighters when aroused and very rarely got anything worse than a draw in his bouts.
He participated in one of the most historic events in NHL history when he faced Montreal goalie Jacques Plante at the Garden on November 1, 1959.
In the first period, Plante had fouled Bathgate — it was not the first time, nor the second — and escaped without a penalty.
Furious with the Habs goalie, Andy decided to get even and hurled a shot that struck Plante in the face and sent him bloodied to the ice. Eventually Plante was stitched up and returned to the game wearing a face mask for the first time.
“A lot of people said I shot a slapper at Plante,” Bathgate revealed, “but it actually was a backhander. I wasn’t too happy with some of the things that Jacques had done.”
Like other Rangers, Bathgate became disenchanted with Watson whose antics caused the team to blow a seven-point lead over Toronto with two weeks to go in the 1958-59 season. On the final night Punch Imlach’s Torontonians beat the Blueshirts out for the fourth and final playoff berth.
Watson was fired early the next season and Bathgate’s last hurrah with the Rangers took place during the 1961-62 season when Doug Harvey came over from the Canadiens to become the Rangers player-coach.
In the final week of the 1961-62 season the Rangers were neck-and-neck with Detroit for the final playoff spot.
When the Red Wings came to the Garden, the game was decided on a Bathgate penalty shot goal that catapulted his club into the opening round against the Maple Leafs. Toronto won that series in six games.
Although Bathgate appeared to be a Ranger forever, he was traded to the Maple Leafs on February 22, 1964 along with center Doug McKenney. In return the Rangers received Bob Nevin, Dick Duff, Bill Collins, Arnee Brown and Rod Selling.
Bathgate’s dream of winning a Stanley Cup was realized as a member of Imlach’s Leafs that spring.
Andy scored the first — and winning — goal of Game 7, leading to a 4-0 defeat of the Red Wings.
Unfortunately, Bathgate and Imlach developed a hostile relationship and the Leafs boss eventually dealt Andy to the Red Wings on May 20, 1965.
When the NHL expanded from six to twelve teams for the 1967-68 season Bathgate moved on to the Penguins. His last NHL season was 1970-71.
He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978.
Eternally beloved by Rangers fans, Andy occasionally returned to the Gotham where he inevitably was warmly received; and rightly so.
Of all the Rangers heroes I’ve covered since the close of World War II, Bathgate was the classiest of them all. I always liked to refer to him as “the Beliveau of the Blueshirts.”
Majestic, that was Andy!