NEW YORK - Three decades after Harry Howell and Andy Bathgate were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, they took their rightful place in the rafters of Madison Square Garden - the new one, not the arena where they starred so many years ago.
The longtime former teammates were honoured together Sunday night in a pre-game ceremony when Howell's No. 3 and Bathgate's No. 9 were retired by the New York Rangers.
While Howell spent a little more than one season with the Rangers after the team moved into the current Garden on 33rd Street in the heart of Manhattan, he and Bathgate made their marks in the old building - sharing 704 games as teammates.
"Is there any better place to play hockey in the whole damn world than New York?" Bathgate told a cheering crowd, full of many fans who likely never saw him play. "This night is beyond our furthest dreams, believe me."
Howell, a defenceman, and Bathgate, a right winger, both joined the Rangers in the 1952-53 season. By the time Howell left the team, he owned the record for games played with the Broadway Blueshirts - a record that still stands at 1,160.
Bathgate's New York tenure ended 45 years to the day of the long-awaited tribute when he was part of a seven-player trade on Feb. 22, 1964, that sent him to the Toronto Maple Leafs - the Rangers' Original Six opponent Sunday night.
"Who am I supposed to root for tonight?" Bathgate said, laughing. "I'm just kidding. We need the win."
They were joined at centre ice by several former teammates, along with Hall of Fame opponents Red Kelly, Dick Duff, Frank Mahovlich and Stan Mikita.
The 76-year-old Bathgate will share his No. 9 in the rafters with more recent fan favourite Adam Graves, a member of the Rangers' 1994 Stanley Cup-winning team who had his version of No. 9 retired by the club earlier this month.
Graves, who last year went to Bathgate's driving range in Canada to inform him that he and Howell would be honoured, took pleasure in welcoming the 1959 Hart Trophy winner to this exclusive fraternity on Sunday night.
"It is my honour to introduce the greatest player to ever wear Number 9 for the New York Rangers, " Graves said in his trademark humble tone.
This was a night many never thought would take place. Bathgate has been gone from the Rangers 45 years, and Howell left the team in a June 1969 trade. They were inducted into the Hall of Fame one year apart, Bathgate in 1978 and Howell in 1979.
Only goalie Ed Giacomin (No. 1) and forward Rod Gilbert (No. 7) - both former teammates of Howell and Bathgate from the era in which the Rangers never won the Stanley Cup - had been so honoured by the club.
"No matter wherever else I played, I always said that I played in New York for the New York Rangers," said the 76-year-old Howell, who won the Norris Trophy in 1967 as the NHL's top defenceman.
In recent years, captain Mark Messier (11), goalie Mike Richter (35), defenceman Brian Leetch (2) and Graves, from the 1994 team that snapped the 54-year Stanley Cup drought, had their numbers retired in front of the MSG faithful that grew up with them.
Rangers television broadcaster Sam Rosen, who served as master of ceremonies, called the event one "that was 57 years in the making."
"This night has been on my wish list for a long time, believe me," said Gilbert, who lined up on the blue-line alongside Bathgate and Howell when he made his NHL debut in the 1960-61 season.
Howell, first honoured by the Rangers in 1967 after he played his 1,000th game, had 82 goals and 263 assists in 17 New York seasons. Current Rangers defenceman Michal Rozsival turned over his No. 3 to Howell before the banners were raised and switched to No. 33,
Bathgate, who fired the shot that struck Montreal's Jacques Plante in the face and forced him to introduce the goalie mask into the NHL, netted 272 goals and 457 assists with the Rangers in 12 seasons.
Both Howell and Bathgate were presented with watches by their former teammates, and given train trips across Canada that will take them to an Alaskan cruise.