I recently had the chance to interview Hockey Hall of Famer and New York Rangers legend Rod Gilbert. We talked about his youth, his scary back injury, the Rangers and the Bruins, and the 1972 Summit Series. We also discussed what Rod Gilbert is up to nowadays.
I hope you enjoy the interview:
"It was easy for me picking one because Boom Boom Geoffrion was a young player for the Canadiens and his uncle was hanging out with my dad's blacksmith shop and right away from when I was 5 or 6 it was Boom Boom this and Boom Boom that. We would listen to the radio and occasionally see a game on Wednesday night on TV. It was extraordinary. And I grew up, you know, admiring all the Canadiens, Jean Beliveau, Rocket Richard, that's my era, Jacques Plante, Doug Harvey. But Boom Boom, I had the good fortune to play with him later on in my life. It's ironic, he came to the Rangers as a player and then wind up coaching me later in my career. It was quite the experience.
How did you end up in Guelph and how tough was it to leave French Quebec?
At that time my dream and my goal was to play hockey for an organized team. I had played my youth hockey in Montreal but at an independent school, which we weren't affiliated with the Montreal Canadiens. Every kid in my neighborhood that played in Parks and Recreation, they belonged to the Canadiens, as young as 8 years old. So when I played at that school I did not have to sign with the Canadiens.
At 14 I practiced with a team, an industrial garage league team, with adults and former professionals, a very, very good league. The would up winning the Allan Cup one year that team. The coach of that team became a scout for the Rangers. Yvon Prudhomme was his name. He started a team in a new league, to compete against the metropolitan Jr. B league, which was all controlled by the Canadiens. It was an independent Jr. B league and he asked me to play for his team. I was the very first player he drafted.
I wanted a try out because I also had the chance to tryout with the Canadiens junior team in Ottawa. So (Prudhomme) agreed to get me a tryout in Guelph. With the advice of my brother, I chose (Guelph) over the Canadiens because they had so many players. And that particular year in Guelph they were losing 11 players. They had won the Memorial Cup. So I went to Guelph on a tryout, and darn it, I didn't come back.
It was interesting because I didn't speak a word of English and the coach was really a tough guy. Eddie Bush. He was like a sergeant in the army. He would just curse and yell at every player. But for me it didn't matter because i didn't understand what he was saying.
Tell us about your special relationship with Jean Ratelle.
At the time I was going to play with the junior B league I suggested Jean Ratelle, who had played with me since we were 10 years old, that he would come and join us on the same team. And they signed him without having even seen him. So I paved the way for Jean to come (to Guelph) the following year. We got reunited and we played three more years together in junior there in Guelph. Then we both came up to the Rangers.
You broke your back at the age of 19. Your injuries were so serious that it really is amazing you could play in the NHL at all. How did you get through that?
I was paralyzed in Guelph. I was in hospital for 10 days and then they said it was a sprain. The got a chiropractor and for 10 days I was in traction. My team was the best team in Canada that year, you know with Ratelle and Cunningham and Mike McMahon and Bobby Plager - all these guys played in the NHL. They went through the first round (of the playoffs) and then the second round was a little tougher and they brought me back after 10 days in the hospital and my back was completely shattered. I started to skate and I played one shift and I fell down again and was paralyzed.
The problem was I contracted a staph infection. And my wounds got infected. The graft never actually took solidly. The doctor in New York said it's not really perfect. You play and we will redo it in 4 years. Four years later the graft broke. He performed the operation in New York. Emile Francis and Bill Jennings were visiting me. I had an out of body experience. I died, you know. But I can hear Francis when I was out, I heard Francis tell the nurse, 'Bring him back, he's my best player." When I woke up and Emile came back in I said "Emile if I'm your best player how come I'm not getting paid like one."
It is amazing that you were able to come through all that and become arguably the greatest player in New York Rangers history. What are some of your favorite memories of playing in New York?
After my first surgery I was out for 10 months. When I did come back I played for the Kitchener Beavers, not far from Guelph. They had an Easter senior league there. Red Sullivan was the coach. I played there for 20 games. Then (the Rangers) brought me up for the playoffs against Toronto. My first time on the ice I scored a goal against Johnny Bower. At the end of the first period I got another goal. So we beat the Maple Leafs 4-2 and I got a couple of goals in my first game in the playoffs.
There was another time in Montreal where I had 16 shots in front of my hometown friends and parents. I scored 4 goals against Rogie Vachon.
They gave me a couple of nights to honour me. They retired my number.
There was some difficult memories. Like the Boston Bruins beat us in '72. The Flyers beat us in '74. We felt we could win the Stanley Cup then.
Bobby Orr was the greatest player to ever play the game. Wayne Gretzky did all the records and stuff, but I think Bobby Orr, to me, was extraordinary and revolutionized the game. The Bruins had Esposito and Cashman and Hodge. We could counteract against that line with Ratelle and Hadfield. We did have Brad Park. But Bobby Orr made the difference. Every big game we lost Bobby Orr was the first star.
How tough was it when Ratelle and Park were traded to the Bruins?
They had already traded Hadfield so you could see the writing on the wall there. It was hard for me more than them. They went on and continued their career. They were very successful in Boston. And the Rangers were going down.
I would be remiss if I didn't ask about the 1972 Summit Series. How did that series change hockey?
Every player on the team admits it was the greatest hockey moment in their career. Yvan Cournoyer won 10 Stanley Cups and he says he'd trade all of them for one Team Canada win. Every year we get together and celebrate. You can't go to Canada without somebody asking about it.
Tell us what Rod Gilbert is up to nowadays.
I'm employed by the New York Rangers. I do a lot of charity work, community stuff. We have the Gardens of Dreams which is for kids in distress. I have my own golf tournament which helps out for diabetes research institute. And I do a lot of Ronald McDonald House and Speak With The Greats where we bring about 1000 people to Rockefeller Center each year and raise money for the House.
I have a business. Boom Boom Geoffrion's uncle said he was using a device to develop his forearms and his wrists. My dad fabricated one. I credit that tool to help me with my great shot. At the end of my career still nothing was available. I tried to find out if we could create one. I would like the kids to have it in their hands. And it's good for golf too. So if you go to my website, www.thepowerarm.com, you will see that. You get a broom stick or a stick and then you drop in a weight. Then roll it up and using your wrists. you strengthen your forearms and it helped my shot. A hockey shot is a lot of wrist so if you have strong wrists… I wanted to develop something that could help develop strength.
Special thanks to Rod Gilbert for agreeing to do the interview. Also thank you to Adam and Judy for making the arrangements to make this interview possible.