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November 22, 2016

Jean Ratelle

Jean Ratelle is about as perfect a hockey player as there as we have ever seen. His professionalism and sportsmanship are as rare as his elite puck handling and skating skills.

While his road to the NHL wasn't the smoothest, but once he got there he quickly established himself as smooth operator. He split the first four pro seasons between the New York Rangers and the minor leagues. At one point while enduring a contract dispute he almost quit hockey to try out with the Milwaukee Braves baseball team.

"Management in New York put a lot of pressure on me. They wanted me to play a more aggressive brand of hockey. But that just wasn't the way I played the game. So pretty soon I found myself down in the minors again."

Ratelle finally got his chance to stay in 1964-65 when an injury to Phil Goyette allowed Ratelle the opportunity he needed. Immediately he was reunited with childhood friend and junior teammate Rod Gilbert. Ratelle scored 21 times and had finally proved he was an NHLer to stay.

Ratelle - a lanky centermen from Quebec - instantly was compared to Jean Beliveau. But he was quick to dismiss that notion.

"A lot of people saw my style as similar to Jean Beliveau's" Jean said in the book Heroes & History. "He was one of my heroes, but everyone is an individual. I don't think you can really copy anyone even if you try. You might pick up a little mannerism when you're a kid, but I didn't do that."

In another book, Rangers Fever by Marv Albert, Jean said "In a sense I was flattered. But I was realistic about it and I knew that part of the reason was for publicity. I never patterned my style after Beliveau's. So I as far as I was concerned, any comparisons were just to give the publicists something to do."

Beliveau however did acknowledge that their playing styles were very similar.

"Sure our styles are similar. We both play very cleanly, we're pretty quiet fellows, and we both have a long skating stride and a long reach," he said.

"The way I see it, Jean Ratelle is the quiet leader of the Rangers. It's a mistake to think that a player has to be noisy in order to command respect and lead a hockey club. Jean inspires by his behavior - on and off the ice. He's a fine family man and an inspiration to the other players, especially the younger ones. He reminds me of my self in the sense that neither of us were flashy or noisy or were quoted saying anything controversial, and because of that it took longer to get recognized."

Ratelle would get recognition though, thanks in large part to one of hockey's greatest line combinations in history. Ratelle and Gilbert's reunion was the turning point in both players' magnificent careers. Rugged Vic Hadfield was added to the right wing to form one of the most dangerous offensive trios in the late 1960s and the 1970s. The trio was dubbed the GAG line - Goal A Game line.

"The New York Rangers "GAG" line that I centered between Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield played together for 9 or 10 years, possibly the longest any line stayed together in the history of the NHL. Rod and Vic were great players, so it was fun and we had a lot of success together"

In 1971-72 Ratelle produced 109 points based on 46 goals and 63 assists. It was the first time a New York Ranger broke the century mark of NHL scoring. He actually broke his ankle with 16 games to play so his totals could have been even more impressive. Hadfield managed to get 50 goals, while Gilbert fell just short of 50 as he too got injured near the end of the year. Had Ratelle and Gilbert remained healthy, it would have been a good bet that all three linemates would have topped 50 goals that one season!

By this time Ratelle had cemented himself among the league's elite, but he had already been known as the league's nicest gentleman and most respected players.

"Jean commands so much respect because of his ability and his style, it's impossible to get yourself mad enough at him to try any dirty stuff," once said Derek Sanderson. Sanderson was one of the NHL's top checkers. It was his job to get a top player like Ratelle off of his game by any means necessary, including by breaking the rules.
Brad Park was a long time teammate of Ratelle, and an admirer.

"Ratty (Ratelle) is without a doubt the model hockey player, totally dedicated to the sport and the team. He plays hockey according to the rule book and would never even think of elbowing or smashing a guy or doing anything physical. He's just a beautiful player."

Ratelle was part of perhaps the biggest trade in NHL history in 1975-76 when he and Brad Park were the key components for a Boston Bruin package which featured Phil Esposito.

"There were indications that something was going to happen with the Rangers early in the 1975-76 season, but like most players I never thought it would affect me. I had been with New York since 1960 so my trade to Boston came as a shock. I'm sure it was even more surprising for Phil Esposito to be traded to New York."

While Espo initially struggled, Ratelle continued his excellence in his new surroundings, breaking the 100 point mark for a second time in 1976. He also played important roles in the Bruins Stanley Cup runs in 1977 and 1978. He would continue his scoring prowess until his retirement in 1981.

"As it turned out, it was a great move (going to Boston) for me and my family, because I was able to play six more years in Boston. If Bobby Orr hadn't been injured, we probably would have also won a Stanley Cup or two."

Like pretty much everyone else in the hockey world, Ratelle was a big fan of Bobby's, but rarely got to play with him.

"Unfortunately, I played only 10 games with Bobby. I sat beside him in the dressing room, and he assisted on my first goal with the Bruins. He's still the best ever, as far as I'm concerned," he said.

Always a clean and gentlemanly player, Ratelle won the Lady Byng twice and the Bill Masterton Trophy once. He was also presented with the Lester Pearson Trophy for his strong season in 1971-72. However he was never able to win hockey's greatest trophy - the Stanley Cup.

"In the NHL, my team worked hard every year and in every playoff series, but I never won the Stanley Cup. For that reason, I can't look back and say that any one year was really satisfying. In the end, we lost."

If there was one year, it might have been his dream year 1971-72. Not only was he dominant in the NHL, but he was also named to the Summit Series for Team Canada where he scored 1 goal and 4 points against the Russians.

5 comments:

JAY DAVIDSON said...

I am in Boston and had season tickets in the old Boston Garden from 1976-1993 first row in the Balcony.

Phil Esposito gets all the tributes, and the Ross Trophies, MVP etc, His
number was retired in Boston. He was a hero of 1972 Team Canada.

BUT NOW......the rest of the story.

Espo was traded by Harry Sinden, because he was uncoachable. Don Cherry was trying to install a new
defensive system, and Phil would have none of it. Sinden knew Bobby
Orr was all done with his knee woes. Harry figured if he could not have Bobby, he had to find a way to get Brad Park the 2nd top
D in the league. Harry also needed a center, and insisted The NYR to "throw in" Jean Ratelle

At 35 not much was expected of Ratelle. But Jean killed penalties, and led the team in scoring with 36 goals and 69 assists in that 75-76 campaign.

He outscoed Espo in NY. In April 1976 we played the L.A. Kings with the top goalie of his time, Rogie Vachon.

It was a nervewracking series. We lost two games in Overtime. Butch Goring won game six in L.A. forcing game 7 in Boston.

ANYBODY OUT THERE EVER ATTEND A GAME 7 in Stanley Cup playoffs? Nothing but pins and needles.
Through the middle of the second
period, we threw EVERYTHING but the kitchen sink at Rogie. He stood on his head.

Late in period two we had a power play. Gregg Sheppard fired a slapper from the point that Vachon,stopped, but nobody knew where the puck was.
Nobody could find it. Jean picked the puck out of the scrum, and fired it into the net for a 1-0 lead.
I was in the Garden on May 10, 1970 when we wo the Cup.
I was at this game also April 25, 1976.
When the red light went on behind the L.A. Goaltender, I thought the roof was going to blow off the building. In my opinion, the building was LOUDER this nite than when Bobby Orr won the Cup in 1970.
Holding a 2-0 lead in the 3rd period, Jean Ratelle bore down on Rogie Vachon and let go a slap shot that beat the goalie for a 3-0 lead. We won the series led by a man with 35 yr old legs.

Jean was a splendid player. In the 70's I HATED the Flyers. In 1978, we were in OT in game one of the playoffs. There was a face off in the Flyer's end. Bobby Clarke and 37 yr old Jean Ratelle.
Jean won the draw, then zipped a pass to Rick Middleton who snapped it into the net to win the game 3-2.
In 1979 vs Montreal in that infamous series. we were down in the series 2 games to 1. We went into OT tied at 3-3 (Guess who had two of the three goals?)

In OT Rick Middleton broke 2-1 towards Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden. Rick backhanded a pass to
Jean alone in the slot. In one motion, the chance of a lifetime, Jean corralled the puck switched
to his forehand, drilled the puck past Dryden.
I swear the building moved off it's foundation when Jean scored
in OT.........I've watched thousands of players wear the Bruin's jersey..........Jean Ratelle my FAVORITE player of all time............

iHarmony said...

Well said, Jay! Ratelle was my favorite player too. I grew up in NY and lived in Boston (while at college) from 1974-1979. Great timing as it turned out!

You've pretty much said it all. Let me add this. In the 1979 semi-final against the Habs, Ratelle outscored ALL players on both teams (in total points). Yes that included LaFleur, Lemaire, Shutt, et al. All of the Habs' stars expressed their admiration for Ratelle at the end of the series.

To be honest I've never gotten over my disappointment and haven't been the same sports fan since Yvon Lambert scored the OT goal in game 7 that won that series for the Habs. Had the Bruins held on they would have faced the Rangers (and Espo and Vadnais) in the final. What an incredible matchup that would have been given the circumstances of the trade. With all due respect to Espo (whose heart won the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviets) - there is no question in my mind that Ratelle and Park would have led the Bruins past their old team.

Apparently a lot of people in the hockey world agree on that. Even without it ever having taken place it seems it (together with Ratelle outplaying Espo after the trade) may have been enough to have helped fuel a rift between Espo and the Bruins - beyond his disappointment at being traded in the first place. This was still in evidence when Phil and his brother Tony were asked about the 2013 Bruins/Blackhawks final matchup). What a shame.

As befitting his dignified nature Ratelle has led a quiet retirement. And as much as he contributed to the Bruins before he retired it's understandable that so many feel he deserves to be honored in NY. Rod Gilbert has brought his name up again in the excitement as the Rangers prepare to play in the 2014 final. It seems unconscionable to me that his number is not hanging next to Gilbert's at MSG.

The honorable thing to do would be to arrange for it to happen during a game against Boston (similar to what was done for Glen Wesley some years ago when he retired).

I own a Bruins jersey (#10) with Ratelle's name on it that I got from the old Boston Garden Pro Shop in 1979. I wear it whenever I attend a Ranger's game. When I see #19 hanging at MSG I will change back to Ratelle's Rangers jersey. I hope that day comes soon!

JAY DAVIDSON said...

I hope others are reading this. but I've said enough here in Boston. I did not know his number in NY had NOT been retired

I did not know this but it's a disgrace.

I hope the NYR mgmt wake up

Paul said...

Ratelle missed most of the playoffs in 1972 because of the injury mentioned in the article. He returned for the finals to face the Bruins but was a shell of himself and did not score a goal against Boston.
With a healthy Ratelle, the Rangers possibly could have beaten the Bruins and won the Cup.
The series' key game was actually Game 1 when the Rangers rebounded from a 5-1 deficit in the old Boston Garden only to lose on goal by "Ace" Bailey from a sharp angle on Ed Giacomin with just over three minutes to play.
If the Rangers had won that game, they would have had a stirring comeback victory and plenty of momentum.

Austin Mcintee said...

Ratelle is my fathers uncles , he is a scout for boston now if you guys didnt know , im 17 but i loved watching him play

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