NEW YORK – It’s kind of fitting that Andy Bathgate had his number retired 45 years to the day he was traded from the Rangers to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
And maybe it was more fitting that the current Rangers and Leafs were set to battle after Bathgate’s No. 9 and Harry Howell’s No. 3 were raised to the Garden rafters.
Yet maybe that’s what made this day so special for the two former Rangers, as their great wait is now over and their day in the sun finally arrived. The ceremony, like all the other Garden celebrations, was fitting for the honorees, while distinctive in its own right.
For these two distinguished gentleman, the night was about the Original Six, a brushed aside era for the Rangers due to the futility of the team on the ice. “When it happens, you never expect it,” Bathgate said. “When you don’t win any Stanley Cups, there’s sort of a gap there and you get forgotten.”
But even with no cups to show for their efforts in New York and a second class treatment by Garden ownership, which evicted them during the playoffs in favor of the circus, both seemed to love New York.
“Is there a better place to play hockey in the whole damn world than in New York?” inquired Bathgate as he began his speech.
“I played 1,160-plus games for the New York Rangers and I always wanted to be a New York Ranger,” Howell, who also said he grew up a Ranger fan in Maple Leafs territory, Hamilton, Ontario. “After I left New York, no matter where I played, I always said I played in New York and for the New York Rangers.”
Both players had reason to brag, since they were two bright spots. With Bathgate, the Rangers had that star forward that could compete with the other star scorers in the league, while Howell was that stay at home defenseman, which every team needs to succeed.
Yet, even with Hall of Fame credentials, the Rangers seem to forget about them over the years. With almost 20 percent of the 1994 team had their numbers retired, the organization did the right thing for once, giving Howell and Bathgate their due.
While honoring the two former greats, the Rangers also honored the Original Six era by inviting eleven of their former teammates and Hall of Famers Red Kelly (Detroit), Dick Duff (Montreal), Frank Mahovlich (Toronto), and Stan Mikita (Chicago) to represent the Rangers opponents. (Milton Schmidt was supposed to be at the Garden to represent the Boston Bruins, but could not attend due to an illness).
And there were gifts with both men receiving Panerai watches from the organization, and a seven day Alaskan cruise.
Of course there were speeches, with Rod Gilbert introducing Howell and the other No. 9 Adam Graves saying a few kind words about Bathgate. But the guests of honor were the highlight of the night, both of which reflected upon their careers.
The actual number retirement followed and Michal Rozsival also came out to relinquish jersey No. 3 to Howell, now going with No. 33.
“I was very nice of him,” Howell said. “I asked him what number he was wearing and he turned around with No. 33. So he’s No. 33 on the ice and I am No. 3 in the sky.”
But one major difference tonight, as Mark Messier didn’t break down and cry. So the honorees had to get choked up for The Captain.
“My wife gave me a shot in the ribs,’ Howell said. “I can understand why people get emotional. I was not an emotional player, but I was emotional tonight.”