It struck me as sort of funny — I was born in Brooklyn — when one of the Rangers, Bob Nevin, who had been with Toronto, told me, “When I was traded to the Rangers, I thought it was the worst thing that ever happened to me.” In fact, many of the players never quite got into playing in the “States.” When they played in Boston Garden, they said they were going to “the Gardens,” a nod to Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.
Long Beach was a place that many of the players could relate to, though. It was a town of about 60,000 in the winter, or hockey season, that expanded to 200,000 in the summer. Francis told the players to bring their wives and children from Canada to start school in the fall in Long Beach, although some players were reluctant — their families remained in Canada. But those who came, when the season ended in early spring and after the school year closed, would all go back. Very few of them made New York their year-round home. Gilbert, however, became a Manhattanite and a part of the cityscape.
The team practiced on Long Island as well, at a site called Skateland in New Hyde Park.
But Gilbert loved the city. And although Francis wasn’t happy, Rod found himself an apartment on the East Side. He hung out with some of the other major athletes and could often be found playing bocce in the backyard of an Upper East Side restaurant.
As The Times’s hockey writer, I knew he would always be available for an honest quote, win or lose. And the Rangers had become winners. At one point in his career, they made the playoffs nine straight seasons. He reached a peak of 43 goals in the 1971-72 season.
That was a remarkable accomplishment considering that he had overcome two spinal injuries requiring surgery years earlier. In 1976, he was honored with the Bill Masterton trophy, given to a player who has shown perseverance in the face of hardship.
Of course, there were so many other honors. After his 18th season with the team, he left as the club’s career leader in goals (406) and total points (1,021). He became the team representative at functions. And, finally, in 1982 he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. His No. 7 hangs from the Garden rafters.