Unlike some of my children and grandchildren, I am not a rabid hockey fan. I root for the Islanders and the Rangers to win because they are a family favorite.
But I got to learn a lot about hockey over the years from Mr. Ranger, the beloved Rod Gilbert. My first brief contact with Rod dates back to the early 1970’s when the Rangers practiced in the Long Beach arena. It is only in recent years that I got to know and love this man, who has sadly just passed away.
If you happened to have been lucky enough to spend some time with Rod, you would never have known from a simple conversation how great a sports star Rod Gilbert was. Over 18 seasons he scored 406 goals and 615 assists for a total of 1,021 points in 1,065 games. He was second only to Gordie Howe.
His No. 7 jersey became the first number ever to be retired and was raised to the Madison Square Garden rafters in 1979. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1982.
But rather than dwell on his hockey fame, I prefer to talk about Rod Gilbert, the warm- hearted and charismatic friend to all.
There are few people who could light up a room the way Rod did. His bright smile and happy warrior personality made you feel special. His stories about hockey and his never-ending cascade of jokes would make you feel warm on the coldest of days.
He was just a nice guy who happened to be one of the game’s greatest.
I could tell quite a few Rod stories, as I was lucky enough to be in his presence on many occasions. But one or two stand out.
On a July evening, my wife Suzan and I joined Rod and his wife Judy for dinner on Shelter Island. A few minutes after we sat down, a man at a neighboring table walked over with his young son and asked if he could say hello to Rod. He explained to the boy that when he was a young kid he was introduced to Rod and how kind and gracious Rod had been to him.
That was the end of our brief encounter or so we thought. When it came time to get the dinner check, it didn’t come. We asked for the check a few times and finally the waiter advised us that the grateful father at the adjoining table had picked up the check.
Both Rod and I were in shock, but I was less surprised. Wherever Rod went there was always an adoring fan waiting to salute him and say thank you for all he did for the sport and for what he meant to thousands of hockey fans.
My parting good night to Rod was to ask where he was going to have dinner next, so I could benefit from another adoring hockey enthusiast.
On another occasion, I visited Rod at his apartment in Manhattan to say hello to a few friends. When I walked into the room, there were some familiar faces but I wasn’t sure who they were. It turned out that one of them was David Cone, the great Yankee pitcher of no-hit fame.
To be with Rod was to be surrounded by sports greats of all types, all of whom idolized him.
The Rod Gilbert story was not an easy ride to fame. He had two dramatic injuries and went through two spinal fusion surgeries. Either one of these calamities would have forced a player into immediate retirement but not Rod.
He continued to play until his retirement at age 36. But that was just the beginning. Over the next four decades he devoted his time to his beloved Rangers and the Ronald McDonald House as well as other charities.
It is hard to say goodbye to Rod Gilbert. There are not enough words to describe how unique this loving guy with the Canadian accent was. But I consider myself genuinely lucky to have befriended him and to have felt his warm embrace. He is truly one of the most unforgettable people I have ever known.