By Sean Hartnett
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Jean Ratelle served as the epitome of grace on and off the ice during a prodigious 16-year stay with the Rangers. The soft-spoken Quebec native let his skilled stick do all the talking.
His No. 19 jersey retirement was a night to celebrate Ratelle’s feats, but also the legacy of the famed GAG line.
A five-time All-Star, Ratelle thrived as both a goalscorer and playmaker. He finished a storied career split between the Rangers and Boston Bruins with 1,267 points in 1,281 career regular season games. His 0.99 career points per game underline the Hall of Famer’s standing in league history. Only 55 players in NHL history own a superior points-per-game average.
Ratelle and linemates Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield formed one of the most electrifying and productive lines in NHL history – the aptly named “Goal-A-Game” line. In the 1971-72 season, Ratelle, Hadfield and Gilbert finished third, fourth and fifth in NHL scoring, respectively. Ratelle was leading the NHL scoring race that season until a broken ankle sidelined him for a month.
When the trio was intact, they produced captivating displays. Gilbert flew down the ice and scored goals with panache. His ability to light the lamp and matinee idol looks made him one of the most beloved players in franchise history. Gilbert’s No. 7 was the first number retired by the Rangers.
Hadfield supplied brawn and a steady stream of goals. Long before Mark Messier, Hadfield made the No. 11 Rangers sweater famous. In the 1971-72 Stanley Cup runner-up season, Hadfield captained the Blueshirts and became the first player in team history to score 50 goals in a single season.
Alongside his right wing and childhood friend, Gilbert; his left wing, Hadfield; and a host of Rangers luminaries, Ratelle watched his No. 19 raised to its rightful place in the Madison Square Garden rafters.
“We loved to play for the great fans of New York,” Hadfield said. “The greatest fans in the sport.”
During a pre-ceremony press session, the trio engaged in lighthearted banter and recalled memories of yesteryear.
“Tonight is going to be a great night, getting to reunite with so many of my former teammates,” Ratelle said.
Ratelle suggested that Hadfield’s number should be next to be retired by the organization.
“What about Vic? He should be there, too,” Ratelle stated.
While speaking at the podium prior to the number raising, Gilbert had a surprise in store as he announced that Hadfield’s No. 11 will retired next season. The crowd roared, and Hadfield got a bit misty-eyed.
“Ladies and gentlemen, next season the GAG line will be reunited – when the Rangers organization retires Vic Hadfield’s No. 11,” Gilbert told the crowd.
Those who were fortunate enough to watch the GAG line in action say that they saw poetry in motion on the ice. Every Rangers fan knows the importance of Gilbert, Ratelle and Hadfield. The trio’s reunion Sunday reminded fans of a glorious era in Rangers history and gave younger fans the inspiration to look up old clips of the GAG line during their heyday.
Few lines have dominated the sport more than Hadfield, Ratelle and Gilbert.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey