Jean Ratelle, Le Magnifique

Yes, there was a time when it appeared as if Jean Ratelle never would make it in the National Hockey League, let alone dream about being a Hall of Famer.

It was the 1962-63 season and I had the Rangers’ beat for The Hockey News.

A kid named Rod Gilbert had already made a hit on Broadway as a right wing for the Rangers. But his French-Canadian buddy, a skinny center, had flopped with the Blueshirts.

General Manager Muzz Patrick demoted Ratelle to the American Hockey League’s Baltimore Clippers on the grounds that NHL hockey simply was too tough for Jean.

That’s when Ratelle got lucky. His savior was a former Ranger named Aldo Guidolin, who had become player-coach of the Clippers. Guidolin took Jean under his wing and built the lad’s confidence.

“It was evident that Jean had all the goods,” Guidolin told me ‘way back then’. “All he needed was time to smooth the rough edges and get his game on track.”

After the polishing was completed in the minors, Ratelle returned to Eighth Avenue and 49th Street — then home of the old Garden — and began his ascent to stardom.

[Watch Jean Ratelle Ceremony Prior to Rangers-Red Wings Sunday at 6 PM on MSG & MSG GO. Download Free]

For sure, the road to the top had its ruts. A severe back injury required surgery in 1963, leaving his playing future in grave doubt.

But like his childhood buddy, Rod Gilbert, Ratelle recovered and — skating alongside Gilbert with Camille Henry on the left side — began what was to be a headline-making (1967-68) season.

One bit of tinkering was required by general manager Emile (The Cat) Francis to turn the Ratelle-Gilbert duet into one of the most productive trios in franchise history. It all happened at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto with the Blueshirts ahead, 1-0.

Vic Hadfield (left), Jean Ratelle (center), and Rod Gilbert (right) of the New York Rangers sit together on the bench during a game, 1960s or early 1970s. (Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images).

“I had Ratty on the line with Rod and Cammy,” said Francis, “and they were all mild guys. Next thing I know, the Leafs coach Punch Imlach puts on his goons including big Eddie Shack.

“Fifteen seconds after the puck was dropped, my three guys were lying on the ice. So, I said to myself that this will never happen again and the next day I told Vic Hadfield that he was replacing skinny Cammy on the line with Ratty and Rod.”

What eventually would be called the G.A.G. (as in Goal-A-Game) Line thus was born. That turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Ratelle as a Ranger.

He finished the season with 32 goals and 46 assists for 78 points, while Gilbert tallied 77 points and Hadfield tallied 20 goals for the first time in his big-league career.

“The amazing thing,” Francis recalled, “was that I put Vic on the line to protect Rod and Jean but the way Ratty could pass the puck, he eventually turned Hadfield into a 50-goal scorer.”

The first season of NHL expansion, when the league doubled its enrollment from six to a dozen teams, also had another meaningful moment for Ratelle.

On Feb. 11, 1968, the final NHL game was played at the old Garden. It was a festive affair in which every living Hall of Famer was invited, including; Montreal immortal Maurice (Rocket) Richard, one of Ratty’s childhood idols.

Detroit’s Red Wings faced the Blueshirts in that landmark game which ended in a 3-3 tie, but it was Jean who redirected Rod’s pass beating goalie Roger Crozier to score the final goal in old MSG.

What endeared Ratelle to the savvy Rangers was not just his on-ice creativity, but the fact that he was the ultimate gentleman away from the rink.

MOSCOW – SEPTEMBER, 1972: Jean Ratelle #18 of Canada walks the streets of Moscow between games against the Soviet Union during the 1972 Summit Series in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images).

Discussing Ratty with author George Grimm in the book, ‘We Did Everything But Win,’ Francis remembered that in all the years that he ran the team, Ratelle never had to pay a team fine.

“It was just how Ratty was,” The Cat explained. “He never did anything wrong. He was just a classy guy.”

Teammates would always try to catch Jean doing a team “no-no” such as not wearing a tie on the Rangers’ bus.

Francis: “One day we were coming out of a game and Jean got within about 10-feet of the bus and he didn’t have his tie on. The guys on the bus were saying, ‘We got him now.’

[Watch Jean Ratelle Ceremony Prior to Rangers-Red Wings Sunday at 6 PM on MSG & MSG GO. Download Free]

“Just then, Jean stopped, took his tie out, put it on, stepped in the bus and said, ‘How are you gentlemen tonight?’ and sat down. I think he did that on purpose.”

By the early 1970s, Ratelle had matured to a point where he was being compared to the Canadiens iconic Jean (Le Gros Bill) Beliveau, who some have said was the greatest center of the post-World War II era.

[Read More: The All-Time Top-9 Rangers Centers]

While lacking Beliveau’s bulk — Jean was the biggest top NHL center — Ratty possessed all the smooth moves of the Habs captain as well as an accurate shot and prescient passing ability. By February 1972, Ratelle was leading the league in scoring.

All these elements jelled in the 1971-72 season as the G.A.G. Line became the NHL’s most productive trio. The unit set a record of sorts becoming the first linemates in history to each score 40 goals.

Paced by Ratty, the Rangers were in first place and the line looked capable of leading New York to the Cup Final. On Feb. 27, 1972 Jean became the first Ranger in history to score 100 points in a single season; a feat which earned him one of the loudest ovations MSG ever enjoyed.

NEW YORK, NY – 1974: Jean Ratelle #19 of the New York Rangers skates with the puck during an NHL game circa 1974 at the Madison Square Garden in New York, New York. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images).

By the beginning of March, Jean had accumulated 46 goals and 109 points. At the time, nothing but Blue Skies was shining on the Blueshirts. Then, it happened.

On a power-play against the California Golden Seals, big Rangers defenseman Dale Rolfe fired the puck at a maze of players in front of the enemy net. One of those players was Ratelle, whose right ankle took the brunt of the blast and fractured the limb, disabling the ace for the remainder of the campaign.

Although he managed to return to the lineup for the Cup Final round against Boston, Jean clearly was not the same Ratelle. The Bruins took the series in six games, leaving all in Rangersville wondering what the result might have been with a healthy Ratty in the lineup.

Jean finished third in NHL scoring, leading the Rangers, and was awarded the Lady Byng Trophy for combining A-1 playing with top sportsmanship.

Alas, that was as close as the Cat’s Rangers got to winning The Cup and, eventually, the Blueshirts descended into a downhill spiral, culminating with Jean being traded to the Bruins — in a five-player blockbuster deal on Nov. 7, 1975.

“Trading Ratelle was just as hard as my putting Ed Giacomin on waivers,” Francis lamented. “You have to remember that Ratty and I had been together for 15 years, starting in Juniors with Guelph.”

Before taking the train to Boston, Ratelle cornered his boss and told The Cat: “I can’t thank you enough for all the years I’ve been with you.”

On Sunday night against the Red Wings, it will be the Rangers’ fans turn to thank Jean Ratelle for the wonderful years he spent wearing the Blueshirt!

[Watch Jean Ratelle Ceremony Prior to Rangers-Red Wings Sunday at 6 PM on MSG & MSG GO. Download Free]