Rangers Legend and Blueshirt Icon Rod Gilbert Passes Away at the Age of 80; Memories and Thoughts

On Sunday August 22nd, 2021, Rod Gilbert, the Blueshirt icon also known as “Mr. Ranger”, passed away. Gilbert was 80 years old, celebrating his 80th birthday on July 1st of this year. Photo Credit: NHL Archives

Greetings and salutations everyone and welcome to another blog here on BlueCollarBlueShirts.com. Unfortunately, there’s no good news to talk about tonight, as Rod Gilbert is no longer among us. As first reported by the New York Rangers themselves, Rod Gilbert passed away on August 22nd, 2021.

Here is how the Rangers broke the news on Twitter:

Photo Credit: NYR

After posting the information, the Rangers released two more statements on Twitter, one from team owner James Dolan and one from team president and general manager Chris Drury:

Photo Credit: NYR
Photo Credit: NYR

In addition, the Rangers posted the following on their website, with this information being taken from https://www.nhl.com/rangers/news/rangers-mourn-the-passing-of-hall-of-famer-mr-ranger-rod-gilbert/c-326007746?icmp=int_web_nyr_news_subnav:

The New York Rangers are saddened to learn of the passing of Rangers legend Rod Gilbert, who passed away at the age of 80.

“I am deeply saddened by the passing of Rod Gilbert – one of the greatest Rangers to ever play for our organization and one of the greatest ambassadors the game of hockey has ever had,” said James Dolan, Executive Chairman, Madison Square Garden Sports Corp. “While his on-ice achievements rightly made him a Hall of Famer, it was his love for the Rangers and the people of New York that endeared him to generations of fans and forever earned him the title, ‘Mr. Ranger.’ Our thoughts are with Rod’s wife, Judy, and the entire Gilbert family during this difficult time. They will always be a part of the Rangers family.”

“Everyone in the Rangers organization mourns the loss of a true New York icon,” said Rangers President and General Manager Chris Drury. “Rod’s remarkable talent and zest for life personified this city and endeared him to hockey fans and non-hockey fans alike. Growing up a young Rangers fan, one of the first names I ever heard about was Rod Gilbert – he was synonymous with Rangers hockey. It was an incredible privilege to get to know Rod. His passion and dedication to the Rangers will forever be a source of inspiration for me.”

Born on July 1, 1941, Gilbert won the hearts of New York fans while becoming an NHL legend over parts of 18 seasons – all as a Ranger – from 1960-61 to 1977-78. During his career, Gilbert established or matched 20 team scoring records, and at the time of his retirement in 1977, was second only to Gordie Howe in points by a right winger in NHL history. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1982.

The Montreal, Quebec native finished his NHL career with 406 goals and 615 assists for 1,021 points in 1,065 games, along with 34 goals and 33 assists in 79 playoff matches. Gilbert ranks first on the Rangers’ all-time goals and points lists, while he is the only Blueshirt to tally at least 400 career goals or at least 1,000 career points. Playing with Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield on the ‘GAG Line’ (goal-a-game), Gilbert established career-highs with 43 goals and 97 points and earned First Team All-Star honors in 1971-72. Over the course of his career, he appeared in eight NHL All-Star Games and was voted a Second Team All-Star in 1967-68.

In 1976, Gilbert received the Bill Masterton Trophy, which is awarded annually to the NHL player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.” The award was a fitting tribute to the courage and spirit of Gilbert, recognizing the hard work and determination that helped him overcome major back surgery early in his career, including two follow-up spinal fusion operations, to establish himself as one of hockey’s all-time greats.

Following his playing career, Gilbert became a beloved fixture for the organization and its fans over 32 seasons, most recently serving as Director, Special Projects and Community Relations Representative. Over the course of his off-ice career he helped lead the growth and development of the New York Rangers Alumni Association, as well as assist in many areas of community and sponsor relations. Gilbert also served as a goodwill ambassador for Madison Square Garden and was deeply committed to the Garden of Dreams Foundation, conducting countless appearances, media interviews, and special experiences for Foundation charity partners in conjunction with the team. Over the decades, he was tireless in his efforts to raise funds and generate awareness for numerous worthwhile charitable groups throughout the Tri-State area, particularly relating to children. He and his wife, Judy, also served on the board of the Ronald McDonald House.

Gilbert is immortalized in New York hockey history, as his No. 7 jersey became the first number ever to be retired by the Rangers, when it was raised to The Garden rafters on October 14, 1979. In September 2007, the National Hockey League Alumni Association honored Gilbert with the 2007 Man of the Year Award.

Gilbert is survived by his wife, Judy, his siblings, Jean Marie, André, and Pauline (sister-in-law), his children, Chantal, Justin, Holly, and Brooke, and his grandchildren, Arielle, Owen, Kaya, Jordyn, Lila, Logan, and Damon.

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 16: John Starks, Adam Graves and Rod Gilbert attend the 2013 Garden of Dreams Foundation Talent Show at Radio City Music Hall on April 16, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by James Devaney/WireImage)

Without question, prior to his passing, Rod Gilbert was one of the greatest living Rangers alive. While some can argue for Brian Leetch here as the greatest living Ranger right now, now is not the time for that.

If you’re a Rangers fan, you know all about Rod Gilbert, one of the team’s brightest stars during the Emile Francis era of Rangers. As part of the Goal A Game line (GAG line), Gilbert, along with Vic Hadfield and Jean Ratelle, the trio were one of the best lines in all of franchise history, where really, only the “Bread Line” can compare.

If you grew up watching those 1960’s-1970’s New York Rangers, there’s nothing I can say that will make you remember Gilbert and those teams any fonder than you already do. For newer fans and for fans who never saw Gilbert play, Gilbert is perhaps more fondly remembered as the team’s ambassador.

Gilbert, along with Adam Graves, paying his respects at the grave of Rangers founder Tex Rickard. Photo Credit: NYR

After retiring in 1978, Gilbert continued to maintain a residence in New York City, where for the remainder of his life, he enjoyed an association and employment with the Rangers. Whether Gilbert was making appearances for the Rangers on behalf of charities, alumni events, casino nights or something else; when asked, Gilbert was always there for the franchise. Similar to other ex-Rangers, after retirement, Gilbert also continued to follow and watch the team, where even prior to his death, Gilbert would tweet out his thoughts on the club.

In the next few days and weeks, you will see a ton of memories being posted on the internet about Gilbert. All of them will be positive, especially whenever a fan talks about their own personal interaction with Gilbert. In addition, some of these stories will be humorous as well, as Gilbert always had a great sense of humor.

Personally myself, I’ve met Gilbert numerous times at Madison Square Garden, as he was a regular fixture there, especially in the VIP free buffet section of the arena! Even when he was eating and/or drinking there, Gilbert would stop and take pictures and sign things for fans. (This is one of my pet peeves – let the person finish their meal first, then ask for a pic/get your stuff signed.)

When it comes to thinking of one singular fondest memory of Gilbert, outside of conversing with him and sharing clips of his old games with him; I go back to January of 2018, when the Rangers played the Golden Knights for the first time in Las Vegas.

Prior to the game, Rod Gilbert was floating around the arena, where I saw him in the lower bowl with drink in hand, and just absolutely enjoying himself. With Vegas being a destination/tourist city, there were thousands of Ranger fans in the building that night and many of them paid their respects to Gilbert. No joke, any time I saw Gilbert on that night, he had a smile on his face that stretched from ear-to-ear.

Rod Gilbert, pictured right, while in Vegas. Photo Credit: NHL.com

In some of Gilbert’s later actions, both prior to his passing and the pandemic, Gilbert fought for and won, when asking the Rangers to retire the jersey numbers of his GAG line brethren. Both Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield would have their jersey numbers retired in 2018.

During the pandemic, Gilbert posted videos of himself on his Twitter account, wishing all the best to Ranger fans and New York City. Gilbert also expressed major excitement when the Rangers drafted a fellow Quebecker in the first round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft – Alexis Lafreniere.

I don’t want to get too deep into this, because it’s not my place and I’ll let someone else more accredited than me break the story, but recently, I was told that Gilbert was sick and was told what was ailing him. However, I was also told that Gilbert was fighting through, which is why this news absolutely shocks me today. (In the past, I’ve posted health updates of the alumni, only after getting their blessing and approval from them and/or their families. Gilles Villemure, one of Gilbert’s ex-teammates, would be one of these players. In this case, I rather the Gilbert family break the story, as it’s their story to tell when they feel it’s time.)

While Gilbert was suffering through his own ordeal, Gilbert saw many of his ex-teammates pass away. Within the span of a year, Gilbert tweeted out information and condolences about his fallen friends, in players such as Bob Nevin and Jim Neilson.

In addition, throughout the pandemic, Gilbert continued to raise funds for charity, both on his own and while working on behalf of the Garden of Dreams. Gilbert also expressed a desire to return to Madison Square Garden once the pandemic ended, as Gilbert not only enjoyed watching games at MSG, but also enjoyed talking with Ranger fans too. I’m sure many of you all have a Rod Gilbert story, whether you saw him at MSG or somewhere else in NYC.

Gilbert with his buddy Ron Duguay. In one of Gilbert’s last interviews, he appeared on Ron Duguay’s “Up in the Blue Seats” podcast. Photo Credit: Ron Duguay

If there were ever any “controversies” (and I use that word extremely lightly here and for lack of a better word), that Gilbert was involved with, it was the way he was perceived by some of his peers.

As talked about 763748939834 times on this site, when talking Rangers and hockey history, many ex-players and hockey men have done interviews and written tell-all books. One of those players is Phil Esposito. In some of these recounts, these people, who all admitted that Gilbert was an elite player, were also quick to point out that perhaps Gilbert favored partying over winning. For more on this, read Esposito’s “Thunder and Lightning” autobiography.

It was always my wish, and I even asked Gilbert about this too, to see Gilbert write a tell-all book, where he could respond to all of these accusations and allegations. Gilbert never did, although Gilbert did write a book called “GOAL! My Life on Ice” with Stan Fischler during Gilbert’s playing days with the Rangers.

I don’t want to go on too much of a tangent here, but I just wanted to see Gilbert write a book, at least for prosperity’s sake. When I first saw all these negative stories being told about Gilbert, it reminded me of 1940 Stanley Cup champion and ex-Rangers head coach Phil Watson, a Phil Watson who died early. Since Watson’s death, many books and accounts have been written about him, where none of them are positive, sans stuff out of Watson’s former teammate and the general manager who hired him, Muzz Patrick.

While Gilbert was most certainly more well-liked than Watson, at the same time, I do wonder how fans in 30, 40 and 50 years from now will view him, just because of some of the texts you can find from players of Gilbert’s generation. And plus, while I’ve listened to Gilbert talk and do interviews, a complete tell-all book would’ve been great for any Rangers fan. In the future, I think fans and historians will seek out texts and books, and not necessarily look up old YouTube and podcast interviews. Plus, that’s assuming that YouTube and podcast archives will be around in the future.

The other controversy, which really isn’t a controversy as much as it’s a personal agenda thing, is that I was always told that Rod Gilbert, who had power with the Rangers (as was evident in Gilbert getting Ratelle and Hadfield their rightful place in the rafters of MSG) was against Frank Boucher getting his #7 retired. From what I was told, and Gilbert never directly told me or anyone else otherwise, is that Gilbert wanted #7 in the rafters all to himself.

And let me be clear – Gilbert never publicly said this, but people who talked to him about this told me that this was his opinion. That said, even when I first heard this (and said at the time) and writing about it again now – I can’t see Gilbert being that petty about something like this, especially since other Rangers numbers have been retired twice, including #11 for his buddy Vic Hadfield. In addition, Gilbert always struck me as someone who appreciated history, even going out of his way to appear at a memorial service at the grave of Tex Rickard.

Jean Ratelle, Emile Francis, Rod Gilbert and Eddie Giacomin, at Jean Ratelle night in February of 2018 – the last time these four men (all Hall of Famers) would all be together. Photo Credit: NYR

I know today is about Rod Gilbert, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this fact for the zillionith time on this site too – while Rod Gilbert was always treated well by the Rangers, I really hope this opens the Rangers eyes a bit, and they do the right thing and honor Emile Francis in their rafters.

Emile Francis turns 95 years old this September, as Francis is as old as the Rangers franchise themselves. Whether it’s through a zoom call or something else, the Rangers should let Francis see the Rangers raise a banner for him while he’s still alive. After all, once Francis passes, you know the Rangers will write all these flowery statements, yet they, organizationally, have ignored Francis from their rafters this whole time – despite honoring four players from the Francis era.

If there’s any silver lining to this Gilbert death, it’s that he knew how much the Rangers and the fans loved him. The Rangers treated this legend well, and as they should have. You’d just like to see that same respect and appreciation passed around to other members of the alumni. Gilbert was one of the lucky ones and it would be great if the Rangers treated everyone like how they treated Gilbert. That’s all.

Gilbert, pictured here in an ad with ex-teammate Bob Nevin, was the face of the Rangers for many years and many decades. Photo Credit: Highland Knitting Mills

A great man and Ranger was lost on August 22nd. Fortunately, since Gilbert enjoyed a great relationship with the team, many of those memories remain alive. It’s just a shame the Rangers never bit off the Yankees and did “Ranger-ographies” documentaries, where fans could now pop in a DVD and watch clips of Gilbert and hear him talk about his career. However, in the present time, YouTube and the DVD trading game exists, where fortunately, I’ve been able to amass a collection of Gilbert games. In fact, I reviewed one of them here: http://bluecollarblueshirts.com/1974/

I know this blog comes off as rambling and all over the place, as I’m surprised about this news and wanted to get something up. In addition, and as you know, I’m putting the final touches on my “The New York Rangers Rink of Honor and the Rafters of Madison Square Garden” book, where I’m re-reading and going through the last editing process with my editor.

When this news first broke, I was proof-reading the book, where I was going through the chapters on Bob Nevin and Jim Neilson, where Gilbert’s quotes on these two men helped me in the book. Here I was, reading and writing about Rod Gilbert and then I got the text alert that Rod Gilbert had died. In a way, it just felt extremely eerie, especially since I was told earlier this year that Gilbert was doing better. In fact, Gilbert was still posting on Twitter, where he was promoting all of his noble charitable efforts and causes that he was raising money for.

It’s been a strange and sad last 48 hours for the Rangers. While a retirement doesn’t equate to a death, Henrik Lundqvist retired on Friday and now this. No Ranger or human wanted to see any of this.

In another eerie thing, during my last blog, (you can read it here: https://bluecollarblueshirts.com/81821/ ) I talked about the retired Henrik Lundqvist and how perhaps he could now have an ambassador role like Rod Gilbert. Instead of seeing these two Ranger legends together hanging out at MSG, perhaps one day Lundqvist can cherish the role that Gilbert once had for so many years.

RIP Rod Gilbert. Photo Credit: CBC.ca

A great man and a large piece of Rangers history said goodbye on Sunday. With his #7 jersey hanging in the rafters and the countless hours that Gilbert put in, both as a player and as an ambassador, Gilbert will never be forgotten. It will be weird attending Ranger games at MSG once the pandemic is over and not seeing his smiling face, as Gilbert would always make his rounds around the arena and as one of the happiest people in the place.



July 1, 1941 – August 22, 2021

Before closing out, I just wanted to share with you an email I just received from a reader:

“I’m at a bar one night & I’m taking a pee. This guy takes the stall right next to me. I look and it’s Rod Gilbert. I said, ‘Hey Rod, I’d love to shake your hand.’ Rod laughed, shook his head and said ‘maybe next time.'”

My advice: try not to shake hands with other gentlemen at the urinal!

I’m back to proof-reading my own book, where I can’t believe I now have to talk about Gilbert no longer being among us. I’ll be back sometime next week.

Sean McCaffrey


@NYCTHEMIC on Twitter

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6 thoughts on “Rangers Legend and Blueshirt Icon Rod Gilbert Passes Away at the Age of 80; Memories and Thoughts

  1. Thanks for this, Sean.

    I’m so old I saw Rod’s home playoff games against the Leafs at the old Garden in ’62, with my father who, like his father before him, was as avid a Rangers fan as I am today at 66.

    Rod Gilbert (“Roger Bear?” said a non-hockey fan friend of mine back then) was a fixture of my youth. I tried to skate like him, to shoot like him, to pass like him. May he rest in peace.

    1. Thanks Chris.

      Damn you saw some of the Dark Ages live before enjoying those great E.F. years. You must have some great memories.

      I saw some news footage last night that said “Rod Gil-bert”. You’d think they’d do some research before going on the air like that.

  2. Hot Rod! The first hockey “star” I knew as a kid. A pure goal scorer with the good looks, the perfectly parted hair – he was made for the NY stage. Playing on the street with broom handles and a rubber gasket we all wanted to be #7. If I remember correctly in the mid sixties his wife, Judy appeared in an airline commercial as a stewardess where she said “I’m Judy, fly me.” – Kind of provocative for the time. I don’t know if she was an actual stewardess (it was a glamorous profession back then) or a model used for the commercial but she was a beautiful girl. RIP Rod

    1. He wasn’t married until 1991, so I’m assuming either Judy, which is his wife’s name, was his GF at the time or just an actress. I’d need to see the clip. For what it’s worth, his wife was an ad executive with a few college degrees.

      MSGN are showing old stuff from the vault (wish they’d do this more often) and there’s an interview where Rod is talking about his single life in NYC and chasing around stewardesses lol

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