jean ratelle: among stooges and pirates and marx brothers madness, a stylist supreme

The New York Rangers stowed away Rick Nash’s sweater today, numbered 61, when they traded him to the Boston Bruins ahead of tomorrow’s NHL trade deadline. Jean Ratelle knows what that’s like. It was November of 1975 when the Rangers shipped him and Brad Park to the Bruins in a seismic exchange that brought Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais back the other way. Tonight, Ratelle, who’s 77 now, is back in New York to see the Rangers retire the number he wore for most of the 14 New York seasons he played before that. Ratelle’s number 19 will rise to the rafters of Madison Square Garden in a ceremony ahead of the game in which the modern-day Rangers go Nashless against the Detroit Red Wings.

“The trade began a seven-season seminar in poise and determination.” That’s from a 1980 editorial in The Boston Globe just after Ratelle announced his retirement at the age of 40 to move back of the Boston bench as an assistant coach. That’s right: the Globe saluted him with an editorial when he finally ended his playing days. As revered as he was in New York, Ratelle was, very quickly, beloved in Boston. In both cities the affection had to do with his skill and scoring prowess, and the trophies he won — a Masterton in 1971 along with two Lady Byngs (’72 and ’76) — but there was more to it than that.

Everybody knew how good he was, Globe columnist Leigh Montville effused on another page in 1980. “Not so much how good he was as a player — though he was very good indeed — but how good he was as a person.” He continued:

In the arms-and-elbow game in which the best disposition might be that of a pirate, Jean Ratelle was able to play 20 years on top of a pedestal. He was religious. He was a family man. He was a gentleman. He scored 491 goals and collected 776 assists and totaled 1267 points. He was a hell of a player.

On an ice surface filled with Marx Brothers madness and Three Stooges shenanigans, he was Fred Astaire in full glide. He was the maitre’d of hockey, the stylist supreme, top and tails and ease. The ragged and well-publicized fringes of the game never interested him or bothered him. He worked its heart, goal to goal, back and forth, follow the puck. He was a purist, an artist, a painter of perfect miniatures doing his job on a street filled with car horns and busy shoppers.

Rod Gilbert was a childhood friend of Ratelle’s in Montreal long before they ever played together in New York. He thought he could have been an actual artist. “He would really have excelled in any area of his life,” Gilbert said in 1981. “He showed beauty. If he was a writer or a painter, he would have done well.”

Also: “In all the time I’ve known him, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Jean Ratelle swear. Not once. Never.”

“It’s amazing, really, that he was able to play the game,” Brad Park said. “That might be the most amazing thing of Jean Ratelle’s career. That such a tranquil man could play such an aggressive game and survive.”

Not that he was fragile. Back in that editorial-page endorsement, the Globe maintained that for all his Astaire-ness, Ratelle was also “as tough as John Wayne,” as “eager young defencemen found out after bouncing off Ratelle’s strong forearms intent on guiding the puck to a teammate.”

“Others skate,” the Globe’s Bob Ryan wrote in 1976, “but Ratelle glides.” His passes? “Feather-soft, accurate, and there’s only one thing to do if you’re playing on a line with him: keep your stick on the ice because he’s going to put the puck on it.”

A year before he hung up his skates, Steve Marantz from the Globe was marveling how good he still was at the age of 39: “no slippage, no coughing an sputtering, no sudden gasp and wheeze.” Bruins’ coach Fred Creighton: “He does things with the puck that young players coming up don’t even know about.”

The highest praise you’ll come across in all the annals of Ratelle-related enthusiasm? I’m going to go with Bobby Rousseau’s ode from 1973. He’d skated the Montreal Canadiens’ wing for ten years in the 1960s, of course, before joining the Rangers in 1971.

“I’ve been fortunate in my career to play with two of the greatest centreman in the National Hockey,” Rousseau said, “Jean Béliveau at Montreal and Jean Ratelle with the Rangers.”

I’ve played against Jean Ratelle, I’ve played on a team with him the past two years, and for the past few games I’ve played on a line with him. He’s the same height, same personality, same temperament, same talent as Jean Béliveau. Because of the way he is, Ratty will probably be annoyed with me for saying these things. I don’t think Jean Ratelle has ever been given the credit he’s deserved.

(Image: Library and Archives Canada / PA-057285)

this week: giggling, sometimes, on the internet, looking at gordie’s numbers

We learned, this week, that the Toronto Maple Leafs have new slogans adorning the walls of their dressing room this season:

Blue noise

If you are not in you’re in the way

Unite a city

That’s how James Mirtle from The Globe and Mail reported them; as a big fan of punctuation, I’m really hoping that on the wall itself, the middle one has a comma.

Training camp had come and was gone, this week, time for the NHL to drop the puck for its 97th season, though not before the @NHLBruins let the world know that Milan Lucic was looking forward to, quote, “taking a hit, getting in on the forecheck, battling on the wall, knowing where you are in the D zone again.”

From Los Angeles, we heard from @AnzeKopitar:

One of the best thing [sic] about hockey season… Afternoon nap! #boom

King's bling (Photo: @DustinBrown23)

King’s bling (Photo: @DustinBrown23)

The Kings handed out rings, too. That was another L.A. thing from the week. “This is pretty special,” tweeted @DustinBrown23. “But my favorite ring…… Is still the next one.”

Which, according to EA Sports, is coming. Possibly. If the simulation they ran on their NHL 15 video game means anything, which it can’t, really, can it, other than as a clever bit of product marketing that the NHL and actual purveyors of news were happy to promote. In EA’s virtual 2014-15 NHL season, the Kings ended up beating the Bruins in six games to win the Stanley Cup again. A story on NHL.com deemed this a “prediction” while explaining:

EA Sports conducts its simulation using artificial intelligence and real-life player data. In an attempt to provide realism to the game, injuries and hot streaks are also thrown into the mix. EA Sports NHL 15 is also the first edition of the popular series to use 12 Player NHL Collision Physics and Real Puck Physics to more authentically replicate the unpredictability of what happens on the ice.

In Toronto, a former King, Matt Frattin, was back with the team that gave him his NHL start. Kevin McGran from The Toronto Star listened to Leafs’ coach Randy Carlyle on his disappointing September:

Frattin has had a mediocre camp. He needs to find a way to regenerate some enthusiasm. I feel sorry for him right now. The puck is not his friend. It’s going away from him versus bouncing for him.

Bruce A. Heyman, new U.S. ambassador to Canada/old Chicago Blackhawks fan, tweeted from Ottawa:

Ok… It’s beginning!!! #Hockey season is about to begin. Excited to experience it here in #Canada #myfirstcanadianwinter.

The New York Islanders traded for two defenceman on Puck-Drop Eve, acquiring Nick Leddy from Chicago and Johnny Boychuk from Boston.

@StanFischler thought that boded well:

#Garth Snow’s latest double-dip, Boychuk-Leddy spells playoff-bound. Solid up front and in goal.

Leddy (@ledpipe08) was quick to tweet:

I want to thank the @NHLBlackhawks and all the fans for everything! Excited to start my new adventure with the @NYIslanders

Boychuk had mixed feelings. He told Joe Haggerty from Comcast Sportsnet about his bond with Boston.

It’s tough because this is the place where I started my career. I grew to love Boston. This is a pretty easy place to play. The fans really took me in, and I worked as hard as I could so people would appreciate me. This is the kind of town where they like those types of players.

They liked that I would throw big hits on people, and sacrifice my body to help us win. It’s a working man’s town, and I always felt that love. I think it was just a really good fit for me, and the people are just fucking awesome.

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trademarked

Call It Macaroni: Trades made Phil Esposito depressed and angry. Here, in happier times, he makes the case for Kraft Dinner at the airport. Out on the tarmac. With a side salad.

Brett Hull grinned when he was traded from Calgary to St. Louis in 1988. “Yesssssss,” he said, and I quote. A few months later and a little to the north, Wayne Gretzky departed for Los Angeles amid a storm of shock and tears, anger and accusations. That, the latter, is probably closer to the norm when it comes to what hockey players go through when they’re swapped, one team to another. A lot of the time they feel what Arnie Brown felt when the New York Rangers sent him to Detroit in 1971: “depressed, bitter, and shocked.”

Dave Schultz was dazed. His head felt heavy. He never thought it would come to this. Traded for draft choices! This was in 1976 when Philadelphia sent him south to do his hammering in L.A. He was angry. He blamed Bobby Clarke. After all he’d done for the Flyers in the way of punching their opponents! Not to mention them punching him! Humiliating. He said some things, which a reporter heard and published. There was a furor. “It’s dislocation pure and simple — and rejection,” he’d wax later. “You don’t think that someone else wants you; you think that somebody doesn’t.” Continue reading