It was New Year’s Day, 2018, and it was really, really, really cold at Citi Field, where the Rangers were hosting the Sabres in the NHL Winter Classic.
Needing a break while interviewing fans before the game, I ducked into the Hodges Gate and immediately encountered a gale-force wind of warmth and good cheer.
It was Rod Gilbert, the best person on God’s green earth to run into if one happened to be a middle-aged hockey fan and sportswriter in need of heat and a good quote.
Gilbert, who turned 76½ that day, recalled playing outside when he was "young and vivacious." He said he had just spoken to his brother and recalled with him their childhoods in Montreal.
"He said, ‘It’s, like, 15 below zero there!’ " Gilbert said. "So I said, ‘Do you remember when we used to go out in that?’ He said, ‘When you’re young, you don’t feel it.’ "
So it went for Gilbert, whose death Thursday at age 80 was announced Sunday. He was a Hall of Fame player for the Rangers who became a childhood favorite for a generation of fans, then spent the rest of his life promoting the game and his old team.
"What Rod meant to the city and what he did to grow the sport of hockey in New York is eternal," former Rangers announcer Howie Rose said on WFAN on Sunday night. "It will last forever."
That is what helped keep his legacy alive even for those too young to remember him as the star of some very good Rangers teams, during which he became the team’s (still) career leader in goals (406) and points (1,021).
But let’s not kid ourselves here: Beyond his family and friends, Gilbert’s death is a particular blow to those of us who were very young when he was in his prime.
If you are an 80-year-old hockey fan, you recall and appreciate his skills. If you are a 40-year-old hockey fan, you are aware of his records and his retired No. 7 in the Madison Square Garden rafters.
If you are a 60-year-old hockey fan – give or take a few years either way – this hits home in a way only the passing of a childhood idol can.
Gilbert died about 50 weeks after another iconic New York athlete of that era, Tom Seaver. The actuarial tables indicate there are more to come in the next decade or so.
That’s the way life works, but the timetable is different in sports than in other pursuits, given that people peak at an absurdly early age, then grow old only slightly ahead of their formerly young fans.
For someone my age, it’s the difference between the 1969 Mets, who are sepia-toned heroes, and the 1986 Mets, who are merely my contemporaries.
But this has gotten way too sad and morbid – the opposite of Gilbert’s approach to life.
So if you’re of a certain age, give or take, make a toast today to the "G-A-G" line of Gilbert, Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield, to a Rangers run that helped lay the groundwork for the fandoms of the Islanders in 1972 and Devils in ’82 and to what still reigns as the greatest of all New York-area sports eras.
Unlike the Jets, Mets and Knicks of that time, the Rangers did not win a championship with Gilbert – who often served as an unofficial Manhattan social director for his counterparts on those teams during their glory days. But in the long run, he was as much a winner in life as anyone.
That cold day in 2018, he recalled the joy of first playing the sport that was his forever passion.
"We used to spend seven, eight hours," he said. "My mom said, ‘You have to come in for lunch!’ We’d say, ‘No, no, you can’t eat when you’re playing.’ There was never enough time to play. It was great."