RYE, N.Y. — Imagine this tantalizing moment from the 1971-72 NHL season: All three players on a line scoring 50 goals.
“We could have done it,” iconic Rangers center Jean Ratelle said Wednesday with a tinge of quiet regret. “Sixteen games to go, I had 46, Vic (Hadfield) had 44, Rod (Gilbert) had 43, something like that. Only Vic scored 50.”
In one of the more crushing injuries in franchise history, teammate Dale Rolfe’s slapshot smashed Ratelle’s ankle, ending not only the chance for a record, but a potential championship. The G-A-G (Goal-a-Game) Line was shattered, and the Blueshirts fell to the Bruins — to whom Ratelle later would be traded — in the Stanley Cup Final in six games.
On Wednesday, asked twice about his memories from 1971-72, when the smooth-skating, gentlemanly Quebec native played just 63 games, going 46-63-109, yet led the Rangers in scoring, Ratelle’s response was simply : “Broken ankle.”
Captain Hadfield did go 50-56-106, becoming the first Ranger to score 50. Gilbert, also injured later in the season, closed with 43 goals and 97 points as the trio finished 3-4-5 in NHL scoring behind Bruins Phil Esposito (133) and Bobby Orr (117).
“Everything seemed to be going really good for us,” said Ratelle, now 76, whose No. 19 will be retired on Feb. 25, a fitting gesture. “The puck went in a little more, plays worked, and we had a great team.” The GAG line, which skated for nine seasons “had chemistry. Vic was a great shooter, a power forward type . . . Rod and I were playmakers, we skated well, and we could see each other very well on the ice because we played together so long.”
But Hadfield was later traded and in November 1975, Ratelle (who led the team in points for four seasons), Brad Park and Joe Zanussi were sent to the Bruins for Esposito and Carol Vadnais; Ratelle spent 26 years in Boston as a player, assistant coach and scout.
“(General manager Emile Francis) told my wife that he wanted to send me to a place that wanted me, and the Bruins wanted me,” recalled Ratelle. “He didn’t want me to go to Oakland (the California Seals) or Vancouver, moving my family there. It was a great trade for both teams. I had Vadnais’ seat in the locker room beside Bobby Orr. He had an assist on my first goal. My claim to fame.”
Ratelle felt loyal to the Bruins, but remained friends with current Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton, who was in the Bruins front office during Ratelle’s scouting days. So when Rangers president Glen Sather (a former New York teammate) called last year to tell him about the jersey ceremony, joining Gilbert’s No. 7 and Hadfield’s 9 in the rafters, he quickly accepted. “It’s a big thing for us, my family. It’s not every day you get your sweater retired.”
On Tuesday, Ratelle had dined and shared stories with players he hadn’t seen in decades: Gilles Villemure, Bob Nevin, Jim Neilson, Steve Vickers. “It felt great,” Ratelle said before taking a few warmup swings at the team’s annual charity golf tournament where the GAG line was to be honored. “It’s nice to be here.”