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Rangers icon Rod Gilbert dies at 80

Rod Gilbert speaks during the jersey retirement ceremony

Rod Gilbert speaks during the jersey retirement ceremony of former teammate Jean Ratelle prior to a game between the New York Rangers and the Detroit Red Wings at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Rod Gilbert never won a Stanley Cup in his 18 seasons as a Ranger, but for a generation of fans who spanned the 1960s and ’70s, he was their shining star, an offensive force who always gave the team a chance and fans some hope.

Gilbert, 80, whose death was announced by the Rangers on Sunday night, retired in 1978 and decades later still is the team’s career leader in goals (406) and points (1,021), forever the right wing on the "G-A-G Line" — for goal-a-game — with Jean Ratelle (second with 336 goals) and Vic Hadfield (fifth with 262).

"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 of Madison Square Garden Sports. "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."

Rangers president and general manager Chris Drury said: "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."

Gilbert’s family confirmed the death to the Rangers on Sunday. The team didn’t provide details.

Well into the 21st century, Gilbert remained a familiar figure around the Garden, working for the Rangers in community relations and as a goodwill ambassador of sorts, one always happy to chat up fans, sponsors or journalists in his distinctive French-Canadian accent, telling long-ago stories or reveling in modern-day NHL events.

Among his activities were dozens of appearances on behalf of the Garden of Dreams Foundation.

"Family, that’s what being at the Garden and being a Ranger means to me," he told The New York Times in 2017 while watching the Rangers play the Canadiens, his favorite childhood team. "Plus, there are still a few Ranger fans I haven’t met, so I have to keep coming back."

He had his No. 7 retired by the Rangers in 1979, the first such retirement in the team’s history, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1982.

Gilbert was born on July 1, 1941, and grew up in Montreal.

He overcame two devastating (and related) injuries during his career, breaking a vertebra in his back after tripping on a piece of paper stuck in the ice during his junior hockey days.

In 1965, he needed a second spinal surgery that resulted in what he described as a near-death experience and cost him much of the 1965-66 season.

His highest goals total was 43 in 1971-72, when every member of the G-A-G line scored more than 40 and the Rangers advanced to their only Cup Final of his career. They lost to the Bruins in six games.

Also in 1972, Gilbert played for Canada’s winning side in the Summit Series against the Soviet Union, contributing a goal and three assists in six games.

Gilbert held out early in the 1977-78 season, then returned to score two goals in 19 games in what became his final season.

Gilbert embraced the New York lifestyle, as did many Rangers of his era. In 1979, he was featured in a series of paintings of sports stars by Andy Warhol.

In 1991, he was married to advertising executive Judith Christy, his second wife, by then-New York City mayor David Dinkins at the United Nations.

In a New Year’s Day interview in 2018 before the Rangers played in the NHL Winter Classic at Citi Field, Gilbert recalled outdoor games in his youth.

"I did play, when I was young and vivacious," he said. "I grew up in Montreal, and I just talked to my brother and he said it’s like 15 below zero there. I said, ‘Do you remember when we used to go out in that?’ He said, ‘When you’re young, you don’t feel it.’ "

"I am very privileged to play my entire career in New York," he said in the 2017 Times interview. "I am one of the few. But I don’t feel like a legend. I think the word is overused. I went from being a Ranger player to being the biggest Ranger fan. When I’m at the Garden, I’m home."

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