We are laying to rest a Prince of the City on Wednesday. We are laying to rest a prince of a man. We are laying to rest the Great Rod Gilbert.
“I loved him,” Joe Namath was telling The Post over the phone on Monday. “He was just the most sincere, wonderful gentleman. He had respect for everyone. I got to meet and spend time with some special people when I was in New York and Rod was just one of the best.
“I’m getting teary-eyed now just talking about him.”
Namath and Gilbert, who died at age 80 on Aug. 19, were contemporaries through the second half of the sixties and the early years of the seventies, marquee athletes who transcended their respective sports; glamorous matinee idols (when that was a term) who enjoyed the bright lights and night life of the city.
Broadway Joe and East Side Rod.
“I spent some time in the big city, he was the Great Rod Gilbert and I was playing some ball,” said Namath, who joined the Jets in 1965. “I ran into him in a joint or two, we’d spend some [time] at a club or two, and of course I had Bachelors [Three] and he’d come in now and again.
“I so enjoyed his company. He’d have this mischievous look on his face and way about him, had that accent and that twinkle in his eye. He was fun.
“Man, he was smooooth.”
He was Rod Gilbert, No. 7, smooth as silk on the ice as well, one of the elegant ones in the NHL like his lifelong friend Jean Ratelle and Jean Beliveau, hair as perfectly coiffed as his patented slap shot was true.
Arriving in New York for a sip of coffee as a 19-year-old three days after Thanksgiving of 1960, recording five points in four playoff games as a 21-year-old emergency recall in 1962, he became the signature Ranger on a fabled team that featured Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Brad Park and Vic Hadfield. He was the last survivor until he was forced out at age 36 early in the 1977-78 season by general manager John Ferguson.
Gilbert was a legendary Ranger on the ice and became a legendary New Yorker once he retired as the franchise’s all-time leading goal-scorer (406) and point-producer (1,021), designations he holds to this day. But even as his exploits on the ice receded into distant memory, his connection with the city grew.
He was a man of the people. He was the Mayor of Rangerstown, a community he embraced and fostered. If you were a Rangers fan, if you lived in New York, you were a member of Rod Gilbert’s extended family and he was a member of yours. The love he took was equal to the love he made.
“I don’t know much about his beginnings, but I do know that the human qualities he had must have started at home,” Namath said of the Montreal native. “He treated people so well, he had genuine respect for everyone.
“Rod was the right fit for New York. He had love for people and I loved him for that. And he was a great player. My God.”
I went from the Blue Seats, and before that the side balcony of the Old Garden, to covering hockey for this paper 45 years ago. Fortunately, I was assigned to cover the Islanders. There is just no way I could have covered Gilbert with even a semblance of objectivity. It was tough enough to interact with one of the pictures on my boyhood bedroom wall at first blush without, well, blushing and stammering.
A couple of years later, I got to be Gilbert for a week or so, and no, that does not mean sharing cocktails with Namath. I covered the Rangers in 1978-79 (and still kind of tiptoed around Walter Tkaczuk and Steve Vickers for a while) when the team advanced to the Cup Finals against Montreal. The Post conscripted Gilbert to “write” game columns. Gilbert would talk to me and I would write.
After Game 1, we met. Gilbert had taken copious notes on what was a stunning Mother’s Day victory. I wrote the column. The next day we hooked up at practice.
“You know how I think,” he said. “Why don’t you just write without me? I trust you.”
I wrote without him. Wrote the game story in my voice. Wrote the column in an attempt to mimic Gilbert’s voice for Games 2 through 5, each one a defeat to the Canadiens. I represented him as well as I could. The graciously shared stipend that arrived in the mail over the ensuing summer was welcome, too.
To mark the franchise’s 90th anniversary in 2016-17, I selected the top 90 players in Rangers’ history. I had Gilbert third behind Mark Messier and Brian Leetch and ahead of such luminaries as Frank Boucher, Andy Bathgate and Bill Cook.
After the rankings ran, Gilbert came up to the Garden press box. He embraced me, thanking me profusely for the honor. Thanking me for the honor that was all mine.
There was no one prouder to represent the franchise. There was no one prouder to represent New York in good times and bad. He was a beacon of class whose mission was to make the day a better one for everyone with whom he came in contact.
“Rod had a gift,” Namath said. “He made people feel special. He was empathetic. He was all the superlatives I have in my vocabulary. I’m so sorry we lost him.”
We lost a Prince of the City. We lost a prince of a man.