Monday, August 23, 2021

Remembering Rod Gilbert as Rangers Restaurateur

LONG ISLAND has long had hockey players identifying as denizens of the most populous U.S. island.

But long before the birth of the more overtly-named New York Islanders in 1972, the island -- specifically the suburban-sprawling Nassau County -- was New York Rangers territory.
The Come On

They lived among us. Their kids were our classmates. They summered where we summered, trained at an arena where we could skate and ate where we ate.

So it came with much joy and no sense of incursion when Rod Gilbert, one of the greatest Rangers players ever, opened a barbecued ribs joint in Hewlett, N.Y., not far from where I grew up, back in 1981.

Hot Rod BarBQ took out a full-page add in the local Pennysaver, for what I presume was the grand opening of his "Canadian-style" restaurant on Jan. 5. On hand, he said, would be star Rangers goalie John Davidson, former blue shirt stalwart Pete Stemkowski and onetime NYR farmhand Jim Troy

There'd be a free drawing for Rangers tickets, an autographed stick and pucks. And, for the culinarily curious, food. 

Gilbert had starred for the powerhouse teams of the late 1960s and early '70s and was part of the goal-a-game or GAG line with Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield. Piling up 406 goals and 615 assists over 18 seasons, earning the nickname "Mr. Ranger," he's still the franchise's all-time leading scorer.

My dad's Rangers fandom dated back to the days of Alex Shibicky, Neil Colville and Muzz Patrick. For him, "1940" wasn't just a chant. It was a conscious memory. Persuading him to go took little effort and so we went.

From Topps NHL hockey cards
We didn't win any sticks or pucks, and I'm pretty sure Troy was either incognito or a no-show. That didn't matter amid the first-magnitude star power that turned out for Gilbert's opening night as restaurateur. Davidson was there, all 6'3" of him, eyes characteristically ablaze. So too was his understudy, Wayne Thomas.

And they brought reinforcements. Oft-injured forward Ulf Nilsson was there, the man whose fateful collision with the Islanders' Denis Potvin -- in which Nilssson sustained a broken ankle -- inspired the deathless Madison Square Garden chant "Potvin sucks!" 

Clockwise from lower left: Thomas,
Gilbert, Tkaczuk upside down, Nilsson,
Stemkowski and Davidson
So too was veteran forward Walt Tkaczuk (no relation to Keith Tkachuk and sons Matthew and Brady), Stemkowski and Gilbert himself. All of them graciously signed the back of a Rangers team picture I'd gotten in a pack of hockey cards. 

Another popular Long Island hockey star appeared that night, Islander Bob Nystrom (whose career earned him the nickname Mr. Islander), less than two years removed from scoring a Stanley Cup winning goal for the Rangers' arch rivals. I kept his signature separate. It seemed the right thing to do.

It was an awesome night. They were there. In person. Answering any witless question I had. Somewhere along the line, my dad and I had dinner, though the food -- 40 years later -- wasn't particularly memorable.
Nystrom, signing solo

Maybe that was the flaw in Hot Rod's business plan. I don't recall his establishment staying open all that long. But I'd like to  think it was nights like that, in close quarters with real live hockey heroes, that helped make Long Island the hotbed it is today. 

The Rangers' Norris Trophy-winning defenseman, Adam Fox, hails from Long Island. So too does the Boston Bruins' star d-man, Charlie McAvoy Jr. The Islanders' Kyle Palmieri is L.I.-born as is Sonny Milano of the Anaheim Ducks and Keith Kinkaid, most recently a goalie for the Rangers, though he grew up rooting for the Islanders.

The Rangers still maintain a connection with the Long Beach arena which features boys' and girls' Junior Rangers hockey programs.

Gilbert, a Hockey Hall of Famer and the first Ranger to have had his uniform number, 7, retired, died on Aug. 22. He was 80 years old.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

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