Who’s next now that Rangers honored Vic Hadfield?December 3, 2018
These nights are bittersweet and tinged with melancholy. Oh, there is romance in the air, all right, but whenever the Rangers celebrate their heritage, whenever they raise an other-than-1994 banner to the sky, the absence of the flags that count the most are visible the way amputated limbs can create pain.
It was Vic Hadfield’s time on Sunday before the Rangers fell in a shootout loss to the Jets, time for one of only three captains in the past 68 years to lead the Blueshirts to the Cup final to have his No. 11 immortalized and raised to the pinwheel ceiling of the Garden to wave beside Jean Ratelle’s No. 19 and Rod Gilbert’s No. 7. The Three Amigos, together again, on the red carpet and in the rafters.
GAG Line then, GAG Line now, GAG Line forever.
The ceremony that preceded Sunday’s match against the Jets was poignant. There was the final and strongest incarnation of the Bulldog Line, with Steve Vickers, Walter Tkaczuk and Billy Fairbairn joining the festivities. There was the third line, Pete Stemkowski between Ted Irvine and Wee Bruce MacGregor. Jim Neilson was on hand; Bob Nevin, too. Of course, Eddie-Eddie-Eddie Giacomin, during his time, the most popular and beloved Blueshirt.
And Brad Park, who, other than the man of the hour, probably received the loudest ovation of all from a crowd that is anticipating another No. 2 joining Brian Leetch at both the top of the building and the pinnacle of franchise recognition.
That’s going to be a tough one, folks. There is no dispute of Park’s greatness as a Ranger, during which time he was a first-team NHL All-Star three times, a second-team All-Star twice, and runner-up four times (to Bobby Orr) for the Norris Trophy and a third-place finisher once. And that was accomplished within his seven full seasons in New York.
Ah, but there’s the rub. Park played only 465 games as a Ranger — curious that when he appeared on the ice he was given his No. 2 with an “A” on it even though he followed Hadfield as captain — until he was sent to Boston on the Nov. 7, 1975, day of darkness. None of the 10 players immortalized by the organization played fewer than Giacomin’s 539. None of the eight skaters played fewer than Mark Messier’s 698.
So there’s that. But retired numbers are not about digits and neither are the memories they evoke. Yes, Hadfield did score 50 goals, and so there is a magic number attached to his career, but he’d be the same man and have been the same cherished teammate and leader even if he’d finished 1971-72 with, say, the 43 goals scored that season by Gilbert.
There is something to this franchise, something to this Original Six team that has a place in this city’s heritage that exceeds the day-to-day attention paid to New York City’s hockey team. There is something about Emile’s Era that has resonated for decades. Something about Emile Francis, The Cat himself, who was hailed when he stepped onto the ice and delivered a speech about Hadfield and the GAG Line.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt Brad belongs there,” Hadfield had said Thursday about a Park number retirement. “But the other one is Emile. He orchestrated the whole thing. There has to be a way to honor him.”
There has to be a way to honor Park — if you saw him you also have no doubt — and there has to be a way to honor Emile. There has to a way to honor Frank Boucher and Bill Cook, Original Rangers who were dominant forces and won Cups in 1928 and 1933, and there has to be a way to honor Ron Greschner, who wore his No. 4 as a participant in Sunday’s festivities.
And if the Rangers are not going to double-retire No. 2, if they’re not going to retire No. 5 for Cook, and double-retire No. 7 for Boucher and not going to celebrate Greschner in that fashion — and hey, what about Lester Patrick, Bryan Hextall, Ching Johnson and Dean Prentice? — then it is time for the Garden to carve out a space for a Rangers Hall of Fame.
Sunday, the organization honored one of its great ones. Typically, it was done in style. Vic Hadfield’s legacy will endure forever. But there are others deserving of recognition. It is time for Brad, it is time for Emile, it is time for a Rangers Hall of Fame.
Because memories generated before 1994, and memories generated before 1972, they also last a lifetime.
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