As fall dissolved into the new year the most exciting player in ice hockey was the dark-haired young man who looks out from this week's cover, Andrew James Bathgate. The old magicians Maurice (Rocket) Richard, 37, and Gordie Howe, 30, were still very much around, but their supreme years lay behind them. At 26, playing right wing and wearing the numeral 9, even as Richard and Howe, Bathgate looked ahead.
Already conceded to be the finest player to put on the red, white and blue uniform of the New York Rangers since the heyday of the great prewar wing, Bad Bill Cook, Bathgate was making the best start of his short but dazzling career. He shot magnificently, skated with the puck so well that he stirred oldtimers to memories of the great stickhandlers of bygone days and passed the puck with uncanny timing and aim. He scored goals in seven consecutive games, approaching the record of nine held by the immortal Richard. On New Year's Day, halfway point of the season, he stood first in the National Hockey League in goal scoring, with 21, and was on the heels of Montreal's Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion in the total point race, with 44 to Boom Boom's 48. And since he is ordinarily a strong finisher he has a fighting chance for the season scoring championship, even though the leading Canadiens will no doubt have many more goals than the Rangers and thus a bigger scoring pie to slice.
As usual, Bathgate has the satisfaction as well as the responsibility of knowing that he is the heart of the Rangers. Especially this year, with the team loaded with rookies, he is an indispensable man if the Rangers are to attain the Stanley Cup playoffs, the world series of hockey.
Off the ice, Bathgate is a likable and unaffected man of unusually abstemious habits. Alcohol has never touched his lips, nor tobacco smoke his lungs. He is a superbly conditioned athlete, and has been since the vigorous days of his boyhood in the Winnipeg suburb of West Kildonan on the wind-swept Manitoba plains.
January 12, 1959
Picture a large white frame house in the predawn dark of a Sunday morning in winter. The temperature outside is 25° below zero, and it is too early now for the bitter wind that waits until after dawn to crack its cheeks. In his unheated bedroom a 12-year-old Andy Bathgate is sleeping beneath a pile of blankets. He wears the long underwear that everyone wears, day and night, in that unforgiving climate. The alarm clock rings at 4:30 a.m. The boy gets up, struggles into two pairs of trousers, some sweaters, boots and a parka, runs downstairs to pick up his skates and hockey stick and rushes to the town firehouse to rendezvous with his chums Vic Love, Alan Phizacklea and John Negladiuk.
Thankful for the absence of wind, they set out along the snow-bordered road to Winnipeg on foot (the trolley hasn't yet begun its rounds). It is five miles to their goal—the heaven of scrimmaging on an indoor rink at the only time they can have it in hockey-mad Winnipeg, from 6 to 8 a.m. Leaving grudgingly at 8 they ride the trolley back to West Kildonan. Andy thaws out in the glow of the big, potbellied stove in the Bathgate kitchen, wolfs breakfast, and goes out to 10 o'clock Mass. In the remaining daylight hours he plays as much hockey as he can on the frigid outdoor rinks of the neighborhood, making trips home for lunch and now and then a mug of hot chocolate beside the stove. At night Andy tunes in a major league hockey game and dreams of future glory.
A BUSY BOYHOOD
Now, among the many Depression babies like Bathgate in the NHL there are undoubtedly some who moved mountains to become major leaguers. But it seems safe to say that Bathgate was exceptional even for this rugged breed. He had a hockey stick in his hands at 6, and he was playing in organized community games at 9. He managed to get in as many as 100 games a season as an adolescent; during one winter he played on eight different teams and coached another. In those days the Rangers trained in Winnipeg, and Bathgate snatched every opportunity to watch them practice. One day, Bryan Hextall, a Ranger star of the day, noticed the wide-eyed kid, talked to him and began to cadge sticks for him. Most of them were broken, but there was "the odd good stick," and Bathgate's eyes gleam today in the remembrance. And so he squirreled away sticks against the needs of the winter—the broken ones to be glued and splinted.
When the weather became so cold (Bathgate remembers a reading of 54 below indoors in the Winnipeg rink) and the wind so fierce that feet might freeze in skate shoes, Andy and a friend put on boots and took up positions on opposite sides of a rink, some 70 feet apart, and alternately shot and played goalie. Each wore a heavy gauntlet and tried to catch the puck as the other shot as hard as he could. There was a gentleman's agreement to keep the puck high, because low shots broke sticks and ankles.
"We'd just keep shooting the puck harder and harder and harder," Bathgate says. "After a while you developed something. Now all the kids are going in for curling. In heated rinks! And they're winning cars as prizes. I'm afraid there aren't many hungry hockey players coming along out there."
While developing the ability to launch what is now one of the hardest shots in hockey, Bathgate unwittingly acquired the bad habit of making only high shots. When he discovered later that he could not expect to survive in professional hockey without a variety of shots, he buckled down to learn them. Today he mixes the high hard one judiciously with the rest, but even so he is conspicuous for his attempts to score from far out. Occasionally he succeeds spectacularly. For example, in a game last season he cracked a rising slap shot between the top goal post and the shoulder of the startled Montreal goalie, Jacques Plante, from beyond the blue line, about 75 feet away.
"The main thing in shooting," Bathgate says, "is your grip on the stick. You don't have to be big and you don't have to be strong, but you have to have the right grip. People talk a lot about my slap shot—that's an arm shot; you don't break the wrists. But my best shot is a wrist shot with no followthrough. I know exactly where it's going, and I can get it off pretty fast."
Although he did not attend school after the 10th grade Bathgate received feelers from two American universities which had hockey scholarships to offer. He was no lover of schoolwork, and he decided not to pursue them.
"I knew," he says, "that I wanted to be a professional hockey player."
Tryouts in the Rangers' camp at Winnipeg at 15 and 16 produced no commitments. When he was 17 Bathgate's mother decided to escape the cold of Manitoba and move to Guelph, Ontario, where Andy's brother Frank was playing amateur hockey. (Their father had died three years earlier, in 1946.)
Guelph had a Junior A team for the ablest 17- to 20-year-olds and a Junior B team for the discards. Bathgate was offered $25 a week to play with the Junior Bs but, positive that he was worth the $40 he could earn with the A team, he persuaded the organizers, with the help of his brother, to give him a chance.
On his first shift on the ice in his first game Bathgate took a stiff board check and felt his left knee give way. This was the onset of the knee miseries that still bedevil him. A month later, after no little worry, he was back on the ice wearing a brace and on his way to provincial fame. He was captain of the team in his third and last year. Despite three more bad episodes with the knee that year he scored 33 goals in the 30 games he managed to play, and then averaged nearly a goal a game in one of the most arduous playoff schedules in sport—a 22-game quest for the junior hockey championship of Canada. Bathgate's Guelph team won it.
Meanwhile the Rangers, who had then and still have a working agreement with Guelph, were staggering along in the lower depths of the NHL.
"They brought some of us up," Bathgate recalls, "after losing the first five games of the 1952-53 season. I had no confidence in my leg, and I knew I wasn't ready. After 18 games they shipped me out to the Vancouver team. They called me up again the next season after I had already played 17 games for Vancouver. All my life I had been a goal scorer, but right then the Rangers wanted me to hang back and do a lot of checking for a line that had Wally Hergesheimer and Paul Ronty as the scorers. I didn't fit in, so the Rangers sold me to Cleveland, but kept the right to buy me back. When they sent me down I seriously thought about quitting hockey. The thing that kept me in was that I knew in my heart I could play as well as some of the fellows the Rangers had up there. After that season they called me back and I stayed."
In his first complete season with the Rangers (1954-55) Bathgate crashed the elite circle of scorers by shooting 20 goals. Scoring 20 or more goals a season in the NHL is a feat roughly equal to batting .300 or higher in baseball.
Now Bathgate, and consequently the Rangers, really began to move. In 1955-56 he scored 19 goals and had 47 assists for a point total of 66, breaking the 26-year-old team record of 62 set by the famous playmaker Frank Boucher. The team soared to third place in the league and so got into the playoffs for the first time since 1950.
ONWARD AND UPWARD
One of Bathgate's most valuable traits is a willingness to study hockey closely and turn the lessons to good account. He has never looked back. In 1956-57 he scored 27 goals and 50 assists for 77 points; last season it was 30-48 for 78 points, and Bathgate was third in league scoring behind Dickie Moore and Henri Richard of the champion Canadiens. The Rangers have not been shut out of the playoffs since he began to catch fire.
Eyebrows were lifted by conservative hockey men when the wise and skeptical New York Herald Tribune writer, Al Laney, declared in this magazine as early as April 1957 that the game's superstars must make room for Bathgate at the summit.
"All of [the superstars] are at once individualists and great team players," Laney wrote, "and what they have in common is an uncommon skill and flair for a most difficult game. To each, the number of strategic, or puck-carrying, possibilities is greater than to others and in a game where the unforeseen develops continually they alone try the new, the unexpected.
"Bathgate especially has this ability to an unusual degree...."
Most of those eyebrows have descended by now, of course, although part of the jury is still out, waiting until Bathgate has excelled over an impressive span of years.
One of the minor tragedies of the New York fans is that Bathgate is not at his absolute best on the small rink in Madison Square Garden. On the larger rinks on the road he has more freedom to do what comes naturally, and he takes advantage of it; he scored 14 of his 21 first-half-season goals in games out of town.
Nevertheless, Bathgate has shown the Garden crowds many audacious moves. In a game with the Chicago Black Hawks last year the puck squirted out over the blue line from the offensive zone in which the Rangers were putting together an attack. Bathgate chased it, got his stick on it and, facing away from the goal, considered for a split second how to dispose of the defenseman closing in from the rear to his right. He then flicked the puck behind him on a diagonal line from right to left, catching the defenseman flatfooted, whirled around to his left and picked up the puck again, skated in on the goal and, feinting the goalie out of position, scored.
"Before my knees went bad," he says deprecatingly, "I could keep the puck all day."
Although strongly built at 6 feet and 177 pounds, Bathgate has a recurrent lateral subluxation of the patella. The phrase means slipping kneecap; when this occurs there is great pain and the knee cannot be bent. Both of Bathgate's knees are so afflicted, not from the rigors of hockey but from his individual pattern of growth, although rough action tends to aggravate the condition.
Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa, the team physician, operated in 1952 to correct the trouble in the left knee (which kicked up so painfully at Guelph). He cut out a piece of bone from the tibial tubercle—the knobby part of the tibia just below the knee—and grafted it, with the tendons to the knee still attached, back onto the tibia at a point to one side. The surgery involved attaching a small steel plate to the bone below the kneecap, and Bathgate consequently can forecast changes in the weather from the twinges he feels in that area. He wears a brace for the other knee whenever he is on his feet. In Dr. Yanagisawa's opinion the knees will not prevent Bathgate from playing out a career of normal length.
In a game that is sometimes violent and injurious, Bathgate has so far escaped serious damage, partly because he plays cleanly and thus does not invite the inevitable revenge taken for spearing, elbowing and the like, partly because he has not yet been subjected to the kind of close and frequently dirty checking that so often provokes Maurice Richard and, finally, because his highly developed instinctive sense often warns him of potentially harmful situations. The few noticeable scars on his face are from stick cuts. The hollow-cheeked look he has on the ice is due to the fact that he has no upper teeth and leaves his plate in the locker room. He lost two teeth at 9 in a fall on a West Kildonan rink, two others some years later and finally had the rest removed when faulty bridgework began to spoil adjacent teeth. An agonizing skate cut last year which sliced to the bone of the instep caused him to miss five games. All in all, however, he has been relatively lucky.
UNRECOGNIZED OFF THE ICE
The adulation given Bathgate in New York rarely follows him out of Madison Square Garden.
"I'm very seldom recognized on the streets," he says. "It's different in Toronto and Montreal, but then hockey is the big sport there; people have so many other things to do in New York. Everybody's in a big hurry, everybody's going somewhere."
The rewards of stardom so far have not been overpowering. During the season Bathgate lives unobtrusively with his pretty and buoyant wife, Merle, a Vancouver girl, in a modest apartment on the outskirts of the borough of Queens. He is only now beginning to capitalize a bit on the commercial possibilities of fame, outside the $15,000 he draws from the Rangers. He has a Cadillac, but it is a 1953 model.
There are many dedicated followers of hockey in New York, despite its non-Canadian setting, and Bathgate has won the appreciative affection of one of the most devoted fans, the America's Cup yachtsman Cornelius Shields, who first met him at a practice session of the Rangers.
"We got to talking golf," Shields reflected not long ago. "I said I was an ardent golfer but no good, and I asked him if he would like to play a round with me now and then at Winged Foot [a course of championship caliber in Westchester County].
"Well, Andy is a magnificent golfer. If you want to see the equal of Sam Snead as far as grace is concerned, you will see it in Andy—unusual grace, great poise, wonderful rhythm. I recall that one day he had a 35 for nine holes, and with a few bad holes on the card at that. His shots are almost always on the target, just as they are in hockey.
"What a thrill it is to see his line in action—Dean Prentice charging in across the goal mouth to take that pass from Andy; Larry Popein, the center man, setting up his wings; Andy shooting. I've said to Andy, 'I'm no authority, but I feel that you are too generous in your passing. You should shoot more often.'
"But how like the man! As a person I think he is much to be admired. I like humility in anyone. The persuader is that he wants to be good; he is burning to improve. He has the ambition to be successful, and he loves hockey."
Bathgate, then, has the quality which sports-minded people call class. A towering figure in hockey already, he can anticipate a future stature of rare dimensions, yet he is a hero without a pedestal; modesty is in his bones.
"I've got a lot to learn," he says, "before I can call myself a really good hockey player."