Before there was Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Jaromir Jagr, Mario Lemieux, Rick Kehoe, Pierre Larouche and even Jean Pronovost, there was Andy Bathgate.
If in name only, Bathgate was in many ways the first star of the expansion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Acquired through the 1967 expansion draft, Bathgate joined the new NHL team at the age of 35, well past his prime. Earlier in his career, he had been an all-star with the Rangers and won the Hart Memorial Trophy in 1959 when the league was limited to six teams.
Mindful of needing an attraction to generate ticket revenue, Penguins coach George "Red" Sullivan told the Post-Gazette, "He'll help us in a lot of ways next winter, even if he doesn't score 40 goals like he did for the Rangers a few years ago."
As it turned out, Bathgate helped the Penguins on the ice plenty as he ended up being their leading scorer with 59 points (20 goals, 39 assists) while playing in all 74 games that season. His first point that season was the first goal in franchise history. It came at 7:06 of the third period in a 2-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens at the Civic Arena Oct. 11, 1967.
Bathgate died today at the age of 83. The Hockey Hall of Fame announced his death but did not provide details.
Bathgate spent two season with the Penguins. After that inaugural 1967-68 campaign, he joined the Vancouver Canucks of the Western Hockey League for two seasons before returning to the Penguins for his final NHL season in 1970-71. After retiring from professional hockey at the age of 42 in 1975, Bathgate was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978.
In 2009-10, this blog ran a series called "Mellon Arena Memories" in which current and former players and staffers were asked about their memories of the Penguins' arena which they were vacating. At the end of that season, the Penguins invited several former players for a ceremony prior to their final regular season game at the Civic Arena. Bathgate was among those who accepted the invitation and spent the morning skate watching the Penguins prepare to play the New York Islanders April 8, 2010.
Noticing an older gentleman sitting by himself in the West Igloo Club seats, I asked another reporter who that was and was told it was Andy Bathgate. Being a hockey history geek, my eyes lit up and I mumbled, "Whoa."
While Bathgate was hardly renowned for his time with the Penguins, he was still Andy Bathgate. In the 1950s, a decade dominated by the likes of Gordie Howe and Maurice "Rocket" Richard, Bathgate was very much their peer. He was hockey royalty despite playing on Rangers teams not nearly as competitive as the Red Wings or Canadiens.
Mustering up the courage to talk to Andy Bathgate, I lumbered up the steps to his seats and asked him if he had few moments to talk about the Civic Arena and his time with the Penguins. Fearing he would decline, he ended up being one of the nicest, kindest humans we've ever encountered while covering hockey.
He admitted his memories of his brief time with the Penguins were somewhat fuzzy and the 20-minute interview ended up being more about hockey in a general sense. He was 76 years old at the time and was quick with the one-liners.
With the playoffs near, I ended up not publishing the interview and forgot about it until I cleaned some old files a year or so later. One file was titled "bathgate.wma." I've held on to this file for many years through two laptops and far too many voice recorders to count not knowing what to do with it or even if I should publish it.
Today feels like the right time to publish it.
What do you recall from that first season with the Penguins?
“We had a fairly decent training camp but [with] all new players from different teams. It's one thing to practice but when you come and start your schedule, it's a different tempo completely. I was very impressed with the arena at that time. It was a good sized rink. We had some good skaters on our club. We didn't get blown out in too many games. Expansion, you don't know what you're getting. It takes a while to form lines and get started. And the NHL didn't give up that many quality players and you're picking, choosing hoping you can meld a team together.
We missed the playoffs by I think one or two points. One game could change the whole season for you. I enjoyed the season. I thought I had a fairly good year. They actually traded me to Montreal but Montreal wanted me to coach. I wanted to play a couple more years. I went out and played in Vancouver [of the WHL] and I had two of my most productive years in pro hockey. It's a lower class [league] but we won two championships. Then I came back and played another year. I thought I wasn't participating enough and I hung them up. But I enjoyed it everywhere I went. I enjoyed it. Pittsburgh was all new to us. We didn't know the restaurants or that at that time. But the city has certainly changed in the last 60 years with the construction that's gone on here."
You scored the first goal in franchise history. What do you recall from the game?
"You expect from [an “Original Six”] team that you're going to get bombed, especially Montreal but we made a game of it and I think it gave us confidence that we can compete with these guys. They have their reputation. We have all these green [inexperienced] guys running around. You have to just try be competitive. We had a good goaltender in Les Binkley. We went from there.
It happens and at the time, you just say, 'Wow, it's a good start.' And against Montreal, you never expected to beat the 'Flying Frenchmen' at that time because they really did have a great hockey team. They maneuvered people around. They kept the nucleus of their team for sure. They kept 12 top quality players. We were expecting to get bombed out of the rink. But you keep it competitive and there's always that initial enthusiasm. Let's prove it to the fans that we're going to keep it competitive. Being an old veteran, you don't like to try to get on some of the fellows because you barely know them. You don't know their temperament is or that. Sometimes, they can take a little criticism as a plus but some guys take it as a minus. So you've go to feel out yourself. We had enough quality guys that I just felt we started something that could be carried on. There was a few bad years but those things happen to all the teams. Toronto's had 40 bad years!"
How many details do you recall from the goal itself?
“At my age, I can remember clearly really. I just knew we were going to be competitive. To be competitive, you have to have good goaltending and hope your defensemen keep things at bay because the forwards are all new to each other. Systems mean nothing. It's skate and shoot and hope you can put the puck in the net. That keeps away all the boo birds."
How do you describe your playing style?
"I wasn't known as a backchecker. I thought I was a playmaker. I wasn't a great goal scorer. I think I got more pleasure out of making a good pass where a fellow almost had a sure goal. I think I got more kick out of that than playing the point. You don't' have to think you're going to be a goal scorer. If you're playing the point, you've got to make sure the puck gets in that it can be handled. If you blast it as hard as you can, how are they going to tip it? If you put it in with what I call 'feeling,' they can tip it high, low, whatever they need it. But I see so many guys with the new sticks, they think the goaltender is going to get out of the way because the guy can get out of the way I guess."
How different is the game these days?
"The style of goaltending has really changed from our era where the fellows relied on their reflexes. Now they're basically equipment. Man, they look like monsters. To get out on the rink, they've got to come out sideways to get on the ice surface. It's faster for sure. They play 40 second shifts basically and we used to play a minute a half at least. At that time, we felt you could sort of set a fellow up with who's on and get an advantage. Now, you get your linemates coming over sometimes I look and I see about 15 guys on the ice. Five coming on, five going off at one time. We used to change maybe one or two on a fly. Not the way they do today. Sometimes you see guys standing behind the net for three or four seconds. We'd get a penalty at that time for delay of game. But it's exciting."
You spent most of your career for the Rangers who weren't exactly the most successful team in the "Original Six" era. What was that like?
"I played in New York for 12 and half years. I never once practiced on the ice we played on in 12 years because Madison Square Garden is used every night. And then if we made the playoffs, we had to go play all our games on the road because of the Ringling Brothers Circus took over. We didn't have much of a chance really to be realistic. It's frustrating because you think, 'What am I working for?' We've got to play all of your games on the road. We don't have much of a chance. If Toronto had missed the playoff or whoever missed the playoffs, we'd use one of their rinks. It wasn't like playing home games for sure."
What's the biggest difference in the NHL between your era and the current game?
"I just think the handling of the puck. I really do. Everything is high tempo. Go and take a risk. Dump it in. Go and battle in the corner. You always hear get a man in front of the net. We used to think, 'move the puck. Control the puck' That was always my thought. I always hated to just dump it away and chase it. I don't even think if you dump it in, you have a 50-50 chance. A guy could just freeze it. It's over with. It's a safe way to play the game I guess. I like to see the good passes, the movement of the puck. You see the Pittsburgh team, that's what they do. That's why they're winning. Sidney's a great passer. Malkin can handle the puck very well. They move it good. But a lot of times, you say, 'Who scored?' There's a mound of people around the net. Somebody might have it hit his pants or something. It's different times and they play different.
I enjoy the game. Sometimes I get tired of guys shooting the puck in the corner. I figure if I got the puck, at least I know I've got control to a certain extent. Two things I've never enjoyed are public speaking and backchecking. Put it in their end all the time if you can."
(Photos: Associated Press Photobucket and Penguins Hockey Cards)