Andy Bathgate was a hockey stylist--an athletic, graceful skater who handled the puck with skill and flash. Known for his blazing, accurate shot, he was one of the first men to use the slapshot to overpower goaltenders. Bathgate was a creative playmaker on the ice and often did the unexpected, throwing off opposing defenders with imaginative feints and passes. He accomplished all of this wearing heavy knee braces, the result of a serious injury during his first shift as a junior player in Guelph, Ontario. That injury required a steel plate to be inserted in his left knee to repair the damage.
Unfortunately, the New York team that Bathgate spent the best years of his career with had one of its worst runs, and his great play was often forgotten once the playoffs began, usually without his Rangers.
Born in Winnipeg in 1932, Bathgate spent the beginning and end of his career shuttling between the pro leagues and the minors. He played on the Memorial Cup-winning team in Guelph in 1952 and then first cracked the Rangers during the 1952-53 season. He finally made it as a regular in 1954-55 and had an immediate impact, scoring 20 goals and collecting 20 assists. For the next eight years, he led the Rangers in points and established himself as one of the most gifted offensive players in the league. He had arguably his best year in 1958-59, leading the NHL in assists and performing well enough to win the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player even though the Rangers finished a point behind the fourth-place Toronto Maple Leafs and missed the playoffs. Bathgate was also voted to the league's First All-Star Team that year, beating out the great Gordie Howe for right wing honours.
Like Howe, Bathgate could play the physical game and was known as a fierce fighter when the occasion warranted it, perhaps an attribute from his youth in a tough Winnipeg neighborhood known for its boxers. Bathgate made the First All-Star Team again in 1962-63 and was voted to the Second Team the next year. Though truly an individualist on the ice and off, he always placed the team above his own accomplishments and was disappointed with the Rangers' consistently poor performances. In February 1964 he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team preparing itself for a run at the Stanley Cup. Bathgate would realize his greatest thrill in hockey when the Leafs, helped by his timely goals in the playoffs, won the championship that year.
Bathgate, who missed a number of games in the 1964-65 season with his continuing knee problems, was sent to the Detroit Red Wings. He helped the Wings during their surprising run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1965-66. In 1967 he was picked by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Expansion Draft. He spent a year with the Penguins and then two with the Western Hockey League's Vancouver team, earning the MVP award in that league in 1969-70. Bathgate was a rare veteran in that he didn't mind playing in the minors late in his career. He said he'd rather play a regular shift in a lesser league than sit on the bench in the NHL. He did return to the NHL for one last season, again with the Penguins, and then ended his career as a player-coach in division A in Switzerland. He made one last late comeback, playing 11 games with the World Hockey Association's Vancouver Blazers, a team he'd coached the previous season, in 1974-75.
Andy Bathgate is closely associated with one important hockey innovation. The first originated on November 1, 1959. Bathgate sent one of his harder shots toward goalie Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens. The puck struck the All-Star goalie in the face, and opened a gash that required stitches. When Plante returned to the ice, he was wearing a mask, a piece of equipment now universally used.
A smooth player and class act, Andy Bathgate was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1978 along with Marcel Provonost, the player he was traded for when he went to Detroit from Toronto, and, ironically, Jacques Plante.