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.
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."