Gilbert was considered a gentleman on ice and off, during his playing days and until his untimely passing.
“There are simply no words,” tweeted Bernie Parent, an adversary on ice and a friend off it. “We lost a legend, a true gentleman, and a dear friend.”
Rangers president and general manager Chris Drury said: "Rod’s remarkable talent and zest for life personified this city and endeared him to hockey fans and non-hockey fans alike. Growing up a young Rangers fan, one of the first names I ever heard about was Rod Gilbert. He was synonymous with Rangers hockey."
Gilbert was born in Montreal and grew up a Canadiens fan, but his NHL career took him to Broadway and not the Forum. He played junior with the Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters and made his NHL debut with the New York Rangers on November 27, 1960. It was his only game of the 1960-61 season with the Rangers, and the following year he played only once more. But by 1962, the 21-year-old made the team full time, and it was with the Rangers he played every one of his 1,065 regular-season games.
Gilbert’s greatest successes in New York came playing right wing on a line with Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield. The trio was dubbed the GAG Line because they seemed to score a goal a game. The team had its greatest playoff years in the early 1970s, culminating in 1972 with a trip to the Stanley Cup finals. Unfortunately, their opponents were the Boston Bruins, led by Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, and the Bruins won the Cup in six games.
Later that year, however, enemies became friends when coach Harry Sinden assembled Team Canada for the historic Summit Series. Although Ratelle, Hadfield, and Gilbert were all invited to play, Hadfield played only two games and Ratelle and Gilbert instead skated alongside Dennis Hull.
Gilbert scored only once in the series, but it was a big goal all the same. Canada had to win Game 7, and after two periods it was a 2-2 game. Early in the third, Gilbert got the puck behind the Soviet goal, came out front quickly, and backhanded the puck along the ice to the far side, beating Tretiak and giving Canada the lead in a game they eventually won, 4-3.
That Gilbert played even one NHL game is something of a miracle. During his junior days he slipped on refuse thrown onto the ice and suffered a serious back injury. The pain extended to his leg, which doctors feared they would have to amputate. He recovered, of course, but in 1965 he needed a second spinal fusion operation which he feared would end his career a second time. But again, he recovered, and in 1976 was named winner of the Bill Masterton Trophy for his dedication to overcoming those injuries.
Gilbert and Esposito and several other Summit Series players were teammates one more time in 1977, the year Canada returned to the World Championship after an absence of eight years. Gilbert had recorded his 1,000th NHL point during the season, but the Rangers missed the playoffs and was available to play. Canada had a rocky tournament and finished fourth, and Gilbert had two goals and four points in 10 games.
He played part of one more NHL season, in 1977-78, and retired after 18 years in the league. In 1979, Gilbert became the first player to have his number retired by the team (#7), and in 1982 he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame alongside Yvan Cournoyer and Norm Ullman.
Gilbert later opened a restaurant in New York and remained active with the Rangers’ alumni. In retirement, as on ice, he was loved and respected throughout the league.
"I am deeply saddened by the passing of Rod Gilbert — one of the greatest Rangers to ever play for our organization and one of the greatest ambassadors the game of hockey has ever had," Rangers owner James Dolan said. "While his on-ice achievements rightly made him a Hall of Famer, it was his love for the Rangers and the people of New York that endeared him to generations of fans and forever earned him the title, `Mr. Ranger."'
"Family, that’s what being at the Garden and being a Ranger means to me," Gilbert once told a reporter.