The name Jean Ratelle has a lyrical, smooth sound to it. It is the sort of name one would expect to find on the guest list for an exclusive dinner party in Montreal or Paris. But although he is occasionally the center of activity in Montreal, ratelle's hectic existence as a professional hockey player leaves him little time for partaking of epicurean indulgences.
Ratelle's life is hockey. For 9 or 10 months every year he concentrates on scoring goals, winning games, and helping his team gain that all-important playoff berth at the regular season's end. While most of his peers in the National Hockery League take a very physical approach to the game, Ratelle seems to glide effortlessly around all the turnmoil like a seagull soaring high above a tumultuous, shark-infested ocean.
As a 20-year veteran, Ratelle is regarded as one of hockey's patriarchal figures. He has starred for two NHL teams, the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins, and during his career the league has grown from six teams to its present number of 20.
Ratelle says he feels that "expansion has helped hockey by giving the game more exposure. It has also helped me because there are more players in the league, so some of the older players like myself can hold on a few more years."
No one in the NHL regards Ratelle as a token or over-the-hill player, however. According to Bruins general manager Harry Sinden, "Ratelle and the two goalies, Rogie Vachon and [Olympic hero] Jim Craig are the nucleus of the team."
This year Ratelli was sidelined for the first 13 james with a back ailment. His absence left a definite void in the Bruins' offense, and the team off to its worst start in nearly 15 years, going eight games without a victory in one stretch and compiling a sorry 3-9-1 record. Sinden, who goes back to Boston's golden Bobby Orr period of the early 1970s, was so fed up that he exclaimed before the players and press, "I see no hope, no playoff promises. I see absolutely nothing."
However, when Ratelle returned to the line up in early November, the picture changed completely, and so did the expression on Sinden's face. the Bruins were winning (6 wins, only 2 losses, and 5 ties), and Harry was smiling. with the artful Ratelle on the ice things began to happen.
The puck, which had been taking superball bounces against the Bruins, was now moving magically in their favor. Well, any of the Bruins will tell you that if there is magic involved, the man with the top hat and white gloves is none other than Jean Ratelle.
Upon his return, the Bruins went eight games without a loss, including a 1-0 victory over the league-leading Philadelphia Flyers. During his first three games Ratelle managed to score either a goal or an assist, and he has been producing steadily ever since. According to teammate Terry O'Reilly, "Ratelle has been incredible. He is a great playmaker and a steadying force." Peter McNab says, "Ratelle is bringing it together, finding the openings that weren't there before."
Ratelle is one of the few remaining players from a bygone era, an era that featured such legendary greats as Jean Belliveau, the fabulous Richard brothers, bobby Hull, and Gordie Howe. It was also an era in which shots were made with straight rather than curved sticks and the Stanley Cup was fiercely competed for because pride and tradition rather than a fistful or prize money was at stake.
Perhaps it is for these reasons that Ratelle appeared to defy all limitations as he led the Bruins to within an eyelash of victory during the 1979 semifinals against Montreal.He led Boston in points with 11, including a three-goal hat trick in Game 4, climaxed by the game-winner in sudden-death overtime.
In his quiet, self-effacing way, Ratelle has always been a leader, a silent but energy-packed force. As the over 1,200 career points he has amassed indicate, he has been as consistent and unshakable as the hair on his head, which never seems to lose its part.
During the 1960s he was the nucleus of the New York Rangers as they scrambled their way into the playoffs as a serious Stanley Cup contender. He was invaluable to the Rangers as the center of the famous "goal a game" line. But in 1975 Ratelle along with Brad Park and Rick Middleton was dealt to Boston in a blockbuster trade for Phil Esposito, Carol Vadnais, and Ken Hodge.
Because of the big names involved and the intense Bruins-Rangers rivalry that has existed over the years, neither the players nor the fans knew how to respond at first. It was as though Generals Grant and Lee had traded sides during the Civil War.
Ratelle recalls that he was "shocked" at the time, but in retrospect, he says , "It was to my advantage. I like Boston, and the fans have been very positive. There is a lot less pressure here than there was in New York."
After the first few games Boston fans had to trouble accepting a Confederate soldier in their ranks. Ratelle scored goals and made plays that brought the crowds to their feet roaring with approval. Besides adding an additional scoring threat, Jean lent a genteel quality to a team that has always been known for its rough style of hockey.
When Ratelle came to Boston, he wanted no part of the rough stuff; he came to play hockey, not fight. And play hockey he did! During the four seasons he has been with Boston he has averaged over 80 points per year. Around the league he is considered a gentleman by all.
Even referee Bruce Hood, who after a game often feels more bruised and battered than the puck, says, "He is one of the few players who, when he argues, I say to myself, 'Hey, I'd better listen to this guy.'" He has twice won the Lady Byng trophy as the player best combining "sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct with a high standard of playing ability," and has also received the Bill Masterton Award for best exemplifying the qualities of "perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey."
Although he has long been considered one of the league's top centers, and was a second team All-Star selection in the 1972 post-season balloting, Ratelle had somehow never been picked to play in the annual midseason All-Star Game until last winter. Happily that oversight was also finally rectified, thus providing further proof that yes, a gentleman can be a winner in the game of hockey.