Andy Bathgate: From peach fuzz to the Hall of Fame

Scouting in professional hockey has become a business of turning over stones, sifting gravel and speculating on tiny particles of talent. In Andy Bathgate’s day, however, a boulder of skill and potential could crash through the rink window and catch as much attention as a custodian gives to a wrapper on the floor.

“I went to Guelph because my older brother Frank was taken there by the Rangers,” Andy explained of his efforts to join the Ontario Hockey Association’s Biltmore Madhatters. “I was not invited… Actually, they weren’t even going to give me a chance. But Frank said, “If you’re not going to give Andy a tryout with the team, then I’m going to Oshawa with him!’ He really threw a fit and said ‘If you don’t give me my release, you fellows are not going to get out of this room!’

“So they gave me a tryout and I made the team. We played together on the same line. I scored twenty goals that first year and we won the OHA… It was the only time I ever played with my brother, Frank. We had lots of fun together and a lot of good memories.

“When you’re kids, you’ve got to stand up for yourself. My father had passed away when I was thirteen. So we had to stick togeer a little bit and sometimes, we took the law into our own hands (laughs).”

Andy went on to flourish as an elite member of the New York Rangers starting in 1952. As an early proponent of the slap shot, he racked up a career-high forty goals and forty-eight assists in 1958-59. The following season he tagged Jacques Plante in the face with a shot that was instrumental in precipitating Plante’s introduction of a mask into regular-league play.

In 1964, Andy was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs as part of a high-stakes gamble by Punch Imlach to maintain buoyancy amongst his troops. Andy seized the moment, scoring five vital goals during the playoffs to claim his lone Stanley Cup victor.

The following season, he had a falling out with Imlach and was shipped to Detroit where he toiled until the league underwent its first expansion. “I went to Pittsburgh with the draft in 1968,” he recalled. “I played there for the full year and I think I got the most points of anybody playing for an expansion team that year. The next season at training camp, they advised me that I had been traded to the Montreal Canadiens. They wanted me to retire and coach the Montreal Voyageurs in the American League. But I decided that I was prepared mentally and physically to play another season. So I went out west and played two years with the Vancouver Canucks.”

In 1970 Red Kelly invited Andy to return to the Penguins. “I said, ‘I’ll come back and play, but if I’m not helping the team, I don’t want to stay’,” he recounted. “After January, I wasn’t getting much ice time. It was getting to be a real bore. I needed one goal to end out my career at 350. But I never got an opportunity to score it because I didn’t get any ice time…So I thought it was time to hang ’em up.”

In 1971, Andy became the first NHL import to play in Europe. He, his wife, Merle, and their two children relocated to the Swiss village of Ambri-Piotta where he coached and played with the local villagers.

It took little time for the opposition to figure out that to beat Ambri-Piotta – you had to beat Andy Bathgate. “I had to be very careful over there,” he confided. “Being the pro, I had to keep my mouth shut. I didn’t want to be critical of their style or system. I took a lot of abuse because the other teams would come up and spit right in my face. They knew if I dropped my gloves it was an automatic suspension. I didn’t know how to handle it. I used my stick because when somebody spits in your face, you want to whack them! You don’t care if you get beat up! Some of them really got me upset at times, so I didn’t take any mercy on them.”

After one season in Europe, Andy returned to Canada and resumed his association with the world of golf. “I’ve been in the golf business since I was playing junior in Guelph,” he recalled. “My brother and I had a driving range out along Highway 6. When I was traded to the Leafs in 1964, I bought a range in Mississauga and I’ve been at it ever since.”

Andy Bathgate Golf Centre is located one mile from the town centre known as Square One. “The location is convenient,” he noted. “I get a couple of hundred thousand cars going by a day. We usually keep 150 tees open at all times.

“My son works full-time with me and my wife is there almost every day. I enjoy it. I like working for myself and being outdoors.”

In 1972, Andy went into partnership with Harry Howell and Vic Hadfield to develop the Indian Wells Golf Club in Burlington, Ontario. “We bought a farm,” Andy recounted. “Harry Howell wanted to stay in California. He sold out before we started building. So Vic Hadfield and I were partners. I thought that the place could have been developed into one of the top, public golf courses around. But Vic wanted to go private. I said, ‘Well, if that’s what you want, you better buy me out,’ which he did.”

In 1975, Andy spent a year and a half coaching the Vancouver Blazers of the World Hockey Association. “I enjoyed Vancouver, but I didn’t like the direction that the WHA was going,” he asserted. “I thought it was better to get back into business for myself.”

Twenty years have now passed since Andy left professional hockey. In reflecting on the conditions and experiences of his era, he is sometimes amazed at what was achieved in the face of adversity.

Playing hockey in Madison Square Gardens, for example, had little of the shine associated with the bright lights of New York City. “In my eleven years there, we practised seven times on the Garden ice!” he remarked. “We were upstairs on the fifth floor on a little dinky rink with aluminum boards. It was chaos when you think of how archaic tour times were. We had Gump Worsley at one end and a piece of plywood with four holes at the other end. And I’ve got pictures to prove it!”

Andy also keyed in on salaries as another example of how the world turns: “I was just thinking today that what Gretzky or Messier gets for playing one shift, I got for a whole year! My last year in Guelph, I was helping my mother and I needed some money. I got $125 playing for the Biltmores and I worked for Muller Collision Service for $64 a week, if I got my forty-two hours in. So basically, I was earning $200 a week and forty weeks would give me $8,000 a year. But then I had to go to New York to play for $6,500. I had to take a $1,500 cut to join the NHL! We had no choice. They had complete control over us.”

Andy concluded that the real fortune earned in hockey came from the relationships that evolved while growing up. “Junior is the most memorable time for any young boy,” he affirmed. “You go from a peach-fuzzed little kid to a young man. And you make life-long friends like Louie Fontinato, Harry Howell and Dean Prentice. All of us keep in touch. And if I needed some help from Louie or Harry – they would be here in a minute. And I know that I would be there for them too… Sure you meet different guys in pro hockey, but they come and go. The junior boys, you seem to remember. Winning is one thing, but we had a lot of fun growing up together.

“In fact we did a lot of fun things like hiding Louie’s car. Every time the police chief moved his car, we’d put Louie’s there. Louie was pretty well always the last one out of the dressing room. So about six of us would put his car between two parking metres. We’d lift it up on the curb and he couldn’t get it out. He’d get so mad at us. We’d have a few battles on the ice about it, but it was all in good fun.”