The first number that the New York Rangers ever raised to the rafters of Madison Square Garden was that of Rod Gilbert’s – number 7.
Yet on the eve of a win-or-go-home game six for the Blueshirts, the last thing the Hall of Famer wanted to chat about was hockey.
“Nick Springer, do you know who he is?” Gilbert asked me Monday night inside Espace. The revered Ranger was receiving an honor from the National Meningitis Association at its gala and recalled how he first became involved with the organization. “I was (Nick’s) coach when he was six years old. And then by the time he was 14 he went to a camp. That’s where he contracted meningitis.”
Unprompted and in thorough detail, Gilbert talked about how the disease took Springer’s limbs but not his spirit. The hockey star noted the inspiration that he received from the child, who went on to become a gold medal-winning Paralympic wheelchair rugby player.
“(Springer) didn’t believe that he was injured,” Gilbert continued. “And he says, ‘I’m not going to allow that to distract me from my mission on this planet.’”
Bringing more awareness to the meningococcal disease was part of that mission and it was on full display at the event. Gilbert was recognized along with Francesca Testa, Kayla St. Pierre and Dr. Amy Middleman for their contributions to that cause. But the former Blueshirt was quick to deflect the spotlight.
“Everybody here deserves an honor because they’re part of this and they’re going to go out and make everyone aware of the danger of a kid not getting a shot before they go to camp,” Gilbert said of the association honoring him. “The fact that I accepted was because I wanted to share with everyone, especially in the memory of Nancy Ford Springer… I’d rather be incognito about it.”
Gilbert acknowledged that his success as a former NHL player allows him to assist worthy causes in receiving more attention. On Saturday night, Gilbert was at a dinner benefiting ALS during the Rangers’ game five defeat in Ottawa.
“I’m the biggest fan of all the Ranger fans,” he noted. “But the fact is there are other lives that are affected by something more serious than the Rangers losing.”
With that, Gilbert had to step back on to the red carpet to pose for a press photo. We didn’t receive a prediction or key to beating the Senators from him, but it didn’t matter. The Hall of Famer was too busy helping others win a battle that doesn’t hinge on a seven-game series.