One of the most remarkable things about Rod Gilbert’s brilliant NHL career was that not only did he make it back from two spinal fusion surgeries but also survived a near-death experience nearly 60 years ago.
Gilbert originally underwent spinal fusion surgery in 1960 when as a junior he slipped on a lid from an ice cream container that had been thrown onto the ice. But the graft didn’t heal properly and his back began acting up again at the beginning of the 1965-66 season.
Gilbert wore a truss with steel bars through the first half of the year, but the contraption restricted his movements and he decided to have the second, season-ending operation in December, this time in the Mayo Clinic where the surgery was performed by the Rangers team physician Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa.
The operation was a success, but during his recovery, Gilbert choked on some of his medications and actually died in his hospital bed while being visited by Emile Francis and Rangers President Bill Jennings. Gilbert, who claimed to have had an out of body experience, could hear the doctor say, “we can’t get a pulse, he’s dead.”
“There’s two doctors and some nurses in there,” said Francis, “And I’m looking in and around them, and I said bring him back damn it he’s my best player!” Gilbert had often said that hearing Emile call him his “best player” is what brought him back.
“In that first operation they took the bone out of his leg to put in his back,” recalled Francis, “And that’s not the bone that would heal the quickest, plus the fact that you never take a bone out of an athlete’s legs, you should take it out of his hip for a back fusion. So the day before training camp he was pulling a boat out of the water and I guess he felt something because he could hardly stand up. So now the players are going through their physicals and Dr. Yanagisawa says ‘I want to take him back to New York and examine him again before I do anything.’ So after he examines him he says, ‘Well he needs another operation but you can use him until December 15th. That’s the last day he can go on skates because if I can operate on him then, he’ll be ready for next season. So that’s what happened. And it never bothered him again. Dr. Yanagisawa was a great doctor. He operated on Camille Henry, Orland Kurtenbach, Harry Howell, Jean Ratelle all those guys. In fact, he operated on Harry Howell and Phil Jackson of the Knicks on the same day. He was the team doctor for the Rangers, Knicks and the New York City Police department. So it was funny as hell, because when you went to see him, he’d take his jacket off and he was carrying a gun.”
Gilbert’s back never bothered him again. He went on to score 405 goals, including 52 game winners, which is still a team record. He played in eight All-Star games, represent Canada in the 1972 Summit Series versus Russia and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1982 and along the way became a much beloved New York sports icon. .
Rod Gilbert was a survivor, and he had a truly remarkable career.