(EDITOR’S NOTE: Don’t forget that NHL.com’s 30-in-30 today focuses on your New York Rangers.)
The two dozen or so diehard Blueshirt faithful peered up at me from the line just inside of Madison Square Garden, that little area just outside the glass doors that lead to the lobby and box office and the promised land. A few of them stirred indecisively, first grabbing at pens, markers, something to write on, and studying my face as I strode confidently towards them on my way into the arena. Then one or two moved forward, then a few others followed suit, extending me their pens and papers but with a timid overtone that locked in exactly what was happening here.
They wanted my autograph. But they didn’t know which of the Rangers I was. The answer, of course: none of them.
Instead, I was a 22-year old cub reporter working on a story for Sports Illustrated. After graduating from college in May of 1990, I somehow landed a job as an intern reporter (read: fact-checker) for Sports Illustrated For Kids. Of course, I hoped that would lead to job with Sports Illustrated. But in order to land that position, I would need to come up with a story idea and get it published in the big book, which was no small feat. I tried, hard. I wrote a lengthy, comical story about my years as a caddy (funny, well-written, but not accessible enough or newsworthy). I wrote a piece about a Harvard hockey player who lived and played in the Soviet Union for a semester (we’ve already done too many stories like this one).
So by the time I picked up the phone to call John Davidson to — what else? — check the facts on a story, I was a desperate man indeed. Unlike other guys when checking quotes or facts for a story who gave simple yes’s and no’s (after Adam Oates politely answered the phone, Brett Hull said only yes or no), JD is a friendly talker. And we got to talking. I explained to him my plight, and JD had a great idea: A story about the way the players all went through these crazy rituals before games of tapping the goalie — there was a clear pecking order, a clearly choreographed ritual that every team seemed to go through between when they took the ice and the National Anthem.
“I’m telling you, it’s crazy.” Sounded like a reasonable idea. I went to the editors at SI. I presented my idea. They actually seemed interested. The next thing I knew, I had press passes to two Rangers games.
Full disclosure: I read this blog. I am a season ticket holder and have been since 2000. My uncle had season tickets throughout my entire childhood (he gave them up after the disastrous 1993 season if you can believe that). I went to five-10 Rangers games every year from the time I was about five years old, and I am as much of a diehard as exists on this earth. So this press passes thing, well, it went a little like this (nod to Bill Cosby):
God: Peter, I want you to take these press passes, and go to the Rangers game, hang around and hobnob with the media at the Garden, then go into the locker rooms after the game and interview all the players.
So it was with nervous anticipation that I showered, threw on one of my four ties and a blue blazer and headed off to Manhattan in the car from my parents’ place in Connecticut. I owned very few items in this world, and one of the items that I did not own was a briefcase of any kind. And taking a backpack with me at the time seemed pretty unprofessional. So I took a few notebooks, a bunch of pens, and a handheld tape recorder (and about three extra cassettes in case Brian Leetch really wanted to wax philosophical about tapping the goalie) and threw them in a small duffel bag.
I arrived at the Garden at about 5 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game, parked my (parents’) car in one of the lots, grabbed my bag and walked in the way I always do. Now I’m not a big guy, but when I was 22 I was definitely in good shape. I was wearing a jacket and tie, and carrying a duffel bag. Did I look like I played for the New York Rangers? Apparently.
Probably every single one of us has, as either a child or an adult or both, wondered what it would be like to have someone actually want your autograph. I’ve seen it my whole life. The high school football team used to come by our elementary school and the kids all lined up for their autographs. When I was covering the Columbia football team, a close friend of mine on the team — which had won about three times over a five-year period — was clearly moved when after a game a six-year old approached him and asked for his autograph. Now I was finding out how it felt.
I was completely taken aback. Stunned for a second, like Mess just came up high with an elbow to my ear. What did I do here? I could perpetuate one of the greatest practical jokes of all time, stop, scribble something illegibly a few times and walk away, smiling to myself. And when they asked “wait, who are you” I could simply shoot back a quasi-annoyed-that-you-want-my-autograph-but-don’t-even-know-who-I-am “Figure it out.” After all, someone had somehow once done that to my friend Jim, unless there was actually a guy named Fisch Juba who played for the Mets and showed up somewhere and signed my friend’s first base replica.
I kept walking. I knew better. They didn’t want my autograph, they wanted a Ranger’s, and like I said, I was none of them. In fact, I was much closer to the autograph seekers, than I was to the Rangers. But not for long. I strode through the glass doors and climbed aboard an elevator where I and several other media members were greeted by another handsome guy in much nicer threads than me whose outgoing nature was unmistakable. I was riding the elevator with John Vanbiesbrouck.
To be continued …