How does an Englishman end up a Ranger fan?
It all started around Christmas 1983 for me (around the time of the
Maloneys, Greschner, Larouche, and Sandstrom and a first-round exit to the
Flyers) not as a Ranger fan, but that was when my interest in American
sports was born. I was 10 and we’d been in touch with my dad’s Uncle Joe,
who was a film producer living in L.A. — he sent some Christmas presents for
me and my sister; mine just happened to be a Pittsburgh Steelers satin
jacket. Bear in mind the sport was only just entering the consciousnesses of
people on this side of the Atlantic at that time. Channel 4 had just
started its coverage and a few weeks later we sat and watched our first
Super Bowl (XVIII — Skins v Raiders). That’s it. I was hooked! Two years later
there I was getting sunburned in the Coliseum with my family watching a
Raiders game, but my heart had already been snagged by the men in Black and
Roll on several years and few trips to the States later and I began watching
TWiB on a Saturday morning on Sky TV. It was around the time that Big Mac
and Sammy Sosa began chasing the home run record. Constantly I was reminded
of the record they were chasing, Roger Maris, RF, NY Yankees, 61 in 1961. So
when the competition phone-in came up, the answer was as easy as reciting
the Lord’s Prayer. Fast forward two weeks and I receive a phone call, “Hi, is
that Simon, its (name deleted) from Sky TV, you’ve won a prize.”
“Oh yeah, great” I replied, “which one?”
“Oh you’ve won first prize”. Cue lots of fist-pumping and general Anisimov-style celebrations around my office. I’d won a trip to St Louis for two, tickets to the penultimate game of the season and $500 to
spend. That is where I instantly became a Cardinals fan.
At this particular time in my life, I was doing quite well for myself. I was
25, I’d gotten into I.T., my little sister was a United Airlines stewardess and
we were both single. So we’d buddy up for the odd holiday (cheap flights
courtesy of United of course). We decided not long after I got back from St.
Louis that we would have a New Years shopping trip to NYC, a place she’d
been twice on trips but I’d never been to. So after snagging 1a and 1b on a
757 from Heathrow to LA we got a Yellow cab to a hotel on West 47th and our
adventure began. After two days of sightseeing and shopping (tax free weekend
too!) I badly needed a sports fix. So when we came out of Macy’s onto 34th I
realized we were close to MSG.
“Lets go see if we can get tickets to a hockey or basketball game” i said. I remembered Gretzky was playing for the Rangers now so it would be great if I could get to see him play, just once.
I remember walking into MSG, praying that the Rangers were in town and not the Knicks.
As luck would have it as we approached the ticket booths I noticed the signs
— Rangers vs Islanders 13th January tickets available. That was perfect, the
game was tomorrow night, and I didn’t have to watch basketball!!
As it was I can’t remember exactly what we paid — I think it was $28 a ticket,
but I’m pretty sure I was in section 202. I remember taking my seats, beer,
hot dog, popcorn all lined up. We watched the warm-ups and tried to pick out
numbers from the roster in the program. There were some familiar names to
me, ones that would become more familiar as my interest in the Rangers grew
over the following years: Graves, Leetch, Richter, Nedved, Beukeboom and a
few more. As the players went off, out trotted a few guys with some red
carpet and I wondered “what the Byfuglien?” Turns out it was a celebration,
one of the players was reaching 1,000 NHL games tonight. Can anyone remember
who? (I’ll give you the answer at the end).
So after the presentation was done (a silver stick) and the dignitaries and
players family back in their seats and the national anthem sung it was time
to drop the puck. The game was back and forth, before the Rangers took the lead in the third
3-2 only to give it away a few minutes before the end and take it to OT.
I remember two things about OT, the crowd being much more on edge and it could
be just me but it seemed that Leetch, Gretzky and Graves barely sat down.
There were also no good shots, it was a tight game and if I was a betting
man I’d have put my money on a draw. Then, with the Rangers camped out in
the Isles’ end it happened, that split second of magic which separates the
great players from the simply good ones: MacLean gets the puck behind the
goal and feeds Gretzky in the right circle, you could see the defense
thinking to close him down quickly, and before you knew it he’d slipped a
pass across to, who else, Adam Graves who swats it passed the Isles goalie
(I think it was Felix Potvin) who was still set and waiting for Gretzky to
pick his spot.
The Garden erupts, the hated neighbours have been beaten and one English
sports fan is hooked for life.
Some things i remember from back then:
Gretzky looked old and slow, but was still a “diffwent gwavy” as we might
say over here — he could thread a pass and dipsy doodle past any hit, I
remember seeing this incredibly tall, young defenseman try and level him
only to completely whiff on him — he got a bit better at it over the years —
it was Zdeno Chara. Gretzky finished the night with two assists and still
played more minutes than any other Rangers forward.
Leetch was everywhere and seemed to play the full 60 minutes plus OT.
Richter was not great that night, one of only a few during his tenure as
Adam Graves seemed to hit everyone, get hit by everyone and win every battle
for the puck, I can see how he became a blueshirt legend (Cally reminds me a
lot of him).
Some things I didn’t notice that night:
Manny Malhotra played.
Rumun Ndur played; little did I know a few years later I’d watch him play
for Coventry Blaze in the British National League.
Marc Savard, Kevin Stevens, Mike Knuble all played for the Rangers — I only
had eyes for No. 99, No. 2 and No. 9
I remember walking out of MSG that night thinking how much I wanted a
Rangers jersey and how it was going to have either one or two 9’s on the
Fast forward 13 years, here I am nearly 40, two kids, one divorce later and I’m
all over the internet daily looking for my fix of Rangers and NHL news.
Occasionally I go see a game over here. Coventry Blaze is my local team, but
it’s not the same. Hockey is the sport for me, I knew that the minute I
walked out of MSG that night, screw the premier league, MLB or Formula 1,
they just don’t have the same intensity, honesty and competitiveness that
the NHL has.
I live in hope that Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr don’t ruin the sport that I
long for, and I hope that one day soon I’ll be signing up for Center Ice and
who knows, maybe on the plane to NYC to watch my beloved Rangers once more
and cheer on a new generation of stars — Callahan, Hank, Nash, Staal,
Richards . Maybe it will be for a cup this time?
p.s. The 1,000 game man was Ulf Samuelsson — he even scored that night too.