An Englishman In Love With The New York Rangers

I fell in love with Ice Hockey when I was a mere slip of lad, and nothing changed when I moved to New York in 1994. Today the Rangers have to win to stay in the play-offs...
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I Am A Ranger.

I’ve been a hockey fan since I was a kid. Remember when the ITV 7 would get rained off and they’d put up footage of The mighty U.S.S.R. Army team playing Canada instead? I used to watch it with my old man, drinking tea and eating Jaffa cakes. I’m pretty sure he knew it wasn’t live but I didn’t have a clue. Much the same as I didn’t realize that the L.A. Lakers - cheered on by the manically grinning Jack Nicholson - and The Boston Celtics weren’t actually ensconced in the Boston Garden, along with 15,000 fans waiting for the weather report from Chepstow or Market Rasen to come through. Seems a bit mad now doesn’t it? But when you were 9 or 10 and there were only three channels on the telly and it seemed to rain a hell of a lot on a Saturday afternoon, it made perfect sense. After all the likes of Kendo Nagasaki and Mick McManus used to strut their stuff live from such places as Wolverhampton Civic Hall and The Victoria Hall Hanley most Saturdays. Why should the Canadians and Russians be any different?

In 1994 I moved to New York. A little older; a little wiser. It was a great time to be a sports fan in one of the world’s greatest cities. The World Cup Finals were on. Italy and Ireland played in New Jersey’s Giant’s Stadium. The New York Knicks climbed on Patrick Ewing’s massive shoulders and rode their luck all the way to game seven of the N.B.A. finals and The New York Rangers ended a 54 year drought by winning hockey’s ultimate prize. Lord Stanley’s Cup. Forget about getting tickets. Imagine London only having one football team and a ground that held 18,200 fans. That will give you some idea as to how illusive Play off tickets were. I watched games on cable. I watched games in bars. I was a novelty. An Englishman wrapped up in this most North American of sports. Truth be told, I didn’t have a clue about a lot things. Icing, what the hell was that? I knew the stars. Anderson, Kovalev, Lowe, Messier, Graves, Leetch. I fell in love with goalie Mike Ricther for his heroic performances - in a totally none gay way, naturally. But I didn’t have a clue who Stephan Matteau was until he eliminated their rivals from across the Hudson, The New Jersey Devils. Around here no will ever forget him.

The highest high came in game seven of the finals against the Cannucks of Vancouver. Fifty Four Years without a cup. Think about it. One fan in the stands held up a homemade sign that read simply - Now I Can Die In Peace. We drank long and hard into the night in a rammed Biddy Mulligans in the Woodhaven section of Queens. Blue collar guys toasting their beloved Broadway Blueshirts. If I wasn’t hooked already, I was now.

Remember when the ITV 7 would get rained off and they’d put up footage of The mighty U.S.S.R. Army team playing Canada instead? I used to watch it with my old man, drinking tea and eating Jaffa cakes

The following season was one of turmoil. Mike Keenan, the coach departed acrimoniously. A labour dispute meant the season was shortened from a regulation 82 games to just 48. A team built to win the cup could not repeat and, save for an appearance in the ‘97 Eastern Conference finals, a team that featured ‘The Great One’, Wayne Gretzky faded out of championship contention. Other expensive acquisitions such as Jaromir Jagr and Theo Fluery came and went. Madison Square Garden became something of a retirement home for once marquee names of Ice Hockey.

I’m still a Ranger fan and I will be ‘til I die. These days genuine superstars are thin on the ground. Henrik Lundqvist, nick named ‘The King’ stands between the pipes and more often than not performs heroics keeping a low scoring bunch in most games with his majestic play. Marion Gaborik was signed to score goals. In his first season he managed an impressive 42. This season his production is down to 22. In spite of that I love the club more than ever.

Last night I went to the play off game against the high flying Washington Capitals who count among their ranks perhaps the most naturally skilled hockey player of this era, Alexander Ovechkin. A man who scores improbable goals for fun and turns defeat into victory with the flick of a wrist. The Rangers were down 2 games to 1 in the best of 7 series. Washington’s coach Bruce Boudreau had goaded Ranger fans in the morning papers saying essentially The Garden was a dump and a pretty quiet dump at that too. Consequently, the crowd were fired up and anything but quiet. ‘Can you hear us?’ they chanted. They lack the subtleties of English football supporters, their repertoire servery limited. ‘Let’s go Rangers,’ is the big one.

Led by the mustache sporting  Brandon Dubinsky (although elder statesman Chris Drury wears the Captains C)in the absence of injured talisman Ryan Callahan the Rangers battled hard, checked and harried their more skillful opponents and jumped to a 3-0 lead. The Garden a frenzy of towel waving, beer drinking fans. The office boys letting loose for once rink side and the diehards in the cheap (extremely relative term in Madison Square Garden) seats vocal, willing their team on while imparting knowledge gained from years of disappointment. ‘Let it go McCabe, that’s what you’re here for.’ ‘Keep on him Girardi.’

Quite how it happened is any-one's guess but they squandered a three goal lead, two in under a minute, when victory seemed assured. Inevitably, the Garden fell silent. Overtime loomed. 3-3 the final. Heavily out shot (Lundqvist turned away 49 of the 53 shots he faced), over three regulation periods and into the second 20 minute stanza of overtime, their work ethic having taken them this far against their more talented opposition, with cruel irony a mistake by ‘Superstar’ Marion Gaborik, who had earlier scored, let in Jason Chimera for a soft goal that condemned the Rangers to defeat. Leaving them facing a must win game in D.C. on Saturday.

Lundqvist took it bad, banging his stick on the boards as the Rangers trooped off the ice. The fans took it bad. Matter of fact coach John Tortorella took it bad. The Capitals are known to choke in big, big games so The Rangers are not dead yet but even if they scrape through this is not a team that will win a Stanley Cup this season.

And guess what? I’m alright with that. The signs are there. I said it last night and I’ll stand by it today. If we had Ryan Callahan fit we’d go past these top seeded Capitals. I don’t mind the lack of marquee players. Granted we have one of the league’s best goalies but I like seeing guys with commitment. Players who’ll get stuck in. Players who block shots with their bodies, lying flat on the ice while someone shoots the puck on goal? How mad is that? But that’s what this group of players do. As much as I loved the flair of the 94 champions, I love the grit of the 2011 also rans. There’s a lot more upside to this team than there has been in a Rangers team for quite a while. Staal, Girardi, McDonagh, Callahan, Dubinsky, Boyle, Prust - they sound like a bunch of union electricians not millionaire sportsmen. Sure they make mistakes but they play with that look on their faces, that spring in their step that makes you think they love doing what they do. That there’s nothing they’d rather be doing. That no matter what, they’re going to leave it all out there on the ice more often than not and that’s all I want from a team.

The New York Rangers and Washington Capitals resume play 3.00p.m. Saturday in Washington. It’s win or go home time for the Rangers. Don’t count them out just yet.

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