Yep, we all remember where we were. Whether a Vancouver Canucks fan, a Detroit Red Wings fan, or a fan of the Florida Panthers, September 11th, 2001 was what Pearl Harbor was to our grandparents or great grandparents. A world changer. I don’t need to re-hash it, nor do I have any desire to bash Muslims, which I’m sure is going on wholeheartedly on talk radio around the United States this anniversary day. Forget that the actions of those Saudi Arabian terrorists were the result of failed American foreign policy, which led to even greater and continued failures in American foreign policy. Let’s talk about the hockey instead.
Matt Loughran is a best friend, a cohort from two different adventures in the minor leagues. He was once the team op’s director for the New York Rangers and has his name on the Stanley Cup from 1994. He was David Letterman’s “ticket weasel” on the phone, when Letterman called the Rangers office on TV and tried to get tickets to Game-7 of the Stanley Cup Final that year.
Matt was still a part of that Blueshirts on and off-ice brotherhood when 2001 rolled around, despite having moved on to other gigs four or five years before. He easily secured tickets for us to the Rangers first game back after 9/11, on October 7th. Although I was traveling around working for Leafs TV at this point, press credentials were not desired. In this case, just two seats above the lower walkway, in a corner section behind the net about fifteen rows back. That’s where we wanted to be. With the crowd.
Ultimately, seating position didn’t matter that evening, it was all about emotion. Guys will know what I’m about to describe, especially guys who grew up with brothers and/or tough dads in the 70’s, 80’s or before that when “real men” weren’t allowed to cry. As we were apt to do, I was fighting back tears, trying to suppress the lump in my throat the size of a grapefruit. Had I let it go I may have been balling my eyes out. Instead, just misty, with a twisting pain in my throat from trying to force it down time and time and time again. It sure wasn’t easy. The City was and remains a part of me.
Before the New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres took the ice for introductions, the New York City police and fire department hockey teams took the ice to a prolonged ovation. After the Rangers had been introduced, the Sabres came out together in their road whites with a diagonal “New York” across their chests, matching the Rangers in blue. That was the first jarring and effective testimonial. When the ceremonies began, instead of a hockey helmet, Rangers Captain Mark Messier ended up with a Fire Department captain’s helmet on his head. There was a rendition of “God Bless America” sang by a children’s choir, and a police woman singing the national anthem.
John Davidson, “JD” to most, the former goalie turned broadcaster who more recently became a hockey executive, said to the crowd while emceeing from the ice, “tonight, not only are we celebrating the return of Rangers hockey, we’re celebrating the return of New York City.”
The noise in the building was palpable at times, and while the ceremony was memorable, it was the more organic outbursts that stood out.
Every time a pair or group of cops or firemen walked around the aisle above the lowest seats, the walkway that circumnavigated the entire rink about a dozen rows above the boards, the fans would rise in standing ovation, and the first responders would wave, stop to greet and hug well-wishers, and continue walking. This occurred throughout the game. This was before the billion-dollar renovations of the last decade, before the partitioning of the rink by socioeconomic status, when one could walk from the Zamboni doors to the rafters by climbing a variety of steps. The crowd was one.
It was sadness, madness, and Red, White, and Blue patriotism beyond the Nth degree. When we left the building after the Rangers stirring 5-4 overtime victory, we were emotionally and physically exhausted.
Hockey endured, as did the City.