My favorite days of the year are my birthday, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, and the day of the Rangers home opener. I can’t remember the birthdays of anyone in my family except for those of my two brothers, but from the moment the NHL schedule is released, the date of the Rangers home opener is branded into my brain as if my life depends on it. From the beginning of October until the beginning of April—and from then until the middle of June if things work out—my life revolves around the Rangers.
Sure, I go to work, I do those basic things that adults need to do in order to remain adults, such as keep their jobs and pay their bills. But outside of the basic necessities, for most of the year, my life is devoted to hockey. Someone’s throwing a party? I’ll be there when the game’s over. Need help moving on a Saturday? Sorry, game’s on. For the vast majority of the year, everyone who is near and dear to me knows that if there’s a Rangers game, I’m either at Madison Square Garden, watching, or I’m at home, cursing, screaming, and yelling at the television. I can admit that my behavior is so bad while watching a Rangers game on television, that I’ve scared my friends, made small children cry, and have had the neighbors file noise complaints. If we make the playoffs? You don’t want to know. My diet, my facial hair, my entire laundry schedule, revolves around my team. The Rangers have even brought me to tears on multiple occasions. One could say I take sports too seriously. If I was being honest with myself, I’d have to agree with them. But I’m okay with that. And if you take sports too seriously like I do, you should be okay with it also. I’m going to tell you why!
For me, it all began in the spring of 1994. I had just turned 10 years old, and the New York Rangers were well on their way to winning their first Stanley Cup—that’s the NHL championship by the way—in 54 years. Along the way, there were two major moments in my life as a young fan which will always stay with me. The first moment being when Stéphane Matteau scored the double overtime game and series-winning goal in Game 7 against the New Jersey Devils. After the puck went in, while Howie Rose was making his famous call—which still gives me chills when I listen to it: Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!—the 10-year-old me was jumping on the sofa with such enthusiasm that I broke it. The next major moment came when two weeks later, we beat the Vancouver Canucks and won the Stanley Cup. I, of course, was freaking out, and was not allowed anywhere near a sofa or any other piece of furniture. My dad, being the stoic man that he is, very simply said, you have no idea how special this is. While I had been following the team for a few months, he had been waiting his entire life for that win. Of course I had no idea how special that victory was. I was 10 years old, and as far as I knew, my team was supposed to win every year. 20 plus years later, I have learned that my team doesn’t win every year, and just how right my dad was when he tried to teach me something about savoring victory.
A few days later, Mom let me cut school so I could go to the Stanley Cup victory parade. She worked down the block from part of the parade route, so I went with her to her office until it was time for us to go to the parade. It was madness. At that point of my life, I don’t think I had even been to a professional sporting event yet, and there I was in a throng of people celebrating their victory. I remember being too short to see anything and a guy offering to let me sit on his shoulders as long as I took pictures with his camera. In the blink of an eye, I went from seeing nothing to seeing my heroes, in the flesh. They weren’t action stars that used special effects to appear heroic, they were heroic. It was surreal. These people were real, right in front of me. I screamed and cheered, and I snapped some pictures for the guy. I hope the pictures turned out okay. I remember when the parade was over, my mom let me drag her around lower Manhattan because I didn’t have a New York Rangers Stanley Cup Champions hat. I needed to find one, a particular one because it was the same one the players wore. I never wear that hat anymore, but you bet your ass I still have it!
Not too long after that, my dad got me my first Rangers jersey. A white jersey, set up with a #2 for Brian Leetch, who was—and still is—my favorite Rangers player. He was a defensemen who wasn’t the biggest and didn’t deliver the biggest hits. But he was fast, he was smart, he was so smooth with the puck, that he made every move look effortless. To me, wearing a jersey with his name on it didn’t just say I like this player, it said this is how he plays the game, and I identify with it in my life. That jersey followed me everywhere. I wore it at every opportunity I could think of. Sometimes even in the middle of summer when the idea of wearing a sweater was insane.
There was no greater thrill than wearing that jersey to my first Rangers game with my dad. Even though I was still a young kid, wearing that jersey meant that I belonged to something, a family of 18,200 strong that were all there for the same reason, to cheer on their team. I remember the first time I could smell the ice, hear the sound of skates skating across the ice and players knocking each other into the boards, the first time I heard the Potvin Sucks! chant, and other unsavory sounds from the crowd I won’t share here. I was hooked.
If karma is a thing, I learned it through being a Rangers fan. While we won the Stanley Cup in the first season I watched them, they spent the next ten years drifting from competitive to mediocre, to irrelevant, to laughingstock. They were lean years when young talent was traded away, and Madison Square Garden ice turned into a retirement home. Yet, I still piled up my allowance money (and by this point, money I was earning myself from working) and every season when the schedule was released, I marked a few games a year I had to see. These games were usually disasters, blowouts, embarrassments. But I couldn’t help myself. The team won me over with so much magic in the beginning that winning and losing wasn’t important (though winning is certainly more fun!), I felt like I belonged to something, and I needed to support it regardless of the results.
In a beautiful set of coincidences that only sports can provide, by the time I grew into a money-earning young adult, the Rangers were one of the worst teams in the league (a league itself which was on the verge of shutting down for a year), and it was easy to buy in for season tickets. I approached my dad about it—he used to split tickets with some friends before my older brother was born, and still loves to tell stories about it to this day—and he, of course, signed up. The Rangers weren’t good yet, but ever since I was young, the thing I wanted more than anything else in the world were Rangers season tickets so I could support my team whenever I wanted. For the past ten plus years, whenever I go to a Rangers game, I’ve sat in the exact same seat—of course minus the fact that they did a major renovation and my original seat doesn’t exist anymore, but it feels like I have the same seat—for every game I’ve been to. Walking into Madison Square Garden is always special. It’s always a treat, and I don’t expect it to ever stop feeling this way. In that time, I’ve made friends, met their wives, met their kids, and met their friends, and in some way, they’re part of my family. When we’re playing poorly, we talk about it in between periods. When we win, we celebrate together. It’s a small family in and of itself.
In the twenty some odd years I’ve been following the Rangers, I’ve experienced a lot. I saw Wayne Gretzky, The Great One, score a goal in his final season in the NHL. I saw my heroes, Mike Richter, Mark Messier, Adam Graves, and of course, Brian Leetch, get their numbers retired. I saw Nikolai Zherdev snipe the puck top corner over Marc-André Fleury’s arm with 0.7 seconds left to force a game into overtime and steal victory, I rolled over my ankle at a bar when I jumped off a stool when we knocked the Devils out of the playoffs, I saw Michael Roszival score in double overtime against Buffalo in the playoffs to get us back in the series. A week later when my heart was broken when Buffalo eliminated us, I passed out in anguish on my friend’s floor (pretty sure she still has photos of this). I was there when Jaromir Jagr turned back the clock and put together one of the greatest seasons in Rangers history. I was there when Henrik Lundqvist was just a kid, and not yet The King. I was there when the crowd kept chanting Can You Hear Us? after a rival coach claimed our building was a quiet one to play in. I’ve seen multiple Game 7 victories. I was there when Marty St. Louis popped one over Tokarski’s shoulder in Game 4. I was there when we got back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years. I was there when our season only had 1:41 left in it and then Kreider gave us life. I was there when Stepan finished the epic comeback a few days later. This list goes on, and on, and on.
So why are all of these moments important to me? It all roots back to that first season when I started watching the Rangers. That summer was magical. That sense of victory, of being on the top of the mountain. And it wasn’t truly about being there, but about how we got there. I’m a sucker for a good dramatic story, just like anyone. But while I take in more than my fair share of books and movies, sports is my favorite theater. Nothing is scripted, and things rarely turn out how we think they should. When games play out how we expect them to, there’s rarely a story, it’s the dramatic games when the unexpected happens that we talk about years later. It’s the that’s why you play the game philosophy that every sports fan flocks to. It’s amazing seeing the impossible happen, and seeing real people achieve it, and in some way, fans feel like they’re achieving it right along with the athletes.
The Rangers are also important to me because it’s something I share with my dad. He took me to my first game, we talk about the Rangers throughout the year—even in the dead of summer—and they’ve been a sort of glue in our relationship. Every season, he and I go to the first home game of the year. Every year we go to the game that is closest to my birthday, and every time he puts a happy birthday greeting on the big screen—and always tells the people involved that I’m too old to ride the Zamboni—even though I ask him not to. One time we got our picture taken on center ice after a game and I ate some of the shaved ice, because I felt I had to.
So why are the Rangers so important to me? It’s about being part of something bigger than myself that I connect with on very personal way through the experiences I’ve had. I think everyone does this in some way, I happen to do it through sports. Plus it’s brought me into a family while also being an important lynchpin in my own family.
Ask any dedicated sports fan why they take their team so seriously, and they will rattle off their stories just like I did for you. When someone gets into their team like that, when they take their team too seriously, it’s not about drinking a bunch of beer and screaming at a bunch of players—though we still do that from time to time—and it’s not about harassing fans of other teams—though we’ll do that too, but only in good fun—it’s about this strange connection that you feel with people other than yourself, that connects you to something big. It’s about the drama, it’s about the ecstatic joy of victory and the deflating misery of defeat. It’s about the traditions, it’s about the superstitions, it’s about the friends and family, it’s about the memories.
When someone tells me I take sports too seriously, I think about all the fun I’ve had by being a Rangers fan. I nod, and agree with them. I do take the Rangers too seriously. Whenever someone tells you that you take sports too seriously, you should do the same.