The Best Kept Sports Secret in New York

Nov 11 2014 | 01:15 AM

    I’ve never met a casual Rangers fan. I don’t think you have either. And if you know this to be true, then you know there is no such thing as “just another Rangers game.”  

    But maybe you don’t know. Maybe you see one sporting event a year, and that’s just to humor a friend. Either way, let me tell you something: If you buy only one ticket all year to one New York sports event, make it a New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden. What happens in that building for that team—each night they play—is what is supposed to happen at a sporting event in New York.

    Take a typical game from the third week of the season: The Rangers host their 20-minutes-away rival, the New Jersey Devils. This is their first meeting since the Devils embarrassed the Rangers with a 4-0 elimination during the opening round of last season’s playoffs.  The Rangers are ailing, coming off three straight losses after winning their first two games of the season. Defense is the problem. The fans are edgy and vengeful. They remember well what happened in the playoffs. 

    We rise for the national anthem sung by a “recording artist” nobody has heard of. She barely gets through the first line of “Oh say can you see …” when she’s interrupted by disparate shouts of “Let’s go Rangers!” They can’t wait. By the time she gets to “Oh say does that star-spangled …” the place is in an uproar. Hoots, hollers and a blow-dried blonde doing that two-fingers-in-the-mouth whistle. This is no disrespect to the flag, mind you. This is passion refusing to be throttled. They want combat. They want blood. They want victory.  

    Palpable energy at a sporting event can’t be manufactured with loud music and a JumboTron. It comes solely from real fans who commit their bodies and throats. Rangers fans fill the Garden with that kind of intensity. You feel it as soon as you walk in the building.

    Rangers fans are throwbacks to a time when sports fans were all about the live game and nothing else. They reflect the genuine toughness and common man work ethic of the athletes they support. I saw no Rangers fans dining at Nick and Stef’s, the steakhouse embedded in the 33rd Street side of the Garden. Even the popular Garden area watering hole Mustang Harry’s might be a little too genteel for them. No, you have to go a block east on 33rd Street. There you’ll see them spilling out of less complicated joints like Stout, Blarney Rock Pub and Hickey 139.  

    How do you know they’re Rangers fans? It’s easy. They’re wearing Rangers jerseys. By my unofficial poll, over 70 percent of Rangers fans wear Rangers jerseys to games. New players, old players—doesn’t matter. They come dressed to the party. I also noted two Henrik Lundqvist Team Sweden jerseys. And, of course, there was an obligatory Charlestown Chiefs jersey. One young man with progressive sartorial tastes donned a custom made Rangers jersey with the words “Devils Suck” stitched in place of a player’s name. 

    Real Rangers fans identify themselves with colors and accoutrements. They release whomever they were before the game to become someone else—part of something else. It’s no different than a Dead concert, Parrotheads for Jimmy Buffet or even a Rachael Ray book signing. You must understand. When you go see the Rangers, you’re not just attending a hockey game. You’re immersing yourself in a distinct anthropology. 

    “Rangers fans have a happier attitude,” says Giovanni, a 30-something Garden waitress who’s been serving drinks with a smile at the floor and mezzanine levels for the past four years. “And they definitely buy more drinks.”    

    What about Knicks fans? “Knicks fans eat more,” she tells me. “Even when they’re winning, they have serious, scrunched-up faces. He-e-e-y, there’s my favorite fan!” Giovanni waves to a red-faced man in his mid-to-late forties wearing a Mark Messier jersey. He comes down to see if everything is all right. Assured that it is, he puts his arm around Giovanni and offers to buy me a drink.  

    It’s true. I attend numerous Knicks games during the course of a season and the Garden is a much happier place when the Rangers play. The building becomes smaller, more accessible and more communal. 

    It’s also true that there’s more drinking. But “drinking” is different than “drunken.” Unlike Giants or Jets games, Rangers fans don’t drink to discover their manhood. Rather, they’re men and women who drink while enjoying their game. You won’t find any of that tailgate-machismo, chest bump, high-five crap at a Rangers game. And, at Rangers games, you never want to fight the fan next to you—you want to join him.

    Rowdy? Sure. But they’re also extremely intelligent hockey fans. They’ll cheer some action (or non-action) that you might think insignificant. But it’s not. It’s subtle. Carl, a 38-year old season ticket holder from Forest Hills, lectured me on the virtues of “puck management” for a good 15 minutes. 

    I call it informed cheering. That night against the Devils, intimidating Rangers defenseman Darius Kasparaitis made his season debut. He missed the first five games, deemed out of shape by coach Tom Renney. But the defense performed so poorly in the last three losses that Renney had no choice. Less than two minutes into the first period, Kasparaitis checks Devils center Patrik Elias hard into the glass just as he crosses the center line. The place goes wild. Four minutes later Kasparaitis blatantly smashes his stick under the chin of Devils right-winger Cam Janssen, earning a two-minute “interference” penalty. The boos come, but there’s a choral quality to them. Like tears of joy, these are boos of joy. Unlike other sports, they’re not booing the result or indulging in bratty A-Rod booing. They boo in support of Kasparaitis. The fans know the defense is back. More importantly, they know the Devils know it too.

    Rangers fan devotion borders on religious. To the extent they’re permitted, fans live the game experience with their team. As soon as the Garden doors open—one hour before game time—400 Rangers fans run full speed down to the glass to watch their team warm up. As soon as the game ends, a throng of fans camps outside 8 Penn Plaza dispersing only when the very last Ranger exits the building. 

    Very intense and very loyal. On opening night Oct. 5, 2006, the Rangers reported a season ticket renewal rate of more than 95 percent (the highest in seven seasons) and a season ticket waiting list of more than 3,000 people (the first such waiting list in eight seasons). They aren’t all bandwagon fans either. 30 percent of season subscribers have a tenure of more than 30 years, with 14 accounts remaining with the organization for more than 50 years. This year, they signed up 4,000 new season ticket subscriptions.

    And why not? It’s a great time to be a Rangers fan. They’re an excellent team. In the first three minutes against the Devils, second year Swedish phenom goalie Henrik Lundqvist deflects a heart-stopping flurry of six shots on goal. The crowd erupts as the puck travels away from the Rangers goal toward the other end of the ice. Lundqvist had hit a rough patch the week before, but the star goaltender is clearly back. He ends up with 34 saves on the night in a 4-2 victory over the hated Devils. Not exactly the pound of flesh all Rangers fans were looking for, but they affectionately applaud tonight’s return to form. Brendan Shanahan, who leads the league in goals scored, scores again tonight. The 37-year-old Shanahan, one of the top 15 goal scorers of all time, has chosen to end his Hall of Fame career with the Rangers. He’s become a vocal leader who makes it very clear he thinks this team is championship caliber. Shanahan works as the perfect complement on and off the ice to another sure-fire Hall of Famer, Jaromir Jagr. Jagr, the proud, silent stud, carried the Rangers on his back last year while setting the team’s single season record for goals (54) and winning his third Lester B. Pearson Award (voted the league’s MVP by other NHL players).   

    Attend a Rangers game and what you will see is an NHL elite team contending for the Stanley Cup. For all the public tar and feathering of owner James L. Dolan, this franchise has enjoyed a stunning turnaround on his oft broken watch. 

    The history of the Rangers is the story of brief, glorious feasts and long, extended famines. Led by the legendary Mark Messier and the canonized Mike Richter, the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994 and the hearts of New York sports fans along with it.  Before 1994, the Rangers hadn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1940. After 1994, things slid precipitously downhill.  

    From 1998 to 2004, the Rangers did not make the playoffs at all. That’s quite a defeat considering over half the teams in the NHL qualify for postseason play. The plight of the post-1994 Rangers was even worse than their record indicated. From 2002 to 2003, the Rangers failed to make for the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year—a franchise record—despite having the highest payroll in the history of hockey ($69,177,085). From 2003 to 2004, the Rangers payroll ballooned to $77 million—and they missed the playoffs yet again. 

    The lockout and cancellation of the 2004 to 2005 NHL season was actually a blessing for the Rangers, who became poster children for a distressed league dying from reckless expansion, bloated payrolls, dwindling television interest and (to some) a boring product. 

    Salary caps, profit sharing, free agency and a slew of rule changes designed to showcase “skilled” players revived the NHL for an impressive return last season. The Rangers epitomized that revival. The “Broadway Blues,” as they are often called, shed many expensive but unproductive stars from their roster. With a mix of youth, veterans and savvy acquisitions, the “Blueshirts” (another local Rangers nickname) surprised the league with premier play all last season, commanding first place in their Atlantic Division for long stretches. If not for key injuries late in the season, especially to Jaromir Jagr, the Rangers might have gone much further in the postseason.   

    When you watch the Rangers today, you’re not only watching a storied franchise on the upswing, but an entire league at a compelling point of transition. The NHL is on trial for its life every night of the season. NHL players have a real stake in the league’s success—a 54 percent stake in all revenues, to be exact. Incredibly, the players with the league and the owners jointly approve all marketing materials right down to scripts for television spots.

    Unlike NBA, NFL or MLB stars, NHL players know that their league’s future and their concomitant personal financial futures are far from secure. Accordingly, they play as if their future depends on it. They give nothing less than their best effort every moment on ice. Never has there been a more exciting time to sit in an NHL arena.  

    “We love sports that are highly competitive, demanding and grueling,” says Gavin Harvey, CEO of Versus Network (formerly OLN) who spent a reported $135 million for the television rights to 54 NHL games, gambling his own network’s future largely on the integrity of the NHL product and its athletes. “The NHL isn’t about the payday but the biggest heart,” says Harvey. He sees great value in the anti-diva appeal of NHL stars. “[The NHL] isn’t an oversaturated bling, gossip or celebrity culture. It’s about the heart of hard working athletes. It’s about the game. No whiners in hockey.”  

    He’s right. Of the hundreds of athletes I’ve interviewed, none are as down to earth, funny and self-deprecating as hockey players. I see it in these New York Rangers. They’re regular, hardworking guys. The team’s biggest stars—Jagr, Lundqvist, Shanahan and Petr Prucha—all live in 1-bedrooms on the Upper West Side. They ride the subway to work. Turn around, you could be standing next to one of the greatest hockey players in the world—maybe he’s even getting ready to fight it out on the ice in a few hours—for himself, for his team and for his league. This whole ethos of a league on trial, fan-player connectedness and sincere, competitive athletes fills Madison Square Garden with an enormous sense of shared thrill whenever the Rangers play there. The excitement manifests externally—chanting, cheering, wearing jerseys—but the feeling is visceral. 

    You leave a Rangers game transformed. You exit Madison Square Garden and walk among the empty faces of the New York night. Only now people are looking at you differently, and you look at them differently. You are on a totally higher energy plane than everyone else. It shows. You’re bug-eyed with stimulation. Maybe you join friends somewhere later, at a bar or a party. “Where were you?” somebody asks. You were just at a Rangers game. It’s not something you can just turn off.

    I’ve seen this time and again with fans leaving Rangers games. If you leave a Knicks, Mets, Yankees, Jets or Giants game—you may or may not feel affected. Rangers games consistently produce exhilaration. And isn’t that what you want from a live sporting event?

    But, perhaps the thing I like most about a Rangers game is that it continues to be the same experience it’s been for years. The Garden still rocks like you’ve heard and read it did in its glory days. The fans are old-school. In a city shedding its authenticity every day, the Rangers remain one of the last authentic things.

    Oh, and if the crowd chants “Potvin Sucks” even though nobody named Potvin is in the game or in the building, don’t worry: You’re in the right place.