My first season as a dedicated New York Rangers fan in well over a decade just ended in one of the most abrupt ways possible, and I’m lying here trying to make sense of it all.
The best way I can describe my mindset right now is the scene from “Robin Hood: Men In Tights”, after Robin loses the archery contest: “I lost. … I lost? Wait a minute, I’m not supposed to lose! Let me see the script.”
First, let me give some historical perspective with me and hockey. It was the fall of 1993, and hockey was everywhere. Following a parental split I had relocated to Pittsburgh from New York, and while hockey was big nationally, it was becoming the official “What We Watch During The Steelers’ Offseason” sport of Pittsburgh. Sid Bream had effectively murdered baseball in the city by then, though no one knew it yet, and the Mario Lemieux-led Penguins were one year removed from back-to-back Stanley Cups. I made the decision to get in on this hockey thing, and after some research, discovered that there were two hockey teams in New York – the Rangers and the Islanders. Given that I was from New York City, and the Rangers were the City team, I chose the Rangers.
(Sidenote: Looking back, this is probably one of the best close calls I’ve made in my life. I was born in Bayside, right against the Nassau County line. My brother would always go see wrestling shows in Nassau Coliseum – the same Coliseum that exists today. It was decrepit then and is a shithole now. By Sports Fan Law, I could have gone with the Islanders, and then where would I be? Isles fans have it so bad, it’s not even funny. If I had to live in Pittsburgh as an Isles fan, where they build a brand-new arena but literally – literally – made a Federal case out of trying to keep their old piece-of-shit arena in place too, I would probably be facing multiple life sentences right now. Great move, 1993 Me.)
Of course, the Rangers won the Cup that year, ending the “1940” chants and the Curse of the Dragon and all other manner of hokum that made back-page sportswriters’ jobs easier. The problem was that I never experienced any of that. I remember, years later, hearing a couple of long-time Ranger fans discuss the days of following the team pre-Cup victory and I had no idea what they were talking about. Wait…they DON’T do this every year?
My perception of hockey was forever skewed from 1994 forward. So when the title drought began anew and the Rangers went into what I like to call the “Yankee-puck” Period (making one move after another for brand-name players with no thought to team chemistry), I started to tune out. It was also around this time that the Black Shirt Mets were beginning to rise up and get more TV attention, and so that was what I watched. For all you kids out there, it was a bitch and a half trying to follow your chosen sports team if you didn’t live in their media market back then. There were no sports blogs or YouTube clips. Forget the idea of season ticket TV packages entirely. You were lucky if your team got a few more minutes on SportsCenter or an extra inch or two in a USA Today column. You begged for your team to be the National Game Of The Week, or else you had to wait for them to come and play where you lived, viewing the game through the kaleidoscope of the local play-by-play guys’ commentary. And trust me when I tell you, nowhere – then or now – is that a worse experience than in Pittsburgh.
Over the last five years or so, I’d been working my way back into accepting hockey. I always had a theory that sports are languages – the older you get, the harder it is to pick them up, and they’re usually ranked from most- to least-fluent. To continue the metaphor, baseball is my first language. I can hold conversations with anyone for hours, though I stumble a little with the new sabermetrics dialect. By necessity, football is my second language. It’s the common tongue in my country, you need to speak it if you want to talk to anyone these days, but I don’t take as much pleasure in it. Also, much like the actual English language, if I try to speak football in England, it’s a whole other creature entirely. Then there’s basketball, which is rusty after a decade hiatus from the NBA during the Isiah Thomas Era. When it comes to talking hockey, I’m not much beyond the level of “Hello”, “Goodbye”, and “Where is the bathroom?”, but I’m working on it. I kept an eye on the Rangers over the last few years and definitely made a point to watch when they hit the playoffs, but I was reluctant to entirely adopt them. I witnessed one first-round exit after another, and wondered whether I was allowed to embrace a team that scrapped like mad bastards to eke into the playoffs only to have their hopes dashed just before or just after the postseason started, when I already had the Mets, Giants, and Knicks in my life. Adding one more might have pushed me over the edge into clinical masochism.
This year, back in Queens, I made the call (reluctantly, I admit) that I would follow the Rangers start to finish. MSG was readily available since I stayed the hell away from Time-Warner cable. And as the season rolled on, it all looked like it did the first time I sat down and followed the team. Rarely if ever did they put up three losses in a row, while the wins kept coming in. The Winter Classic, and the accompanying HBO 24/7 special, served an extra shot in the arm of “this is awesome”. On top of that, the Knicks were keeping pace with Linsanity, letting a generation of Garden faithful reach up on the shelf and dust off their 1994 memories. Come the playoffs, I belonged in one of those “Because It’s The Cup” commercials – normal, laid-back guy turns into super-tense nutjob that Twitter keysmashes on every goal with the best of them. And then the danger signs began to occur.
It started with 8-seeded Ottawa just not going away. Well, technically, it started with Game 1 of Knicks-Heat when Iman Shumpert went down and wrecked any chance at all of us stealing that series, ending the basketball side of the 1994 comparisons. But Ottawa just wouldn’t roll over. Cognitive dissonance set in and we explained it away by buying into the NHL’s own mantra – “Because it’s the Cup”. The postseason is a whole new season. Anyone can catch fire in a seven-game series. Throw out the record books. Choose your favorite cliché, stir well, and enjoy.
The Capitals proved equally tenacious, but we chalked that up to recent history. Even I knew enough about the Rangers to know that the Caps had been a bane of their postseason existence for some time now. I took solace in a personal pet theory – the Gods of Marketing. In any playoff situation, the Gods of Marketing will always look favorably upon the best possible storyline. True story: that’s was how I predicted the Boston-Colorado World Series at the start of the playoffs in 2007, because ESPN couldn’t possibly resist the headline “Rock ‘Em-Sock ‘Em Series”. Applying the theory here, I saw a potential Rangers-Flyers Eastern Conference Finals in the making. A possible seven-game Winter Classic to determine the conference champion? The NBC guys had to be sacrificing goats left and right to make this happen, right? And then, since the LA Kings Buzzsaw has been going full throttle, there would be a guaranteed bicoastal Cup Final with either NY/LA (nuff said) or the drama of the Flyers and Kings facing off against people that, barely a year ago, were teammates. Textbook, right?
And, so here we are. The reports are starting to trickle in on Twitter from Breakup Day in Greenburgh, everyone’s talking about who will stay, who will go, who will make for good trade bait, and to keep calm – Lundqvist is under contract. Free agent acquisition names are kicked around, as well as who the Rangers are likely to get at 28 in the draft. Just your typical offseason stuff. I’ll confess, I’ll likely not catch too much of the Cup. I’m not so much of a hockey fan that I can watch when I have no stake in the game, and I’m not one of those enemy-of-my-enemy types that actively pulls for a team where I have no idea who the hell’s on the roster, just because they’re playing against someone I don’t like. Well, once the hangover’s gone, I’m not that guy.
In the meantime, after about fifty games into the season, the Mets are in second place in the division and play the Phillies in about an hour. I have never seen this script before, and it’s got my attention.