Adam Graves

That Was Yesterday

A lot can transpire in 18 years.  A newborn then can now not only possess a license but can vote and is graduating high school.  That same child’s parent may be wondering where the time has gone, as they give their child the keys to the family car or signs the first tuition check.  Someone may be planning their 20 year reunion from high school. A loved one may have passed away, you may be pulling six figures in a job where you were a lowly analyst 18 years ago.  You may be living in a different part of the country.  Or you may have just stayed put from where you grew up, but you don’t recall having a 36-inch waist 18 years ago.

Eighteen years ago, the New York Rangers ended their 54-year Stanley Cup drought by defeating the Vancouver Canucks in a heated seven-game series.  Prior to that, the Rangers defeated the rival New Jersey Devils, also in a heated seven-game series, in the Eastern Conference Finals, where the word “Matteau” is a dirty word to most Devils fans to this day, though they themselves have had success in winning three cups in response while the Rangers have won none.  In that time period, the rivalries shifted from Rangers/Flyers and Rangers/Isles to Rangers/Devils.

Tonight kicks off the Rangers and Devils duking it out in the Eastern Conference Finals again, where winner continues to the Stanley Cup finals, and the other team goes home to shave.

To this Ranger fan, the only thing that remains similar to that series 18 years ago is that Martin Brodeur is still the goalie for the Devils. And even he’s 18 years older.  And that’s about it.  The ownership has changed for the Rangers, the coaches have changed, the team has certainly changed.

Sure, there are similarities.  But it’s NOT the same.

The Devils have won three cups since the last time these two teams faced off in the finals.  The storied guys that helped them on those runs with names like Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko are long since retired.  The last cup was in 2003.  That was 10 years ago.  Eighteen years ago, the Devils were playing in the Swamp.  Now they play in a nice new arena called Prudential Center.

The Rangers have visited the Eastern Conference Finals one other time since then, and it was lackluster.  They’ve since had their storied guys not only retire, but their numbers are now enshrined.  Names like Richter, Messier, Leetch and Graves are now hanging from the rafters at the Garden, where the Rangers have stayed but the refurnishing of it makes it seem like a brand new arena.

The 1994 team was full of mercenaries and then there was Brian Leetch and Mike Richter, who came up with the team.  Neil Smith, then-GM, thought it prudent to trade away the future and try to recapture some of the Edmonton Oilers success.  This ultimately led to changes at the top, such as Glen Sather coming in and trying to do the same recipe.  Until he realized it no longer worked.

Apparently, there is some pact with Sather and James Dolan that we’re not privy to that will only happen if the Rangers make the “big” finals.  Because of that, Sather started to focus less on the free agent mercenaries and allowed the growth movement to start from within.  Guys like Lundqvist, Callahan, Girardi, sprinkled with guys like Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik.  It’s no longer Mike Keenan but John Tortorella.  Dave Checketts isn’t pissing off his talent, but it’s now

True, those guys in 1994 were very hard working.  But they were mostly established.  Messier had won several championships.  He was the Captain of all Captains.  Callahan wears his “C” with pride, but he believes in the team work ethic that clearly trickles to the rest of the team.

To think that this is some sort of “revenge” match-up, to think this is something of a “torch passing” of a fat overrated goalie to the future of goaltending, diminishes what this series is all about.  To call this is a revenge series is laughable because, I don’t know call me crazy, isn’t three cups in an eight year span one that says, “Hey, we’re not so bad either guys.”

These are two teams that have worked very hard to get to the finals, and will work harder to get to the next level.

To me, the differences are clear.  Yet most of all, 18 years ago was a long long time ago.  Nine years ago was long long time ago.  Then was then.  This is now.

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Only the Names Have Changed

Back then, the names on the jerseys were Messier, Leetch, Graves, Richter.  There might have been a Gilbert or Ratelle jersey in the mix.  I might have even seen a Gartner jersey.

Now, the jerseys say Gaborik, Callahan, Richards, Lundqvist.

This, of course, is my trip to TGI Friday’s on 34th St and 8th Avenue, a few blocks north of the Garden.

Gabby the Ranger bear anxiously awaits the opening faceoff while dining at Friday's.

It’s sacrilegious you know, since I do live in New York City, to go to of all places a chain restaurant that merely serves to set itself up as a tourist trap.  Well, bear in mind that once upon a time I actually was one of those…yes, I was a tourist.  I was also 18 years old, not of legal drinking age, and when the Rangers won the Cup in 1994, my dad and I wanted to be near the celebrations.  I could only imagine what places like Mustang Harry’s or Blarney Rock were like in 1994.  All I know is, when I walk past this Friday’s, I get the warm fuzzies, knowing my dad and I were there for the final three games of the series against Vancouver which led to the moment that would last a lifetime, as Sam Rosen called it.  (And by the way, I will miss him for the rest of the playoffs, which are of course to be determined to go as long as they do with how the Rangers perform.)

So Dad and I got a chance to go to the playoffs.  We went last year, to a crushing loss in overtime to the Capitals, and I was thinking this may deja vu all over again.  See, we went to home game two (which is what these are labeled as on the ticket), and I was also coming down with a cold in 2011.  This year, I had a full blown cold, but I’m feeling better now, thank you very much.  The Rangers lost that game in overtime, when Henrik Lundqvist did his best impression of a closer in a non-save situation, as he was fronted a three goal lead, and still managed to give up four unanswered.

I hemmed and hawed.  I wanted to go to a game, but for all I know, it could have been a sweep (it won’t be) and tickets to game five would be moot.  So I threw caution to the wind, and invited Dad and we went.

Dad and I were joking around during game seven in the last series, when I said I should go back to Friday’s for old time’s sake.  Try to get some good energy.  When I told him we were going to game two, I said we should go there for a pregame.

My dad hasn’t touched alcohol in years, but he feels at home at a bar.  It’s odd because he just gravitates towards people, and well, where do people congregate?  A bar!  I drink, as you all know, but since I was under the weather, I wasn’t feeling it.  So we split an appetizer and two soft drinks.  It didn’t break the bank, but we got a kick out of the $19 cheeseburger.

Shit.  Don’t people know you can walk like eight blocks up to Shake Shack for a fraction of cost?  And it’s a far superior burger?

Dad was pretty anxious to get in, about an hour before.  He needed to get his game face on, and so did I.  I also introduced Marian Gaborik, aka Gabby Bear, to playoff hockey.  She was born in December during a game in the Team Store, so this is her first experience.  As we walked into the security bag check, the usher said, “Oh I see we’ve got our mascot here.”  He lifted her out of the bag, and she yelled, “YAAAAAAAHHHHHH!” as she’s wont to do during a game, especially after a goal.  She’s a wild one, all right, like her mom.  She loves junk food, especially french fries and chips (of any kind), is a brawler unlike her namesake.

 

The 50 or so minutes we had to kill before the game went quickly, as before I knew it, John Amirante was out psyching up the crowd during his rousing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

   

But I guess the rally towels they handed out as we walked into the arena were only good for show, as the Rangers quickly found themselves in a 2-0 hole.  That literally should have been a 1-0 at best deficit, but Henrik decided to get fancy at one point.  Do what you do best, Henke: guard the fucking net.

But they managed to tie it up by coming from behind, only to lose on a bullshit call with a bullshit penalty.  It was like the refs wanted to keep the Capitals in the game.  Although they were in it.

I didn’t think of this as a wrenching or crushing loss.  It was just a loss.  Not like last year as I sat there, with a bad chest cold coming on, wanting to die as they went into OT, where they shouldn’t have been anyway.  I knew the series was over, although technically, it took the Caps a game to finish that deed off.

Tonight was different.  I guess after such a stressful first round, you don’t sweat the small stuff.  You’re going to win some games, you’re going to lose some games.  Shit happens.  Both teams played equally well.  The Caps may scare me, but I think the Rangers can take ’em, and let last season seem like a fluke.  In fact, it only shows this won’t be nearly as easy as we thought.  It will be interesting.  It will be a challenge.

It will be what hockey playoffs are supposed to be.

Yet, I’ve come a long way, because I didn’t have to stay at Friday’s to watch the game, I was able to actually go to the game.

Fridays might not have changed all that much, though.  In fact, my dad pointed out the brass rail that some crazy homeless dude who got into the bar almost tore off the wall during the Rangers wins.  “He Shoots! He SCORES!” the guy kept yelling, as he was falling all over the place.

But instead of “TGI Fridays” it’s branded as “Fridays.”  The names on the jerseys may show Messier, Leetch or Richter, but there are Callahan, Gaborik and Lundqvist.

A new generation, but same old Rangers fans.  And only the names have changed on the back of the jerseys.  The excitement and the heart of playoff hockey still rings true 18 years later.

Dirty Laundry

A little bit of loyalty goes a long way...for fans AND players.

I was 13 years old when I first had my heart broken.  True story.  My dad called me after school one day and said, there’s a rumor the Rangers might trade Tony Granato.

WHAAAAAAAAAAAAATTTTT?????  I had to calm myself down and take a walk around my suburban neighborhood.  I had become a Ranger fan for good earlier that year (1989), when my dad took me to see some dude named Mario Lemieux play for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the New York Rangers, where another dude named Brian Leetch scored a shorthanded goal.  Hard to believe I was sitting in an arena with future hockey hall of famers, yet when I was thumbing through the program I saw two pictures that made my heart soar as a teeny-bopper 13 year old: Tony Granato and John Vanbiesbrouck.  Granato was also another rookie who came up along with Brian Leetch — defenseman of the future — and Beezer was a fan fave.

But to trade *my* favorite player and the hottest guy on the team?  Heart wrenching.  I could only imagine what my mom might have gone through when the Beatles broke up, as a girl of 14.

Yet, it prepared me.  Granato was traded, and the Rangers ended up winning the Cup a few years later on the back of hard workers like Mark Messier, Mike Richter, Adam Graves and Brian Leetch.  Leetch, who should have been a Ranger-lifer, was traded in the last few years of his career, but still came back to hoist his number to the rafters.

Cutting ties with Beezer was easier to take when it happened (especially since I loved Mike Richter). When my crush Gregg Jefferies was traded for Bret Saberhagen, my dad called me to break the news.  Expecting a shriek, I said, “Well, it’s Saberhagen.  He’s good.”  My objectivity kept me grounded.  And I learned to not get attached to certain players.

And that my friends, is our lesson of the day: you root for the name on the front of the jersey, not on the back.

Gone are the days, as Frank at NY Fan in South Jersey, of the Cal Ripkens and Tony Gwynns of the world: baseball greats who are synonymous with the teams for which they played.  I don’t count the Yankees’ “core” of Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera because they overpay for the first two and Mo is a freak of nature.  Pretty much, we have the Houston Astros, whose Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell (to a lesser extent Lance Berkman) who are all over the leaderboards for the team but were also there for a generation, and Atlanta Braves’ Larry Jones.  Don’t give me the “Big Three” as an example: Tom Glavine left for the hated Mets (to them, not to me, of course) at one point and Greg Maddux, hypocrite who wanted to stay with the Cubs but opted for money, fame and championship caliber baseball in Atlanta.  Not like I can blame him.  I’m sure many of us would do the same thing.

The concept of the “hometown discount” is dead.  I would say you heard it here first, though many on Twitter said so today and even our very own Metstradamus said as much yesterday.  The Mets lost Jose Reyes, but this isn’t a team known for cultivating their own talent and keeping their homegrown players.  It should not surprise us nor should it be unexpected that this would happen.  Steve Keane at Kranepool Society said that he knew the Mets wouldn’t sign Reyes, and as he said a few months ago on our Kult of Mets Personalities podcast, that he actually thought Alderson HOPED someone would give Reyes a six-year contract.  Someone did, and we see the fallout from that.  We can only hope that it turns out to be a 20/20 hindsight good move.

Yet, I was surprised…nay, SHOCKED, really…that Albert Pujols left the Cardinals.  Yes, I know he and the Cards couldn’t come to an agreement before the season.  But I also know that people counted the Cards out when Wainwright was hurt.  And hey, did you hear who won the World Series this year?

But raise your hand if you thought if there was such a thing as “company loyalty” left in baseball, there was such a thing as a “hometown discount,” that Pujols would have typified that.   **RAISES BOTH HANDS AND FEET**  Yeah, I am that chick.  I hear all these great stories about the fans in St. Louis, how loyal they are, how every player LOVES playing there, no one ever wants to leave.  Even careers get rejuvenated in St. Lou.  Look at Berkman, who seemed like he left his best years behind in Houston.  Even though Pitchers Hit 8th told me that Pujols pretty much stated he wasn’t looking for a hometown discount, I didn’t believe it.

There is Larry Jones.  There is Derek Jeter.  But these guys are exceptions to the rule that the name on the back of the jersey does not trump the name on the front of the jersey (yet, if you talked to Jeter’s GM Brian Cashman last year, he made negotiations uncomfortable by telling Jeter to get another offer better than the one they were offering).

I was 13 years old when I learned my lesson.  That you’re only as good as the team you play on, and if you can get a better return in value, then that happens too.  I’m not saying we can’t get attached to our favorite players (I am accepting of losing Reyes, but I will still miss him and wonder “what could have been”), but if we realize that we root for a larger entity as fans — the “laundry” — we’ll save ourselves much pain and anguish in the long-run.