Less than a month removed from the horrific events of September 11, 2001, “The Captain” Mark Messier found yet another way to lead the Blueshirts on an emotional evening at Madison Square Garden.
It was early October and the Rangers were about to open their 2001-02 season at MSG against the Buffalo Sabres against the backdrop of a city still attempting to recover from the 9/11 terror attacks but in search of an outlet for their emotions.
On this night, the Rangers, and more specifically Messier, provided such an outlet as well as a chance for the Garden faithful to gather in familiar surroundings with friends and family and cheer their heroes. Yes, they did cheer the Rangers on that October evening, but the biggest cheers were reserved for the many New York City firefighters, policemen, and first responders in the building.
Just prior to 9/11, the Rangers had announced that they would treat their fans by holding preseason games and workouts at MSG, a plan that never materialized after the World Trade Center towers fell and NYC was brought to a grinding halt.
Rangers’ fans needed this home opener for many reasons, probably the least of which was a Blueshirts’ victory which nonetheless fell perfectly into place when Brian Leetch scored in overtime to give the home team a 5-4 triumph. They needed a sense of normalcy again, and that’s exactly what this evening provided as both teams wore special sweaters with “New York” on the front.
If Leetch provided the heroics to conclude the evening, it was Messier who brought the Garden crowd to its feet before the puck was even dropped. With numerous firefighters and police on the ice for pregame ceremonies, Messier skated out without his hockey helmet.
Moments later, firefighter Larry McGee of Engine 66 in the Bronx presented the captain with the fire helmet of Chief Ray Downey, a 40-year veteran of the department who was lost in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. “I said to the other captain on our team, ‘Gimme that hat. He’ll wear it,'” McGee told a reporter sometime after the opening ceremonies. “Everyone laughed and thought I was out of my mind, but I skated over and gave it to Messier.” What Larry McGee didn’t realize at the time was how symbolic the gesture was and the image it gave all New Yorkers to carry on.
Today, the “Deputy Chief Raymond Downey Scholarship Charity Fund” continues to go strong.
The evening probably could have concluded at that point but there was a hockey game to play. Eric Lindros, playing in his first game as a Ranger on home ice, scored the first goal to the delight of the already emotionally-drained sellout crowd. Back and forth the game went, until Leetch scored with 2:15 left in overtime to win it for the Blueshirts and again send the Garden faithful into a frenzy.
Yes, it was just one night and one game. But it was also a home-opener the Rangers and their fans will hold in their hearts forever.