FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

BY: Bruce Berlet

Two busloads of New York Rangers players and officials were visibly touched Tuesday while visiting three downtown firehouses with four families selected by the Garden of Dreams Foundation to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the City That Never Sleeps.

Former Hartford Wolf Pack players Ryan Callahan and All-Star Marc Staal were especially impressed when they met firefighter Al Spinelli of Engine 24/Ladder 15 on Sixth Avenue, whose first day on the job was Sept. 11, 2001.

“I graduated the academy on Sept. 8, and that was a Saturday. I jumped right in,” Spinelli told Callahan and Staal, who had stunned expressions on their faces. “I wasn’t even in a firehouse yet. I was home in Staten Island when I heard about it. I grabbed my gear and drove right down to the Staten Island Ferry. There were about 70 firefighters waiting there to go over.”

But what really got the two Rangers assistant captains was when Spinelli said, “I stayed down there for 33 hours.”

Callahan, a leading candidate to succeed Trumbull native Chris Drury as Rangers captain, was a 15-year-old high school student in Rochester, N.Y., when the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers fell. He read about the firefighters who died, saw the pictures and met family members.

“I remember I was in school, at that age it was hard to grasp what was going on,” Callahan told Andrew Gross of The Record in Bergen, N.J. “Now, living in the city it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to experience that. For me, it didn’t sink home what happened until I was her and I experienced the city. Today, to meet the people, it’s a lot more real now.”

Staal was enthralled with Spinelli’s account of his unforgettable first day on the job.

“I’m sure it’s not an easy time for a lot of them, but it’s pretty touching coming in here,” Staal told Dan Rosen of NHL.com. “I’ve never been to a firehouse in New York before, so being to one so close to the towers, one that was heavily affected by 9/11, I don’t know what there is to say about it. It’s tough.”

And eye-opening, considering Staal was a ninth-grader walking the halls of his high school in Thunder Bay, Ontario, when the towers were struck and collapsed.

Defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who was 11 when the attacks occurred and split his second pro season between New York and Hartford in 2010-11, drew a few chuckles when tried on a firefighter’s mask, helmet and oxygen tank while doing a TV interview.

“It’s amazing, and it means a lot,” Captain Patrick McNally of Engine Co. 24/Ladder Co. 5 on Sixth Avenue told Jess Spector of the New York Daily News. “It’s nice to be remembered and see that kind of spirit. … When people remember and they come and they visit, it’s overwhelming in a way. It’s nice that people remember and do support us. It’s hard to say it, but we do appreciate it, believe me.”

Cheshire native and Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch, who retired in 2006 after his 18th NHL season, was part of the Rangers family paying tribute to some of New York City’s bravest by stopping at the three firehouses before heading to a reception for about 200 people with soldiers from the Wounded Warrior Project on the 49th floor of Tower 7, overlooking the soon-to-open memorial in the footprint of the Twin Towers. Nineteen players, along with president and general manager Glen Sather and coach John Tortorella rode with the Garden of Dreams families on the tour of the firehouses, and Leetch and former Rangers teammate Adam Graves were among those to join them for the reception.

“This is very emotional, and there are a lot of people who sacrificed and lost,” Leetch told NHL.com. “Anybody that lived in New York during that time either lost someone personally or is very close to someone who lost someone. So it’s definitely a time to remember individually about people that have sacrificed and are gone, and also a time to celebrate.

“We’re standing in a building that has been rebuilt. There are other buildings that are being rebuilt now, and I think it was Adam Graves who said there’s a sense of defiance in these buildings being built, as well as a celebration of the people that are gone and a celebration of what’s to come. So there’s definitely a range of emotions during events like this.”

Tortorella was coaching the Tampa Bay Lightning when terrorists struck in New York, Washington, D.C., and Stonycreek Township, Pa. Between the three New York City firehouses – Engine Co. 24/Ladder Co. 5, Ladder Co. 3/Battalion 6 on East 13th Street and Engine Co. 4/Ladder Co. 15 on South Street – a total of 37 firefighters died. The New York City Fire Department lost 343 among the nearly 3,000 victims, including more than 2,600 at the World Trade Center.

“The thing I respect most is how that day everybody charged in to help,” Tortorella said. “They knew the magnitude of it and they went to work, and they ended up losing their lives to protect us.”

With the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks so close, this week has been especially emotional and taxing for the men who made it out of the rubble and the new firefighters who have heard the stories, seen the pictures and met the families of the ones who did not. But Lt. Kevin Hayes of Ladder 3/Battalion 6 said the visit from the Rangers brought a much-needed mental respite at just the right time.

“It makes us feel appreciated that the Rangers, the whole organization, would take time out of their day to recognize us,” Hayes, a 21-year member of the FDNY, told NHL.com. “We’re spending all week cleaning and prepping our firehouse for a memorial Mass on 9/11 so it’s a nice break in the routine. We’re cleaning and scrubbing, so to have the Rangers pop in like this it’s a nice mental break.”

Spinella said, “It definitely lifts our spirits.”

Tortorella felt likewise.

“I just think this (touring the firehouses) lets them know where they’re at,” Tortorella said of what he considered a life-changing experience for the entire Rangers party. “We’re always looking for heroes in sports – the winning goal, the touchdown – that’s it there, that’s the real stuff (pointing at the firehouse). Let’s face it, in the sports world we live in a bubble – that’s the real stuff there. They’re the real heroes, not us. You’re darn right it’s emotional.”

Brandon Dubinsky, Callahan’s former linemate on the Wolf Pack, concurred with his coach.

“It’s exciting to get an opportunity to meet some of these gentlemen, these heroes,” Dubinsky said. “They really are heroes. It takes an amazing and incredible human being to put yourself in harm’s way when everyone else is running away from it. For that, we’ll always be grateful, and it’s humbling, that’s the only word that can describe what’s going on today.”

The Rangers will be involved in what should be two less emotional events this week. On Thursday night from 7 to 9, Staal, Del Zotto, Artem Anisimov, Michael Sauer, Ryan McDonagh, Mats Zuccarello, Brian Boyle, Derek Stepan and Erik Christensen are scheduled to take part in the Rangers’ “Fashion’s Night Out” at the NHL Flagship Store at 1185 Avenue of the Americas in New York. The players will be available for autographs, and there also will trivia contests, prizes and giveaways throughout the evening. Festivities begin at 4 p.m., when E.J. Hradek hosts a half-hour question-and-answer session with goalie Henrik Lundqvist and center Brad Richards, the plum of free agency this offseason who signed a nine-year, $60 million contract with the Rangers.

Then the Rangers Season Subscriber Fan Fest, postponed on Aug. 27 because of Hurricane Irene, will be Saturday at the MSG training facility. Anyone who had a ticket to the ticketed event should refer to it for schedule information. All tickets remain valid and will be honored. For complete information, season ticket holders can call 212-465-6073 or visit www.nyrsubcenter.com.

STANLEY CUP VISITS PROVIDENCE ON THURSDAY

The Stanley Cup will be on display at the Rhode Island Convention Center Exhibit Hall A in Providence on Thursday from noon to 2:30 p.m. Admission is free.

The Convention Center is adjacent the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, home of the Providence Bruins, the top affiliate of the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.

“We are excited to bring the Stanley Cup to Providence to kickoff our historic 20th anniversary season,” P-Bruins CEO Jeff Fear said. “Our 20-year affiliation with the Boston Bruins is the longest standing relationship in the American Hockey League and we are thrilled the Boston Bruins have given us exclusive access to the Stanley Cup to share with Providence and the state of Rhode Island. Due to the busy Cup schedule, we understand this is short notice to some of our fans, but we are excited to host the Cup and irrespective of the timing, this is a historic day for hockey fans in Rhode Island.”

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Governor Lincoln Chafee will be on hand for the celebration, along with former Boston Bruin defensemen and current assistant general manager Don Sweeney and P-Bruins captain Trent Whitfield. Sweeney played 16 seasons in the NHL, including 15 with the Bruins. He is one of only two defensemen and four players in team history to play more than 1,000 games in a Boston sweater.

CROSBY EXPECTED TO PLAY THIS SEASON

Pittsburgh Penguins star center and captain Sidney Crosby is recovering but isn’t to the point that he’s able to return to the game yet.

He’s also not about to retire, either.

While there’s no timetable for Crosby’s return, his doctors said Wednesday during a 42-minute press conference in Pittsburgh that they expect him to return this season. Crosby hasn’t played since sustaining a concussion when hit by Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman on Jan. 5. That came after he took a hard blow from then-Washington Capitals center David Steckel in the 2011 NHL Winter Classic at Heintz Field in Pittsburgh on Jan. 1.

Dr. Michael Collins, the director of the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center’s Concussion Program who has treated Crosby, said the concussion the star center suffered affected his vestibular system.

“The job of that system is to integrate information,” Collins said. “That space and motion system is what was affected in Sid’s injury.”

Collins also said that type of concussion is one of the most difficult to recover from.

“When I saw Sid he was having symptoms consisted with a cerebral concussion,” Collins said. “He was foggy … he had headaches, fogginess, fatigue, light sensitiveness. At that point in time … I knew we were in for a long recovery.”

Despite the gloomy prognosis, Collins firmly believes Crosby will return this season. Collins said when he examined Crosby on Tuesday, he saw drastic improvement in the man who was leading the NHL in scoring (66 points in 41 games) when he was hurt.

“I assessed Sid and I could tell you that his data is the best we’ve seen,” Collins said. “It’s approaching normal limits. It’s not there yet, but I was encouraged by what I saw. Right now I would classify Sid’s case in that we’re in reconditioning mode. He needs to be reconditioned 100 percent (before he plays). There’s no timelines on this, we can’t predict when it will occur. But he will be 100 percent normal when he plays.”

Crosby has resumed skating on a semi-regular basis, including before the press conference Wednesday, but said he won’t return for games until he’s 100 percent. He said he’s still having “slight headaches” but are not nearly as powerful as the ones in January.

“Ninety percent is good, but at the same time, if there’s symptoms, 90 percent isn’t good enough,” Crosby said. “I’m putting myself in position to get hit and mess that (vestibular) system up again. Maybe I can get by with 90 percent, but I’m not going to roll the ice with that.”

When asked if there was a chance he would retire, Crosby said, “I wouldn’t bet on it.”

Collins and Dr. Ted Carrick said Crosby, because of his excellent conditioning and innate abilities, has a brain that functions different than most people. Carrick is a professor of clinical neurology at Life University in Georgia who specializes in the type of recovery that Crosby has faced and was recently added to Crosby’s care team.

“His 90 percent is like 100 percent for most people,” Collins said.

Carrick said Crosby’s recovery is like “Christmas” for Crosby and his fans because he will make a full recovery. When he plays again is a $64,000,000 question.

“This is the best I’ve felt in a long time,” Crosby said. “These last three weeks have been really good. I feel myself getting better and better.”

Crosby’s offseason workouts were altered last month after he experienced headaches at “90 percent exertion,” according to a statement from the Penguins on Aug. 24. He has received alternate opinions from unnamed concussion experts in Michigan and Georgia, and with the Penguins’ approval, he sought those opinions in late August after previously being treated for the concussion by Collins.

Crosby is scheduled to attend an annual NHL function for national media outlets in the New York area on Thursday and Friday, but his current health played no part in that decision. He had not spoken publicly about his concussion since April 29, several days after his non-contact, high-intensity practices were stopped because of recurring headaches. Team officials and Crosby’s representatives had since speculated those headaches resulted from a sinus condition.

Symptoms of headache, nausea, general disorientation and neck pain and a below-normal result on a baseline cognitive test led to Crosby’s concussion diagnosis on Jan. 6. He resumed non-contact practices March 31, participating in a morning skate at Tampa Bay. He followed that by looking sharp in a full practice, albeit without contact, at Florida the next day.

After taking what Penguins general manager Ray Shero called “a step back” during the playoffs, Crosby was cleared June 2 to resume regular offseason activity of a non-contact nature, and his workouts began July 15. Shero has continually said Crosby won’t be rushed back as the Penguins prepare to start training camp Sept. 17 before their season opener Oct. 6 at Vancouver.

“I don’t have Sept. 16 on my calendar for him, or Oct. 6,” Shero said. “My only concern is his long-term health, keeping in mind he’s a hockey player, a 24-year-old kid. I want him to feel good about himself. He’ll be back at some point to play hockey.”

Crosby joined an increasing call to ban head shots in the NHL, saying those account for a small percentage of the overall hits but cause too much damage to ignore.

“I don’t think there’s a reason not to take them out,” Crosby said.

Ironically, one of the major culprits of head shots is teammate/cheap-shot artist Matt Cooke, who started the end of the career of former Wolf Pack center Marc Savard of the Bruins with a blindside hit to the head on March 7, 2010, was suspended four games after driving former Wolf Pack and Rangers defenseman Fedor Tyutin of the Columbus Blue Jackets into the boards and getting a five-minute major for charging on Feb. 8 and received a 10-game suspension for an elbow to the head of McDonagh on March 20.

The hit on McDonagh came not long after a proposal from Penguins owner and Hockey Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux for the NHL to fine organizations for the actions of their players. Shero has also been vocal in his support of increased attention on shots to the head in the wake of Crosby’s injury.

A RARE SAD ENDING

Crosby’s situation is certainly unfortunate, but it pales in comparison to the sad – and sobering – news that 43 people, most of them the elite Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, died in a plane crash near the city of Yaroslavl on Wednesday. Amazingly, two passengers survived, but Alexander Galimov later died in the hospital and a crew member was in critical condition from a crash less than two kilometers from the airport and about 150 miles northeast of Moscow.

Victims of the crash on a plane headed to Minsk in Belarus for the season opener Thursday night against Dynamo Minsk included former Hartford Whalers defenseman Brad McCrimmon, 42, hired as coach on May 29, and former Rangers defensemen Karel Rachunek, 32, and Alexander Karpovtsev, 41, an assistant coach who won a Stanley Cup with the Blueshirts in 1994.

But it’s actually amazing more such tragedies don’t occur with all the traveling that so many teams do worldwide. The last NHL personnel to die in a plane crash were former NHL player and Los Angeles Kings director of pro scouting Ace Bailey and Kings scout Mark Bavis, who were aboard United 175 out of Logan Airport in Boston, the second plane to hit the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

As we said 10 years for Ace and Mark, RIP, this time to Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

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