FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

BY: Bruce Berlet

After a stellar first season with the New York Rangers, it has been a difficult 12 months for Marian Gaborik.

First, the right wing who signed a five-year, $37.5 million free-agent deal with the Blueshirts on July 1, 2009 saw his goal production plummet from 42 to 22 last season as he battled injuries while trying to find a center to work with on a consistent basis. But that disappointment and angst paled in comparison to what transpired in the past four months.

On May 13, Rangers left wing/enforcer and close friend Derek Boogaard was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment, the victim of an accidental overdose of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone. Boogaard was 28.

On Wednesday, the 29-year-old Gaborik was trying to come to grips with the tragic death of another of his best friends, former NHL standout center Pavol Demitra, one of 43 people killed in the crash of a plane carrying the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. Demitra was 37.

“This summer has been crazy, two young guys who die just like that,” Gaborik told Jim Cerny of BlueshirtsUnited.com after an informal workout at the Madison Square Garden training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y. “I just don’t know what to say. It’s so hard to explain with words.”

Gaborik did reveal plenty via Twitter immediately after learning of Demitra’s death: “Demo, u will always b in my heart. U were one of my best friends on and off the ice. U will be greatly missed by all of us. My condolences….”

Gaborik and Boogaard became friends while teammates with the Minnesota Wild and continued that relationship while with the Rangers last season. The 6-foot-7, 265-pound pugilist Boogaard and 6-1, 198-pound scoring whiz Gaborik made a bit of a hockey Odd Couple, but their friendship was real and deep.

Demitra, who played 16 seasons in the NHL before joining Lokomotiv last year, was one of Gaborik’s closest buddies on and off the ice. They also were Wild teammates, but more significantly, they played together on several national teams for their native Slovakia, including the Winter Olympics in 2006 and 2010. Demitra’s memory will live on in his native Trencin, Slovakia, where he has hero-like status. Trencin Mayor Richard Rybnicek announced Thursday that the city’s main arena will be named after Demitra.

“It’s a tragedy, obviously,” Gaborik said of the plane crash. “(Demitra) was one of my best friends, and I just can’t believe it. This is tough, you know? I can’t imagine how this is for his family – his wife, his kids, his whole family. This is just a shock. It’s horrible.”

Another strongly affected by Demitra’s death is Boston Bruins defenseman/captain Zdeno Chara, a major reason the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in 39 years this spring. Chara also was a longtime friend and teammate of Demitra on numerous Slovakian national teams.

“It’s horrible. It’s tragic, and that shook up the whole world, the hockey world especially,” Chara said after the first Bruins’ first captain’s practice in Wilmingon, Mass. “And we all feel bad about the players’ families, and it’s something that it’s just hard to swallow. When you know … I know Pav very well, obviously growing up with him, and my neighbor, and other guys I played with or obviously a coach I had – (coach and former Bruins and Hartford Whalers defenseman) Brad (McCrimmon) I had in the Islanders system. When you get to know players and people as persons and players, it’s just devastating.

“Pavol was a guy who was always easy-going. He was always friendly with everybody and never really had conflict with anybody. He really was very favored and a popular guy between other guys. Obviously we all know he was an extremely talented player, and people probably don’t know how dedicated a dad he was, always spending time with his kids and family. And I think that speaks for itself, too. When he had offers from the NHL, but he choose to return back home and be there for their kids and his wife, when there was time they were going to schools and they chose the school system in Slovakia. So yes, it’s a very, very sad time.”

Despite the daily double of tragedies, Gaborik said he has been helped immensely by his Rangers family, including president and general manager Glen Sather and coach John Tortorella.

“They (Ranger teammates) have been very supportive, the guys have been very classy,” Gaborik said. “Torts and Glen have been, as well. But I am not the only one who has lost (friends) here. For everyone, to lose hockey family members around the world, it’s hard for everyone.”

Those words seemed so appropriate on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center Twin Towers that nearly cast a shadow on the home of the Rangers.

Despite the recent loss of such close friends, Gaborik said he is really looking forward to this season as he is expected to skate alongside center Brad Richards, the plum of this year’s free agency crop who signed a nine-year, $60 million contract with the Rangers on July 2. Hockey and hope are helping lift Gaborik past the double dose of grief.

“The goal is the Stanley Cup, as it should be every year, and this year I think we are a better team,” said Gaborik, who has 283 goals and 288 assists in 640 NHL games after being the third overall pick of the Wild in 2000. “I am very excited. We should be very good this year.”

How good the Rangers are will largely depend on Gaborik’s ability to rebound from 22 goals and 48 points in 62 games after he had 42 goals and a career-high 86 points in his first go-round on Broadway. The signing of Richards, among the game’s premier setup men, should re-energize Gaborik.

“It’s a great addition,” Gaborik said of Richards. “He’s a great playmaker, and I think it’s going to work out well for our team. He’s going to help us bring things to another level. I am very excited.”

But despite what he and the Rangers achieve this season, there’s still the business of trying to move forward from the continued mourning for Boogaard and Demitra.

“I have no choice, obviously,” Gaborik said. “Life goes on, and I move on.”

Again, the memories of Sept. 11, 2001 come flooding back.

RANGERS PROSPECTS BEGIN TOURNAMENT SATURDAY

Most of the Rangers top young players begin play Saturday night in a prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich.

The 24-man team reported to the MSG training facility Thursday and had physicals and a brief skate Friday before the Rangers’ traveling party chartered to Traverse City.

Connecticut Whale coach Ken Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller will coach the Rangers team in four games as the Rangers hierarchy evaluates much of the future of the organization, including several players who will play in Hartford this season. And Rangers fans can watch the games on MSG Network for the first time and offer comments via Twitter as John Giannone and Joe Micheletti call the action.

The Rangers play Saturday at 7 p.m. against the St. Louis Blues at 7 p.m., Sunday at 6 p.m. against the Dallas Stars, practice on Monday and play the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. Placement in the round robin will determine whom each of eight teams face in the championship round Wednesday at times to be determined. The Rangers’ group returns to New York that night, then most of the players report to Rangers training camp next Thursday before workouts begin the following day.

Some TV guests will appear between periods of the games, while others will join Giannone and Micheletti in the broadcast booth or sit down with MSG analyst Dave Maloney in the stands. Viewers also can expect to hear from former Rangers goalie and broadcaster John Davidson, now president of the Blues. Hockey Hall of Famers Joe Nieuwendyk, GM of the Stars, and Al MacInnis, Blues vice president of hockey operations, will also be at the event and among the many prominent NHL executives available for interviews.

Players who played for or were the Whale last season that are on the team include goalie Jason Missiaen, defensemen Blake Parlett, Jyri Niemi, Lee Baldwin and Dylan McIlrath and forwards Carl Hagelin, Tommy Grant, Andrew Yogan and Kale Kerbashian. Other notables include goalie Scott Stajcer, defenseman Tim Erixon, son of former Rangers forward Jan Erixon and the Calgary Flames’ first-round pick (23rd overall) in 2009 acquired on June 1, and left wings Ryan Bourque, son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, Christian Thomas, son of former NHL veteran Steve Thomas, and J.T. Miller, the Rangers’ first-round pick (15th overall) in June.

A complete roster of players can be found at www.newyorkrangers.com.

WHALE KICKOFF OCT. 1 IN WEST HARTFORD

The Whale will hold a “Whale Face-off” season kickoff Oct. 1 from 6-9 p.m. at Blue Back Square in West Hartford. The event will include a pep rally, with introductions of Whale players and coaches who will be signing autographs. In addition to offering a chance to meet the players and mascot “Pucky,” the Whale Face-off will include a wide variety of other fun for fans of all ages, including face-painting and a merchandise tent featuring deals on team items.

Admission is free, and the event will be held in the area of Blue Back Square known as “The Square,” on Isham Rd. next to Barnes & Noble.

WSE EXECUTIVE TO BE HONORED

Howard Baldwin, president and CEO of Whalers Sports and Entertainment, will receive the Connecticut Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s 2011 Community Leader of the Year Award at its Sportscasters’ Super Ball Nov. 12 at The Club at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.

The black-tie gala honors state sports stars and community leaders while raising money and awareness for Cystic Fibrosis. The gala was established in 2002 by ESPN’s Joe Tessier and Chris Berman to raise funds for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and includes dinner, dancing and a live auction.

“Howard Baldwin is the definition of a community leader,” said Paul Drury, director of special projects at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. “He brings people together, simple as that. The Winter Fest at Rentschler Field last February is a perfect example. There were pee wee, high school and NHL alumni games, and thousands of fans to watch. But most importantly, he gives back to the community he believes in.”

Past Community Leader honorees have included philanthropist Mark Wilson, The Hartford CFO Liz Zlatkus, Open Solutions CEO Louis Hernandez and IAE President Jon Beatty. Former sports honorees have included: Geno Auriemma, Jen Rizzotti, Jim Brown, Steve Young, Brian Leetch, Luis Tiant and Dwight Freeney.

For tickets ($200) or to get involved with the foundation, contact Drury at 860-632-7300 or pdrury@cff.org. … Whale season and individual game tickets are now on sale. For information on season seats and all the Whale’s many ticketing options, visit www.ctwhale.com or call the Whale ticket office at 860-728-3366 to talk with an account executive. Individual tickets are on sale at the XL Center box office. The Whale starts their 15th season Oct. 8 in Glens Falls, N.Y., against the Adirondack Phantoms, with the home opener a week later at 7 p.m. against the Sound Tigers. It’s the first of 12 Saturday home games as 90 percent of the Whale’s 38 games at the XL Center will be played on weekends and during vacation and holiday breaks. Tickets, starting at $14 for adults and $12 for youth, are available at the box office Monday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. or online at www.ctwhale.com and through TicketMasters charge-by-phone at 1-800-745-3000. For information on season seats and mini-plans, call 860-728-3366 or visit www.ctwhale.com.

BEST WISHES …

Finally, our thoughts go out to folks in several AHL cities in the wake of more flooding from the most recent heavy rains from Tropical Storm Lee. In the Land of the Whale, we’re all aware of what has transpired in Connecticut, but Mother Nature also has taken a toll in nearby Springfield, Providence in Rhode Island, Albany and Binghamton in New York and Wilkes-Barre and Hershey in Pennsylvania.

And it’s not just humans who have suffered. Two 2,000-pound bison that stood six feet tall and lived at ZooAmerica North American Wildlife Park in Hershey were shot on Wednesday because they were drowning and could not be rescued after Swatara Creek overflowed its banks.

“To treat (the bison) as humanely as possible, we had a trained member of the zoo staff euthanize them,” Hershey spokeswoman Mindy Bianca told The Patriot-News in Hershey. “We didn’t do this lightly. This was a very tough day for us.”

The staff put the zoo evacuation plan into effect and began to move animals in danger to other Hershey Entertainment & Resorts property, including the current and past homes of the Hershey Bears, the Giant Center and Hersheypark Arena. ZooAmerica is the home for more than 200 animals representing more than 600 North American species.

May God bless all of those in harm’s way, and let’s hope their misfortunes are limited and righted quickly.

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