September 11 always elicits memories of that fateful trip down the Merritt Parkway.
A decade ago, I was passing through Meriden on the way to the opening day of Rangers’ training camp at Madison Square Garden when a news flash on the radio revealed a plane had just crashed into one of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center.
Immediate responses were that a plane had inadvertently went off course and flown too low, but when a second plane hit the other tower, everyone began to believe it was a terrorist attack and instructions were not to enter New York City.
In the days of no cell phones, I exited Merritt Parkway in Bridgeport and called the Hartford Courant sports department, saying, “What’s this about planes having crashed into the Twin Towers and to stay away from Manhattan?” When told exactly what had happened, I got back in my car and headed home to Glastonbury.
Ironically, it was the first time the Rangers had planned to hold training camp at MSG in hopes of reconnecting with the fans after several down seasons. Fans were to be allowed to observe practices, and a special guide book started with an open letter from Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather dated Sept. 10, 2001, welcoming guests and expressing his own excitement for the special sessions.
Several Rangers players, who had reported for camp the previous night, were in Grand Central greeting people entering or leaving the station or subway. The players were originally scheduled to stay in a hotel adjacent to the World Trade Center complex, but four months earlier, that plan was changed and the Rangers decided to use three hotels closer to MSG.
Thank God. To this day, the Rangers feel fortunate that move was made or it could have been several times worse hockey-wise than the plane crash on Wednesday that claimed 43 lives, including most of the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia.
The nearly 3,000 who died because of the terrorist attacks included the brother-in-law of former Rangers general manager and Hartford Wolf Pack GM Don Maloney, now GM of the Phoenix Coyotes, and a close friend of Cheshire native and Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch, who is retired.
“It’s not part of a movie,” Leetch told Jim Cerny of BlueshirtsUnited.com when asked about the tragedy. “It’s part of our life now.”
But instead of having added to the tragic numbers at Ground Zero, the Rangers were out of harm’s way, watching what was transpiring from a hotel rooftop several blocks away. Several players, including captain Mark Messier and goalie Mike Richter, were among the first New York athletes to visit Ground Zero.
“It’s such an enormous thing it’s hard to put into perspective,” Richter said at Ground Zero. “The scale of the destruction is the biggest thing that hits you. Those buildings were 1,400 feet high and now there’s pieces of rubble and the rest was pulverized. One of the reasons why it’s so hard is that in our lifetime there is nothing to gauge this against. The theory that we can protect ourselves has been tested and broken. It’s not paranoia anymore, it’s reality.”
The Rangers moved their training camp to Rye, N.Y., and the NHL pushed back the start of its preseason by three days, canceling 22 games, including two involving the Rangers. The first New York sports teams to return to work – and help show that terrorists could not change the country’s way of life — were the Rangers and New Jersey Devils, who played an emotional preseason game Sept. 19 at MSG.
Despite the fear that a large crowd might invite more terrorism, thousands of Rangers fans showed up at MSG, where the dasher boards were cleared of advertising. Instead, they had a statement that read: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of all the injured and lost, New York’s Finest and Bravest, and all volunteers.”
Fans waved small paper American flags, and the Rangers and Devils players wore ribbon patches on their shoulders with NYPD and FDNY stickers on the back of helmets. There was a moment of silence to remember the victims, and John Amirante then sang “God Bless America” as the fans chanted, “USA, USA, USA.”
After the game, Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs and I walked a few blocks toward Ground Zero and saw floodlights shining on massive cranes sticking out of the lingering smoke rising from the ashes. Pictures of missing people were taped to walls, windows, lamp posts, telephone booths, almost everything. Jeff and I stared in disbelief as if to say, “Did this really happen?”
Unfortunately, it had.
The following night, the Rangers played in Philadelphia, where the game was temporarily halted when President George W. Bush’s nationally televised speech about how the U.S. would pursue all the terrorists who had orchestrated the attacks and would make fighting international terrorism a priority going forward was shown on the arena scoreboard.
On Oct. 7, the Rangers played the Buffalo Sabres in their regular-season home opener, and a 30-minute pregame ceremony began with FDNY and NYPD hockey teams skating on the MSG ice and forming a tunnel for Rangers players to skate through during introductions. As the players came out, they took their places at the blue line, where they stood through the remainder of the ceremony before the night’s most emotional moment.
The bald Messier did not wear his helmet onto the ice, taking his place in the line bareheaded. As the FDNY hockey team watched the ceremony, a dear friend was on their minds. Ray Downey, the FDNY’s Chief of Special Operations who died at Ground Zero but whose death was still not officially confirmed, was founding member of the FDNY hockey team and a passionate Rangers fan.
The highest-ranking FDNY official to die on Sept. 11, Downey was loved by his fellow firefighters, who related numerous stories about how much hockey meant to him. To give Downey a presence at the ceremony, the team brought his fire helmet with his picture tucked into the front of its brim.
Noticing Messier wasn’t wearing a helmet, FDNY co-captain Larry McGee of Engine 66 in the Bronx had an idea.
“I said to the other captain on our team, ‘Gimme that hat. He’ll wear it,’ ” McGee told a reporter after the game. “Everyone laughed and thought I was out of my mind, but I skated over and gave it to Messier.
“It was all done on a whim, and I didn’t want to embarrass (Messier). I introduced myself and told him who Ray Downey was and that it would be an honor if he would wear the helmet. He was a perfect gentleman. He said, ‘Sure, whatever you need.’ If there was one man worthy of wearing that helmet and paying tribute to Ray, it was Mark Messier.”
The usually emotional Messier was just that as he donned the helmet and flashed his familiar smile as the fans roared.
Then there was a video tribute to the 9/11 victims and those who had worked to rescue them, followed by the introduction of some real New York heroes directly affected by the attack, a group that included Port Authority Canine Unit officer David Lim, Local 40 ironworker Gene Flood, Local 14 operating engineer Robert Gray, Ladder 24 firefighter Brian Thomas and NYPD Emergency Services officer Lt. John Murphy.
Messier then took the microphone and pledged to the fans that the Rangers would dedicate the 2001-02 season to the first responders of New York City.
“We dedicate this entire season, from the top of the organization on down, to you,” Messier said.
Fittingly, Messier set up the game’s first goal and the Rangers won 5-4 in overtime.
I felt as inspired as ever to write about what I witnessed that night, but the victory was only the start of the Rangers’ attempt to help the post-Sept. 11 healing. They continued to honor victims and heroes throughout the season, especially after the season finale, when Messier took off his jersey and gave it to Rosalie Downey, Ray Downey’s widow.
It’s 10 years since the worst disaster in American history, but I still vividly recall that ride down the Merritt Parkway, reversing course to Glastonbury, my first distant viewing of the smothering remains of Ground Zero and seeing Messier put on Ray Downey’s helmet.
First, the tears, then the goose bumps. God willing, no such insane and mindless act occurs again.
(Mark Messier photo courtesy of answerthecallblog.org)