|John Halligan, a hockey publicist and historian, was honored Wednesday with the Lester Patrick Award, given to recognize service to hockey in the United States.|
Halligan, a hockey publicist and historian for more than 40 years with the New York Rangers and the National Hockey League, was honored Wednesday with the Lester Patrick Award, given to recognize service to hockey in the United States. Few people have worked harder to spread the gospel of hockey in the U.S. than Halligan, who joined the Rangers just months after graduating Fordham University in June 1963 after years of riding the subway to games at the old Madison Square Garden.
"I was a nut. I tried to go to every game at the Garden," he said of his time in high school and college. "I knew from the time I was 13 or 14 that I loved hockey. I graduated from Fordham in June 1963, I sent in a resume, and two months after graduation, I got a job with the Rangers -- a seasonal job as assistant publicity director. A year later, the guy who was my boss, Herb Goren, went to work for the NHL as a consultant. I was just in the right place at the right time."
That time was the era of the Original Six -- a time when the Rangers were struggling both on the ice and for media attention.
"The Rangers at that time weren't selling out, with maybe the exception of Montreal on a Sunday night," Halligan remembered. "The Wednesday crowds -- we played mostly on Wednesday and Sunday nights -- were poor. The pressure on the publicity arm was to get in the paper all the time. Everything was focused on the newspapers -- there wasn't the kind of competition with all the media outlets that there are now."
With a staff that included only a statistician and one assistant -- who later became his wife -- being the Rangers' "publicity director" in those days meant wearing a number of hats … and not always having everyone know who you were. Sometimes, Halligan remembers, that included the team broadcaster.
"It was the last game of the season," Halligan recalled of a time in the mid-1960s when the team's telecasts were mostly limited to Saturday night road games, "and I had traveled with Win Elliott (the Rangers' TV voice) the entire season, doing the statistics in the booth. I was traveling with the Rangers as the PR guy, but to fill my time during the game, I would work for Win in the booth. We had done this for the entire year, and it was the final game of the season -- we didn't make the playoffs -- and Win was saying that; 'It had been a good rebuilding year, and that the team was going to be better next year -- and that I would be remiss if I didn't thank my good friend, John Lannigan.'
"I never corrected him on that. That was Win -- he'd just make it up as he went along."
As the Rangers improved under Emile Francis in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Halligan's job changed.
"As the team got better, the job got easier because more and more writers were coming to you," he said. "You didn't have to go to lunches and hard-sell people. People were knocking on our door at that point. The crowds started to go up and the focus went away from filling the seats -- because they were filling themselves -- and toward trying to be a friendly organization."
Halligan stayed with the Rangers, with a growing role as business manager and vice president of communications, through runs to the Stanley Cup final in 1972 and 1979 before leaving to join the NHL in 1983. He said his biggest disappointment was the 1972 Final, when the strongest Rangers team since World War II lost to the Bobby Orr-led Boston Bruins.
"That was a special team," he said. "We made the Final even though we didn't have (center) Jean Ratelle, who had broken his ankle in March, when he was hit by a shot. We rushed him back and he played, but he wasn't himself. Bobby Orr took over in Game 6 -- we were never really in that game."
Halligan went to the NHL in 1983, but returned to the Rangers from 1986 to 1990, where one of the people he worked to publicize was a young American defenseman named Brian Leetch -- who followed Halligan to the podium Wednesday as a Patrick Award winner.
"I was just a rookie when I got to meet John Halligan," he said in his speech. "When John asked me to do something, he always had a reference to a player who had been in that situation before. He would always guide you in the right direction."
Halligan went back to the NHL for a second time in 1990 and remained there before retiring in 2006. He worked on the centennial of the Stanley Cup in 1991 and the NHL's 75th anniversary in 1993.
|Halligan went to the NHL in 1983, but returned to the Rangers from 1986 to 1990. Brian Leetch, who Halligan publicized, followed him to the podium as a Patrick Award winner.|
One area in which Halligan's knowledge is unparalleled is the history of the Patrick Award -- he was present at its creation in 1966.
"(Rangers President) Bill Jennings got Emile Francis and me together and said he wanted to create a trophy to honor Lester Patrick," Halligan said. "He said; 'Emile, you take care of the general managers; John, you take care of the press and I'll take care of the governors. It was about 10 minutes and we were done.
"It's ironic: I spent 43 years promoting the award and I win it the first year after leaving the NHL."
For all of his professionalism, Halligan never forgot that in the end, hockey is a game that's supposed to be fun.
"The thing that always stood out for me was the fun," said NHL Group Vice President of Communications Frank Brown, who sold his first story -- a piece that ran in the Rangers' program -- to Halligan nearly 40 years ago. "You get so bogged down in the work of it sometimes. I don't think anyone who puts on a jersey is called a 'hockey laborer.' He's a 'hockey player.' John always kept the 'play' in the game."