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Leetch still feels loss of close friend in 9/11 attacks

by Dan Rosen
Brian Leetch has no memory of scoring the overtime winner. He barely remembers playing in the game.

It was Oct. 7, 2001, the New York Rangers' first regular-season home game in the post-9/11 world. Leetch's job forced him to be on the ice at Madison Square Garden that night, but looking back on it, his mind was elsewhere.

Leetch was lost somewhere between the devastation he felt as a person who called New York City home and the heartache he was enduring as one of thousands who lost a dear friend in the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Shake hands and remember

It was the right decision. It was the only decision.

Those were the thoughts of Brian Leetch and everyone else inside the arena in Philadelphia the night of Sept. 20, 2001.

President Bush went live with his address to Congress and the nation nine days after the Sept. 11 attacks during the second intermission of a preseason game between the Rangers and Flyers. The third period was initially delayed so everyone could watch the President and listen to what he had to say on the big screen above center ice.

Once he was done 36 minutes later, the game was called, forever iced with the Rangers and Flyers locked in a 2-2 tie and a video flag waving on the screen with a message saying the game was over "out of respect for where the United States was headed in the near future."

Mark Recchi scored the goal that made it 2-2.

"I thought that was a good decision to just shake hands and move on so everybody could think about what he said and what was going on," Leetch, who was on the ice that night, told on Friday, recalling his memories from the halted game. "You could go back into your regular routine the following day."

Leetch will never forget how the atmosphere inside the building changed once President Bush was shown on the big screen.

"It turned from being a visiting rink against one of your rivals with 95 percent of the people there rooting against you to immediately feeling that that we were all on the same team," Leetch said. "I knew the person sitting in the top row or the first row was listening and watching the speech the same way I was. We were all in this and we were all looking at that together.

"It was that same feeling afterwards, when everybody looked back at the ice. How can I switch back into rooting against these guys?"

-- Dan Rosen
His overtime winner, which secured a 5-4 win for the Rangers over Buffalo, was not as fulfilling as it should have been or could have been.

"That was all a blur," Leetch told Friday. "It was such a bad time."

John Murray attended Boston College with Leetch and was part of his inner circle of friends. He was one of 658 Cantor Fitzgerald employees who didn't make it out of One World Trade Center, the first tower hit that fateful and unforgettable morning.

Leetch will never forget where he was when, without knowing, he watched the building holding his buddy on the 104th floor fall. The fact that Sunday marks the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks matters little to Leetch, who thinks about his friend often and talks about him a lot when he gets together with his other BC buddies.

"It's not like 10 years is any different than one year or two years," Leetch said.

Leetch wasn't watching television early in the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. It was the Rangers' first day of training camp and the veteran players were supposed to meet at Madison Square Garden around 10 a.m. for testing.

"I woke up, showered and got a bite to eat and then my wife told me a plane hit the Trade Center," Leetch said. "In my mind, like everybody else, I was thinking it was a small recreational plane and must have clipped it. I turned on the TV and couldn't believe what I was seeing. That's when my thoughts went to my friend John. I was trying to figure out what tower Cantor was in."

Leetch quickly figured out it was in the first tower hit, the one struck by American Airlines Flight 11.

"We couldn't get in touch with anybody, but some of my friends from outside the area started calling," Leetch said. "We couldn't get in touch with his wife, so our thoughts just went to, 'John, find a stairwell.' It looked like from where it hit that Cantor was above it. We thought they'd be OK. We were just wondering how they would get him out. That is what is racing through your head.

"Twenty minutes later, we're watching and the second plane hits."

That was United Flight 175 crashing into the south tower, Two World Trade Center.

Michael Murray, John's brother, worked in that building. He escaped, and remains close to Leetch to this day.

"Now it's getting closer to going to training camp so your mind flips to that, but I've got Mike Richter on the phone and he's nervous," Leetch said, continuing to recall the events of that morning. "He's saying, 'I don't think we should be going down there. They're probably going to try to get those other guys out of there.' We were trying to get in touch with the Rangers and I have friends calling at the same time."

Just as Leetch and Richter made the decision not to go down to the Garden, "the first tower starts to go down right in front of our eyes.

"Then, it's just a kick in the stomach," Leetch said. "You went from hoping to get some information on where he is to watching the towers go down. That was a sickening feeling. We were just staring at the TV, shaking our heads."

Leetch remembers keeping faith that somehow, some way John made it out of there before the building collapsed.

"You hold onto that for a day or so," he said. "It was really the next day that it was sinking in that nobody was coming out of there, that I lost my friend with a lot of other people."

As if that wasn't tough enough for Leetch, his brother, Eric, an Army Ranger and Green Beret, was stationed in Kuwait at the time of the attacks. Leetch knew Eric would be involved in the war on terror.

Leetch's sister, Beth, was on patrol for the police force in Fairfield, Ct. Cops all over the tri-state area were pitching in one way or another in the recovery.

"My brother went to Afghanistan and was a part of all of it," Leetch said.

Capt. Eric Leetch is currently on a 10-month deployment in Afghanistan. He's an Army chaplain. Beth is a detective in Fairfield.

"I remember one of the guys that worked with the Rangers, he was a retired policeman -- a bunch of people gave him NYPD patches and tee shirts to give to me so I could send them over to my brother, and I did," Leetch said. "My brother said he passed them out to all the guys and it made a big difference. He gave them a talk and said, 'Don't forget this is the reason we're over here, there are a lot of people that lost their lives.' "

Meanwhile, Leetch had to go on with his.

He struggled.
"You went from hoping to get some information on where he is to watching the towers go down. That was a sickening feeling. We were just staring at the TV, shaking our heads." -- Brian Leetch

"You're going there to the rink and it's your job now so you have to get involved, but it was hard to emotionally engage in the role," Leetch said. "I was supposed to be a leader on the team and that was really hard to transition to.

"The reminders were constant. Especially for the guys that lived in the city, every day you ran into someone on the elevator that knew someone or had a good friend that lost somebody. There was so much sadness. Hope had turned. At the rink people were able to get through their practices and work hard, but when you left the arena everything was different."

Ten years later, all Leetch has is memories and pictures of his friend. For instance, there's the one taken only a few months before the terrorist attacks, with Leetch and Murray holding their then infant children on their laps.

"It's us together sitting on my couch in my apartment, smiling at each other, thinking can you believe we both have a kid right now," Leetch said. "It's nice that we have that."

Leetch and his wife, Mary Beth, remain close with Murray's wife, Rory, who has since remarried and changed her last name to Murray-Little.

Rory, along with her daughter, Alyson, and John's father, Philip, surprised Leetch by being present on the ice the night his jersey went to the Garden's rafters.

The Rangers donated $25,000 to the John J. Murray Foundation, which was founded in 2002 as a way to remember the philanthropic ways of Leetch's friend.

"We all became closer afterwards," Leetch said.

And overtime winners became less important to remember.

"It doesn't really change," Leetch said. "I'm lucky to have a strong group of Boston College friends and we see each other a lot at different places. John was one of the guys in that group, so whenever we're together there are stories. We talk about John."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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