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Ten years later, 9/11 still resonates in hockey

by Dan Rosen
Brian Gionta arrived at South Mountain Arena in West Orange, N.J. early in the morning on Sept. 11, 2001 with anticipation and nerves. It was around 8 a.m. on his first day of training camp in the NHL and Gionta was preparing to make an impression on the New Jersey Devils.

An hour later, training camp meant so little. An hour later, the world was a much different and more dangerous place.

Gionta grew up in Rochester, N.Y., which is about a five-hour drive from lower Manhattan. He grew up adoring the New York City skyline, and on that fateful morning, while he was starting his NHL journey, the World Trade Center was falling.


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"It was physical day and we were probably there for a half an hour or 45 minutes before it hit. It was just kind of surreal," Gionta told "No one knew what was going on … but you realize the severity of it, just being around here (in New Jersey), being close to it. If you're someplace else in the country it's less of a shock, less of a hit home. But when you can see the smoke of the towers on a daily basis -- it was definitely tragic."

Sunday will mark the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Among the almost 3,000 people that lost their lives that tragic morning were three members of the hockey family.

Kings Director of Pro Scouting Garnet "Ace" Bailey and scout Mark Bavis were aboard United Flight 175, the second plane to hit the World Trade Center. American Airlines flight attendant Madeline "Amy" Sweeney, sister-in-law to former NHLer Bob Sweeney, was among the first to notify authorities of the terrorist takeover of her plane, American Flight 11, which was the first to crash into the Trade Center.

The Kings will honor the memories of Bailey and Bavis with a tribute at their annual Hockey Fest event on Sunday. They will also use an autographed-jersey auction to raise money for the Widows, Orphans and Disabled Firefighters Fund.

The Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security honors Sweeney's memory by handing out the annual Madeline Amy Sweeney Award for Civilian Bravery to state residents who perform exceptional acts of bravery.

"That day was such a tragic day in the history of our country and the history of the world," Kings Chief Operation Officer Chris McGowan told the team's website. "It touched our organization in a big way."

Gionta couldn't see the skyline from West Orange, but every time he made the drive to Continental Arena in East Rutherford he witnessed the tragic sight and sometimes could even smell the smoke.

"Every time we went down to Continental you could really feel it," he said. "Driving on the Turnpike, you could see the city and really feel it. Even now, you look over at the skyline and it's tough to get used to the skyline without the towers. It still is tough to get used to for me. I grew up with the towers."

Marc Staal did not. In fact, the New York Rangers defenseman didn't even know what the World Trade Center towers were until the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I was walking through the halls when we heard about it," Staal, then a ninth-grader in Thunder Bay, Ont., told "We went to the closest place to watch it on TV."

Ten years later, the Rangers' Canadian-born defenseman knows all he needs to know about what is missing from the skyline of the city he now calls home.

"When I moved here, living in Manhattan, just meeting people that had been affected by it, it was a reality check," Staal said. "Knowing how huge those towers were and the devastation it caused, it was a big eye-opener when I moved here."

Staal and the Rangers honored the memories of the 343 New York City firefighters who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, by visiting three firehouses in downtown Manhattan this past Tuesday. Combined, the three firehouses the Rangers visited lost 37 members at the World Trade Center.

The event tugged at the heartstrings of everyone who was a part of the tour.

"This brings you back to what is really going on in our world, especially now," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "In our city here, it's changed our world and these guys (the firefighters) are still doing it. The thing that really hits home with me is a number of them, they weren't sure where he was when he died. Yeah, it's emotional. It has to be. I mean, that's life and death."
"When I moved here, living in Manhattan, just meeting people that had been affected by it, it was a reality check. Knowing how huge those towers were and the devastation it caused, it was a big eye-opener when I moved here." -- Marc Staal

Anaheim forward and Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry, who was in New York this week as part of the NHL's annual Player Media Tour, paid his respects on Wednesday with a visit to Engine Co. 34/Ladder Co. 21 on West 38th Street.

"It puts into perspective what they went through," Perry, who gave the firemen an Anaheim Ducks jersey signed by the entire team. "They were among the first responders. They knew everything and they went through it anyway. They were in the middle of everything."

Gionta said the Devils were no different than anyone else after the planes hit and the towers crumbled. They were walking around in a state of fear and shock.

"People didn't know what to do or what to say," he said. "You're just in shock, in shock."

He can't remember if he played in the Devils' first preseason game at Continental Arena after the attacks, but he vividly remembers the atmosphere inside the building on Sept. 20, 2001, one night after they played the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, the first professional sporting event in New York City post-9/11.

"It felt weird that you're playing a game there when all that was going on not far from us," he said. "What you draw on is you can take people's minds off of it for a bit and hopefully that worked, but it was definitely a weird feeling that night in the building.

"It's crazy how quickly time has gone by. It's definitely bringing back a lot of tragic memories."

Especially for former Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch, who lost dear friend John Murray on 9/11.

"I was just watching that National Geographic show on 9/11 by myself. It just happened to be on," Leetch told "You know how it affected yourself, but everybody has a story. It's just gut-wrenching to watch and it's emotional. It's 10 years now, but it's going to be there for everybody that was directly affected.

"Life moves on and we move on, but you don't forget and you don't lose those feelings."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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