The bond between Rangers players and the fans who have followed them for generations is one of the things that makes a Blueshirts game at Madison Square Garden so special.
Over the years, this player-fan relationship has been strengthened not only by in-game moments, but also by encounters at youth hockey clinics, community appearances such as the Holiday Toy Drive, autograph sessions, the season-ending "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" ceremony and Casino Night.
|Nick Fotiu made hockey history in 1976 when he became the first born-and-bred New Yorker to play for the Blueshirts. |
One of the most enjoyable annual off-ice moments is the Rangers Golf Outing, a full-team event that benefits the Rangers Alumni Association. Guests at the Golf Outing are treated to 18 holes alongside a current Rangers player or former Rangers star, followed by cocktails, dinner, and ceremony to honor past Blueshirts greats.
The 2009 Rangers Golf Outing
, scheduled for Sept. 10, marks the 27th consecutive such gathering since Rangers legend and Hockey Hall of Famer Rod Gilbert turned it into a tradition in 1983. This year’s guests of honor will be Nick Fotiu
and Brian Mullen
-- two men who truly symbolize the Rangers player-fan relationship. They know exactly what it means to be a member of the Garden Faithful and a member of the Blueshirts, because they lived the lives of both.
Fotiu and Mullen were the first true New Yorkers ever to play for the Blueshirts, with Fotiu joining the team exactly 50 years after its founding, and Mullen realizing his own boyhood dream by pulling on a Rangers sweater 11 years after that.
Fotiu and Mullen were two of the most popular players in Rangers history, epitomizing so much of what Blueshirts fans expect from the team -- a relentless work ethic, a feeling of connection with the audience, and a willingness to stand up for any teammate, regardless of the situation.
"You have to grow up here to know what it means to be a New York Ranger," Fotiu recently said during an online chat with fans on newyorkrangers.com. "It's about tradition, loyalty and respect. Not just playing on the ice. The fans never forgot me and I never forgot them. You have to go out on the ice and not only play for the team. You have to play for the fans in the building. In New York, the fans made me feel like I was Bobby Orr every time I went on the ice."
On Sept. 10, the entire Rangers family will thank Fotiu and Mullen not just for what they brought to the ice at Madison Square Garden but for their role as pioneers. At a time when there were very few places to skate within the metropolitan area, these two found a way to reach the NHL and play for the team they loved as youngsters. Their stories are proof that every boy who grows up following the Rangers has a chance to one day play for the team if they put in the work and believe in themselves.
|Fotiu was never afraid to drop the gloves during his NHL career, but he only did so when he had to stand up for a teammate. |
Growing up in Staten Island, Fotiu first made his mark as an amateur boxer, winning the Police Athletic League title as a teen-ager. His real love, however, was the Rangers, and he attended countless games at The Garden. He did not begin to skate until he was 15 years old, but once he started playing, he set his sights on the NHL. That seemed like an impossible dream, because no player raised within the five boroughs of New York City had ever played for the home team.
Young Fotiu was such a huge Rangers fan that he began hanging out at the team's practice rink in Long Beach, where he struck up a friendship with one of the assistant trainers. In the late 1960s, that friendship led to odd jobs around the rink and a regular opportunity to visit the Rangers locker room after the current Madison Square Garden was built in 1968. The wide-eyed Fotiu loved to tell others that he would one day return to that locker room as a player.
Fotiu's remarkable journey, which began in the old Met League for New York area junior players, took him to the Eastern Hockey League and World Hockey Association in the early 1970s. His dream then became reality in July 1976, when Fotiu left the WHA's New England Whalers to sign his first NHL contract with the Rangers. On Oct. 6, 1976, he took the MSG ice for the first time as a Blueshirt.
"When Nicky made it to the Rangers, every kid growing up in the New York area who played hockey thought that maybe he could be the next Nicky Fotiu," said Mullen.
People who saw Fotiu play inevitably recall that in addition to his tremendous presence on the ice, he was perhaps the most fan-friendly player in sports history. Early in his NHL career, he began a tradition of throwing pucks into the crowd after warm-ups. Fotiu didn't just toss pucks over the glass. He hurled many of them with all his might into the upper reaches of the blue seats, and no Rangers fan wanted to show up late and miss the chance to catch a puck.
"I was a kid, and I was one of those fans," Fotiu recalled. "I always wanted to be there, and sometimes I didn't have the money to pay for a ticket close to the ice. I told myself that when I made it to the Rangers I would throw pucks high into the stands. Even today, people come up to me with the pucks that I threw and they ask me to sign them."
Fotiu would go on to play 455 games as a Ranger and was such a fan favorite that the team brought him back to the city for a second stint after losing him to Hartford in the 1979 NHL Expansion Draft. During his last few years with the Rangers, after returning to the team in a January 1981 trade, Fotiu was on hand for the very first Golf Outing, which makes his being honored by today’s Rangers at the upcoming Sept. 10 ceremony even more special.
Fotiu opened doors for other local players, including Mullen, whose boyhood connection to the Rangers was just as strong. Mullen had grown up a stone's throw from The Garden in the Hell's Kitchen neightborhood of Manhattan. That location made an easy commute for his father, who worked on the ice crew at MSG.
"I was a huge Ranger fan," said Mullen. "Everything revolved around the Rangers. My favorite player was Vic Hadfield."
Playing for the Met League's New York Westsiders helped Mullen land the coveted job of Rangers stickboy at age 15, and he would spend the years 1977 to 1979 right on the front lines of the NHL, working mostly with the visiting teams at MSG. He was right there for the 1979 Stanley Cup Finals, and one of the players who reached out to him was Fotiu.
“Nicky used to give me sticks here and there so I could use them in my (Met League) games,” said Mullen. “I can remember having to wait for the players to come off the ice so I could go on the ice to pick up the pucks, and Nicky was always the last one off the ice, because he was out there throwing pucks up into the stands.
|Brian Mullen, a onetime Rangers stickboy, fulfilled a lifelong dream when he came home to Madison Square Garden as a Blueshirts player in the summer of 1987. |
During those same years, Brian's older brother, Joey, was starring at Boston College and already on his way to a Hall of Fame career in the NHL. Brian would also find his way to hockey's highest level, but he would get an opportunity Joey never had -- a chance to play for the team they grew up watching.
Both Brian and Joey had played their junior hockey with the Westsiders, and when Brian was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 1980, he became the first player ever selected by an NHL team off the roster of a New York Met League squad. He accepted a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin and won the NCAA championship there before turning pro after his sophomore year.
Mullen was an instant NHL hit with Winnipeg, scoring 105 goals in his first four seasons. Despite all that success, one of his biggest thrills was the annual trip home to face the Rangers in New York. At the time, he told reporters he got "chills" just taking the ice in a visiting team's uniform.
Five years after he entered the NHL, Mullen's childhood dream came true when he joined the Rangers in a June 8, 1987, trade with the Jets.
"I was out in Chicago for my daughter's christening," Mullen remembered. "Phil Esposito (the Rangers’ General Manager) called me up and told me ‘Brian, you're coming home, only this time not as the stickboy.'"
He was instantly embraced by the fans, who had not seen a fellow New Yorker in the home uniform since Fotiu's final Rangers season of 1984-85. Mullen responded with a 25-goal season in 1987-88, improved to 29 goals the following year, and added 46 more over his last two seasons with the team.
Mullen said Rangers fans were always good to him. It wasn’t because he was from the city, but rather because he was determined to give them everything he had expected from players when he was growing up in New York.
"The New York fans really appreciate guys that give 100 percent, and that's what I tried to do every time I stepped on the ice," said Mullen. " ... The Rangers fans are so loyal. You see the same people game-in, game-out. They're such good hockey fans. They know the game, and the building is just electric when the Rangers are doing well. There's no place to play like Madison Square Garden."
Between them, Fotiu and Mullen combined for 141 goals and 351 points in 762 Rangers games, but their legacy is about much more than statistics. On Sept. 10, after a day on the golf course with current and former players and fans, Fotiu and Mullen will receive an honor that was truly a lifetime in the making for both.