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Annual Toy Drive just keeps on giving

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers


Highlights from the 17th Annual Holiday Toy Drive Watch

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By Dan David,

Rangers legend Adam Graves looked out at the hundreds of people gathered at the Theater Lobby at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday evening and couldn't help but marvel at the generosity of Rangers fans attending the team's 17th Annual Holiday Toy Drive to benefit the U.S. Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program.

"I say this every year, but this truly is the privilege of being a Ranger and playing in New York," said Graves, taking a brief pause from a marathon of hand-shaking, autograph signing and posing for photos with The Garden Faithful. "We all talk about stepping on the Garden ice and playing the game, but to come to this and other events like this that involve the community and kids  -- it just doesn't get any better being a Ranger to me."

It was clearly quite a thrill for this Derek Stepan fan to come to the Rangers' annual Toy Drive and receive a hug from her favorite Blueshirts rookie.
On behalf of both the Rangers and the Garden of Dreams Foundation, Graves has been one of the greatest and most tireless community ambassadors any city could ever know, and the Toy Drive has a particularly special place in his heart.

Back in 1994, coming off a Stanley Cup championship, a then 26-year-old Graves helped organize the first Toy Drive. He never missed one as a Rangers player or in his post-hockey years, which have included six seasons as a member of the Blueshirts' front office.

"At this time of year. It's such an important time for families and memories," he said. "It's a celebration of kids and all that is good. A night like tonight certainly represents that. You see all the kids walking around and having fun while giving toys to other kids who aren't as privileged. It's just great."

While the location has varied -- Tuesday's indoor Toy Drive in the Theater Lobby was a first -- Graves' original concept for the event has not changed. As it was in the first Toy Drive, Rangers players still sign autographs in exchange for donation of unwrapped toys to the Toys for Tots program. The signing session continues until the last toy is collected -- giving fans a chance to come face to face with their hockey heroes while helping youngsters in need.

Over 17 seasons, tens of thousands of toys have been collected. That number grew by  total of 1,500 toys as a result of Tuesday's event , because many of the roughly 800 fans who attended this year's Toy Drive brought multiple donations.

"These fans are passionate about hockey, and they're passionate in the community, too," said Rangers defenseman Steve Eminger, who was among the six Blueshirts signing on Tuesday. "They make this happen, and they deserve a lot of credit for coming here and donating toys for the kids."

Eminger is in his first season with the Rangers, but he has played on five other NHL teams and said he has always been impressed with the special generosity of hockey fans. On Tuesday, he joined Matt Gilroy in the second of three signing sessions.

"It's nice during the holiday season to be able to help out anyone who is less fortunate," said Gilroy, who had also participated in last year’s Toy Drive. "Meeting some of the fans is also pretty cool. Seeing how happy, especially, the young kids are. They get a thrill out of meeting us. I'm glad that we can make their day somehow special. It's a good feeling, because when I see them smiling, it makes me smile."

In addition to the signing and photograph opportunities, fans at the event could enjoy numerous hockey-related activities, including a slap shot booth, and there were opportunities for fans  to enjoy free face-painting, have their caricatures drawn, meet Santa Claus, and purchase Rangers merchandise. Staging the event indoors also made waiting in the line a much warmer experience than in some past years.

One of the great Toy Drive traditions is the chance to meet Rangers legend Adam Graves, who helped start the annual event in 1994 and is there to greet and pose for photographs with every attending fan.
Brian Boyle, who signed along fellow Rangers forward Derek Boogaard in the evening's first pair, said he got a big kick out of the event because he remembers just how much he idolized NHL players as a kid and knows what it means for many fans to come face to face with the Blueshirts.

The Toy Drive's emcee, Scott Lasky, remarked that Boyle and Boogaard, both 6-foot-7, were likely the two tallest Rangers players who had ever appeared together at an autograph session. A glance at 85 seasons of Blueshirts rosters would indicate that Lasky was entirely correct.

"The best part for me is on a year-over-year basis to see the current players here," said Graves of the Toy Drive. "That is what keeps this going and makes it so special. It certainly wouldn't be what it is without having the guys who are proudly wearing our jersey on The Garden ice now."

The final duo to sign were rookies Michael Sauer and Derek Stepan. The same long line that stretched to the escalators outside the Theater Lobby was still in place by the time Sauer and Stepan stepped in for Gilroy and Eminger at the signing table, as many of the fans from the earlier sessions had stayed around to get all of the players' signatures – donating up to three toys each in the process.

"The fans are such a big part of what we can do to help the community as players," said Eminger. "They come out and support us by helping raise money, by donating toys or coats or food or whatever we ask. That's a huge help for us, and it goes a long way."

Graves agreed that the magic of the Toy Drive is how the bond between Rangers players and their fans has helped brighten the holidays for so many outside the hockey world over the past 17 seasons.

"The fans and the people of New York have pushed this to 17 years now, and they will continue to push it," said Graves. "This is a Rangers event that we as an organization take great pride in being a part of."
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