Traditionally, the last thing an NHL team does after its playoff run ends is to shake hands with its opponent.
But for the 2005-06 New York Rangers last Saturday, another gesture followed those handshakes, as the team came out to center ice to give its fans one last "stick salute."
The salute, in which the Rangers players raised their sticks to the Garden Faithful after victorious home games, became a tradition at Madison Square Garden this past season after initially appearing at the end of a few early games. The players' obvious enjoyment of this moment was emblematic of their strong connection to the fans throughout the season.
The first season after the NHL lockout was a time of bonding not just for players but also for those who follow hockey, as both groups came to embrace the game all over again. This renewed appreciation came to a head with roughly one a minute left in the Rangers' Game 4 playoff loss to New Jersey, when the MSG crowd broke into a spontaneous chant of "Let's Go Rangers!" The cheering continued straight through the handshakes and salute.
"It gave me chills, goosebumps," said Jed Ortmeyer of the fans' late-game response. "They were respectful of what we did all year and they were happy that things were different this year than in years past. Even though they knew we weren't going to win, they were still there right behind us the whole time."
New Yorkers are famous for pride in their sports teams, and Rangers fans are famous throughout the New York area for their dedication to the franchise. Several members of the 2005-06 team had never played in front of the people before, and they were treated to tremendous and unexpected lift that helped them go 25-10-6 at home this season.
The Rangers picked up more points at The Garden in 2005-06 than in any season since winning the Stanley Cup in 1993-94.
"It's always fun to play at home when you have fans behind you the way they were all year," said Ryan Hollweg. "We had our ups and downs this year, but they were behind us all year, so it was great for us to be able to make the playoffs. It was a step in the right direction, and next year we'll take another step to get closer to the Cup."
One player who got a tremendous boost from the MSG crowds was rookie goaltender Henrik Lundqvist
. Referred to simply as "King Henrik" by so many of those who cheered for him, Lundqvist said there was no comparing Rangers fans to anything he had experienced in Sweden.
"They made it so much more fun to play. When you look at the stats we had at home, it shows that they have a big part of our success," said Lundqvist. "They're very supportive. The fans we had (in Goteborg) were probably the best in Sweden, but it wasn't the same as this. These people were really passionate and loud, and it was really fun playing here."
"Passion" was the word of choice when players were asked for their thoughts about those who had supported them all season.
"They're incredibly passionate fans, and it's an honor to be able to play for them on any given night," said Dominic Moore. "It's a responsibility as well to put your best foot forward, because they admire the hard work and they admire the attitude of the players. They're there no matter what."
Moore said the reaction at the end of Game 4 caught him off guard but shouldn't have surprised him based on what he came to know about them during the season.
"For them to stick around and acknowledge the hard work we had done felt good for us," said Moore. "They recognized what had been a good season and that we were on the right track."
Defenseman Jason Strudwick, who had played for three other NHL teams before coming to the Rangers, had high praise for the True Blue.
"They're a very intense group. They know hockey and they have a certain level of how the expect it to be played," Strudwick said. "They're great fans and we're happy to have them."
Jason Ward, who experienced another group of famous fans in Montreal, said he was bowled over not just by the reaction of Rangers fans at the end of the season, but throughout the year.
"It's great when you killed a penalty against a big team because you felt the pride that they felt in the stands," said Ward. "It's just the little things that they appreciate, and that's what you love out of your fans. Just the constant devotion. On the way to rink, just talking to the fans outside. They're True Blue. And I've really realized what that meant to the fans. That's something that will be with me for the rest of my Ranger career."