Connecting with fans and raising funds for worthwhile causes have been hallmarks of the Rangers organization throughout the team's history, and the seventh annual Casino Night event, held Wednesday at New York's Gotham Hall, provided a tremendous opportunity for both. All net proceeds from Casino Night benefited the Garden of Dreams Foundation, which works closely with the Rangers and all areas of Madison Square Garden to "make dreams come true for kids in crisis." The event eclipsed previous fundraising records, generating more than $200,000 for the charity.
Casino Night, presented by OppenheimerFunds, drew a record of more than 530 fans to Gotham Hall, located a short walk from The Garden. Attendees were treated to a memorable evening that brought them face to face with the entire Rangers team, who played alongside fans in a variety of fun table games.
"There are other teams that do these kinds of events, but I don't think anybody does it better than the Rangers," said Blueshirts head coach Tom Renney. "If other teams want to get a feel for how to fund-raise through this mechanism, they should come here and witness this, because this is second to none."
The evening began with player introductions by MSG's Sam Rosen, the voice of the Rangers. All decked out in their tuxedos, players were introduced in their jersey-number order, and eventually posed for a unique team picture at Gotham Hall's center stage.
One player who received a tremendous ovation during introductions was alternate captain Brendan Shanahan. Out since Feb. 17 with an injury, Shanahan was delighted to take part in the event, and the Rangers fans were clearly thrilled to see him there as well.
The last player introduced was captain Jaromir Jagr, who also received a big ovation as Rosen proclaimed No. 68 to be a "guaranteed future Hall of Famer."
After the team photographs were taken, the Rangers dispersed throughout the spacious hall. Players were suddenly everywhere, working different event tables. Some popular dealers included Michael Nylander, Blair Betts and Colton Orr, who were all kept busy throughout the event and seemed to relish every moment.
Players were happy to pose for photographs with guests at the event, but it was the personal interaction at the tables that offered these fans a real glimpse into the personalities of their favorite athletes.
"I think that's a testimony obviously to the players, but it's a testimony to the sport," said Renney of the obvious bond between the athletes and their fans. "I think that's sort of the underlying foundation of hockey in general and the type of people it attracts. First of all as athletes but beyond that in its fan base. They're all passionate people, they love life and enjoy the camaraderie. They love sharing stories and acknowledging each other, and it's real special. And the bottom line is that it seems like we all take the time to do that."
Betts agreed that the experience of greeting fans in such a friendly environment makes Casino Night unlike any other community activity he has experienced during his years in hockey.
"It's a great way to interact with the fans," said Betts. "Throughout the year, we've done various things to help the Garden of Dreams Foundation. It's a win-win. It helps the charity, and we all get to have some fun as well."
Rangers goaltending coach Benoit Allaire and his wife, Lyne, were also enthused about the experience, enjoying the night as much as any attendees.
"What a night! It was awesome," said Lyne. "The place was magnificent. It was a pleasure and a honor to be at that Casino Night and do our little part for the Garden of Dreams Foundation."
Renney said Rangers players look forward to Casino Night each season and always enjoy their interaction with the wider community.
"This event is I think it's one of those things they see on the radar screen at the beginning of the year. They realize from talking to players who have been part of it in the past that it's something really worthwhile, but I don't know if they get the full impact of it until they're here," said Renney. "It's really enormous for the players. It's not only a great event that allows them to personally interact with Rangers fans - and understand what makes Rangers fans such special people and such a loyal group, but it also benefits a charity that we think is extremely important. Through Garden of Dreams, we have met some extraordinary children that are facing enormous obstacles -- and whose positive spirit about their circumstances and joy at just meeting members of the Rangers has been extremely humbling. We are proud that we can join with our fans and give the Foundation the resources it needs to continue its amazing work."
As always, the live and silent auctions were a focus of attention throughout the night, helping raise tens of thousands of dollars for the Garden of Dreams Foundation.
Silent auction items included autographed jerseys from Adam Graves, Mike Richter, Brian Leetch and Wayne Gretzky. Also up for bid were game-used sticks from Henrik Lundqvist
, Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan. The silent auction brought in more than $19,000 for Garden of Dreams.
Rosen hosted the live auction, which featured bidding on four exciting Rangers experiences. Once again this year, Rosen demonstrated that his talent as an auctioneer is right up there with his gift for hockey play-by-play, and he helped bring in more than $35,000 for these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
The experiences included a visit to the broadcast booth with Rosen and his partner, Joe Micheletti, and a VIP Experience, which included a visit to the Madison Square Garden Training Center with Adam Graves. There was also the opportunity for a bidder and 20 guests to skate at the Training Center with Graves and a chance to go on a road trip with the Rangers next season. Two bidders each put up $10,000 to take part in the road trip experience.
In addition to the experiences, Rosen auctioned off a game-used, signed jersey from Lundqvist, which was presented to the winning bidders by Henrik. Lundqvist's jersey alone helped raise a total of $2,900 for Garden of Dreams.