By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
For nearly a decade, one of the off-ice highlights of any Rangers season has been the team’s annual Casino Night event, which took place for the ninth consecutive season on Monday night at New York’s Gotham Hall.
|Celebrity guest Whoopi Goldberg, who happens to be a big hockey fan, shares a laugh with Rangers alternate captain Scott Gomez during Casino Night 2009. |
Several hundred Rangers fans turned out to mix and mingle with the Blueshirts in a casino-style atmosphere -- all for the benefit of the Garden of Dreams Foundation, which helps children in crisis throughout the New York area.
As always, Casino Night brought the Rangers players, coaches, and off-ice personnel face-to-face with some of their most passionate supporters. The evening featured the opportunity for fans to purchase $25 Mystery Bags that included signed pucks as well as to bid on a wide array of rare Rangers items in a silent auction. The event ended with a bang as fans bid on once-in-a-lifetime Rangers experiences in the live auction that traditionally concludes Casino Night.
Rangers TV play-by-play man Sam Rosen served as emcee once again, but was somewhat limited in his vocal abilities because he had been battling the flu. He began the evening by introducing the players, coaches and management, who came out one-by-one in their tuxedos to cheers from the audience. One of the last people introduced was new head coach John Tortorella, participating in his very first face-to-face off-ice event with the Garden Faithful. Tortorella received a warm ovation from the appreciative crowd.
After the introductions, Rosen’s MSG broadcast booth sidekick, analyst Joe Micheletti, stepped up to take over the hosting duties, including his first Casino Night live auction. Micheletti filled in admirably, helping to raise nearly $20,000 in the closing event alone.
Few pro sports teams put on a show quite like Casino Night, giving players and fans such close contact. Every member of the Blueshirts roster was on hand, and fans were given ample opportunity to engage the players in conversation and to have pictures taken with them.
“When I first came here, people were already telling me about this event and how it was the best one of the year,” said Fredrik Sjostrom, who arrived just after Casino Night last year and was therefore experiencing it for the first time. “I was really looking forward to it for awhile. It's really a lot of fun and it's helping a great cause in the Garden of Dreams.”
One of the more popular guests of honor was goaltender Henrik Lundqvist
, who received the biggest cheers among the players at introductions and spent most of his night posing for one picture after another. Lundqvist, recently named the official spokesman of the Garden of Dreams Foundation, was participating in his fourth Casino Night.
“I love this building. I think it's really cool,” said Lundqvist, admiring the spacious Gotham Hall. “It's definitely fun to be here, and … I'm definitely proud to be the spokesperson for something that is this big and doing so well.”
Sjostrom was one of the eight Rangers players on hand who had never experienced Casino Night. Blair Betts said the team’s veterans got a kick out of seeing the new players in their tuxedos and that Casino Night helped remind them just how special it is to be part of the Rangers organization.
“We don't really give them (Casino Night newcomers) a heads-up,” said Betts with a laugh. “I'm not sure how many teams do events like this. It's one of the events that the players enjoy as much as the fans. I'm sure for new guys they're probably enjoying it as well.”
A year ago, a handful of players made rather bold fashion statements in their choice of tuxedos and shoes. This year’s Casino Night was a bit more low-key in that regard, although the sight of hockey players dressed to the nines remained just as unique.
“In the past, the previous years we've kind of had some individuality,” said Betts. “This year I think everybody kept it pretty conservative. Just black and white, but it's a fun event and it's nice for everybody to dress up in a tux.”
Prizes in the silent auction included game-worn Adam Graves Night jerseys autographed by Nikolai Zherdev and Markus Naslund. There was also a unique lithograph featuring the signatures of Rangers greats Harry Howell, Ed Giacomin, Brad Park, Jean Ratelle, Emile Francis, Rod Gilbert and Andy Bathgate – drawn in a manner that showed them on the ice at the same time.
Graves items were plentiful in the Silent Auction, which included a stick he used in his 1,000th career NHL game, a signed puck, stick and program from Graves Night, and the opportunity to have lunch with Graves, which was one of the most heavily bid on items. Bathgate and Howell, whose numbers were recently retired on Feb. 22, were also featured in the Silent Auction with a signed program, stick and puck from their retirement night.
|Rangers defenseman Marc Staal joins a game of blackjack. Players like Staal were completely accessible to the fans in attendance on Monday at Gotham Hall. |
Perhaps the most popular Silent Auction item was a signed photo of the eight Rangers who have had their numbers retired. Graves, Bathgate, Howell, Gilbert, Giacomin, Mike Richter, Mark Messier and Brian Leetch were shown together in their jerseys, and each player had signed the photograph next to their own image. Another signed photo – an oversized image of Lundqvist shown making a save from the perspective of the in-goal camera – was also a big hit with bidders.
A special addition to the silent auction this year was a set of gift baskets prepared by the wives and girlfriends of select Rangers players. Each basket was intended to showcase items that had special meaning to the players in that group, which included Wade Redden
, Dmitri Kalinin, Sjostrom, Ryan Callahan
, captain Chris Drury, Markus Naslund and Lundqvist.
Lundqvist’s basket was the most noticeable, with a brand new guitar jutting out from the top. Other baskets included DVDs and movies, while one contained a package of beef jerky, among other items.
Once again, the centerpiece of the closing live auction was an opportunity to travel with the Rangers in the upcoming season. Micheletti announced the travel package for two, which included seats on the team plane, dinner with a Rangers player, a night in the Rangers hotel and tickets to the road game, a visit to the MSG broadcast booth and then another ride home with the team. The intense bidding on that item ended at $7,000, with all net proceeds going to Garden of Dreams Foundation.
Other live auction winning bids were $1,400 for Drury’s game-worn jersey from the third period of Graves Night, $2,700 for Lundqvist’s third-period jersey from the same game, $3,100 for the opportunity to sit with Rosen and Micheletti in the MSG broadcast booth during a game, $1,800 for a visit to the MSG Training Center that included lunch with Graves, $1,500 for an on-ice session with Graves and 24 guests at the Training Center and $2,000 for a four-person visit to the Rangers locker room immediately following a home game at MSG during the 2009-2010 season.
Casino Night 2009 concluded after three memorable hours, creating vivid memories for the hundreds who enjoyed the remarkably personal off-ice experience with Rangers players.
“It's a fun event where we can actually interact with the people and have some fun,” said Betts, summing up the evening. “It's an atmosphere where everybody kind of puts down their guard for a bit and kind of lets loose.”
For more information on the Garden of Dreams Foundation, visit the foundation’s web site at www.gardenofdreamsfoundation.org