It has been 44 years since John Davidson and the Rangers first got to know one another, when a young goaltender two years removed from junior hockey came to New York City and found his home. On Wednesday, the Rangers not only brought J.D. home but handed him the keys to the hockey club, in a midday gathering at Madison Square Garden that had all the look of a press conference but all the feel of a family reunion.
When Davidson took the podium for the first time as the new President of the New York Rangers, the tears were welling in his eyes but the words came out first.
"Dreams do come true," Davidson said simply.
It was a dream day at the Garden on Wednesday, the Blueshirts welcoming home a man known to and beloved by generations of Ranger fans - and one who since leaving New York 13 years ago happens to have established himself as one of the most respected executives in the National Hockey League. All these years later, J.D. is a Ranger again, formally introduced on Wednesday as the 11th President in the history of a franchise that so obviously means as much to Davidson as he has meant to the franchise and its fans.
"New York is special. There's only one New York," Davidson said. "I can remember when I got here as a player, it was hard at first, because I didn't know. I grew up in Calgary, Alberta; I played two years in St. Louis and got traded. But once you figure it out, and it gets in your blood, it's there forever.
"It's a special place to win," the Rangers' new President said. "And that's what we plan on doing."
Video: John Davidson Press Conference
Flanked on a dais by his predecessor and longtime friend Glen Sather - the two were teammates in St. Louis for Davidson's rookie season in 1973-74 - as well as by Garden Executive Chairman and CEO James Dolan, General Manager Jeff Gorton and Head Coach David Quinn, Davidson spoke of his past in New York in the context of what excites him about his future here - for instance, the opportunity to pick nine times in next month's NHL Draft, including at No. 2 overall ("These are these are types of players that can help define a franchise," he said), as well as the culture that Gorton and Quinn have woven into the Rangers after just one season working together ("I can't tell you how important it is").
Davidson's first introduction to New York took place during the summer of '75, when a 22-year-old goaltender came over in a trade from St. Louis as a major piece of the Rangers' mid-'70s youth movement. He became a fan favorite in little time, and in the 1979 playoffs he put the Rangers on his broad shoulders and carried them into the Stanley Cup Final, the signature season of an injury-shortened playing career.
In the clinching game of the semifinal series against the Islanders, Davidson stopped 21 of 22 Islander shots in a 2-1 Game 6 win that ended with J.D. at the center of an ecstatic Ranger mob. The game was played 40 years ago almost to the day - May 8, 1979 - in the building where Davidson was reintroduced on Wednesday.
"I never really looked at it that way. Thank you for that," Davidson said when the game was brought up. "It's been quite a circle."
Davidson reminisced on that magical playoff run because of what it taught him about New York, and about Ranger fans, and the tantalizing prospect of winning in the biggest prize in the biggest city.
"That run was significant because of the feeling of what New York gave back to us," Davidson said. "I didn't know anything about what it would be like to capture the imagination of New York. It was out of this world for a young player who'd grown up in Western Canada in a great city in Calgary, and played a couple years in St. Louis. But to see a city of this magnitude turned onto our hockey club, it was something you can't explain."
Upon retiring after the 1982-83 season, Davidson spent 21 of the next 23 years in Ranger fans' living rooms, the familiar analyst voice on MSG Network in a broadcasting career that would land him in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He stepped away from broadcasting in 2006 to become President of the St. Louis Blues - "not at all" an easy decision, Davidson said on Wednesday - a role he held for six years before joining the Columbus Blue Jackets for the past seven seasons. Both the Blues and Blue Jackets finished last in the NHL standings the season before Davidson arrived; both have turned into regular playoff contenders, with the Blues set to play next week in their first Stanley Cup Final in 49 years.
"I went to St. Louis, I had to grow into trying to build a hockey club, the ups and downs of it, the frustration of it at times, and a lot of real positives at times. And the same with Columbus," Davidson said. "So when I come here, I've kind of been around the block a little bit. I think that can be helpful."
Video: J.D. Returns Home
Davidson's finished his tenure in Columbus overseeing a historic playoff upset, and the first series win in the Blue Jackets' 18-year history, a first-round sweep of the Presidents' Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning. He reiterated on Wednesday that there was only one conceivable career opportunity that could convince him to part with Columbus - the opportunity to return to where he and his wife, Diana, made their home for nearly three full decades; where they raised their family; where J.D. became an icon to generations of Ranger fans.
Quite simply, the chance to come home.
"I've lived here previously for 28 years, raised two daughters here, had a wonderful life," Davidson said. "Not a born New Yorker, but I think I became a New Yorker. It's always been in my blood.
"We were walking the streets last night, and my wife said, just, 'Does it feel like we didn't leave?' I said, 'Yeah. You're absolutely right. Like we didn't leave.'"