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Ex-Blueshirts get to take game outside

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
Leetch Part of "Skate to the Garden"

By Michael Hacku,

It was hockey outdoors -- the way nature intended it to be.  The weather was cold, but the Legends were smiling.

On Saturday evening at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., the Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Connecticut Whale, made some history by facing the Providence Bruins in what was called the Whale Bowl -- only the second outdoor game in the AHL’s 75 seasons. Providence went on to win 5-4 in an overtime shootout.

Prior to the AHL game, hockey fans had a chance to watch a historic outdoor Alumni Legends Game, featuring Boston Bruins and Hartford Whalers alumni. For New York Rangers fans, this was an opportunity to see a dozen former Blueshirts back on the ice.

Former NHLer Bob Crawford, who played 14 games for the Rangers in the mid-1980s, was one of seven ex-Blueshirts  on the Hartford Whalers alumni team.
Saturday’s memorable, 50-minute exhibition included Rangers Hall of Famer and Connecticut native Brian Leetch, who represented the Bruins Alumni in recognition of the one season he spent in Boston. The presence of Leetch – the greatest player ever to come out of Connecticut -- helped give the game a special aura.

"I was having fun out there," said Leetch after the Legends game ended in a 4-4 tie.  "I kept looking up and said 'I can't believe that's how much time is left.' It was a lot of fun, but it went too fast."

Joining Leetch as former Rangers on the Bruins Alumni team were Hall of Fame defenseman Brad Park and forwards Rick Middleton and Ken Hodge.

The Whalers Alumni included former Blueshirts Blaine Stoughton, Pat Verbeek, Bob Crawford, Chris Kotsopoulos, Jim Dorey, Mark Janssens and Ed Hospodar.

For many of the ex-NHL and WHA players, Saturday’s game brought back personal memories of playing on frozen neighborhood ponds as kids, reminding them why they fell in love with the game of hockey in the first place.

"There was (a pond) right near my neighborhood," said Leetech, who grew up down the road from Hartford in Cheshire.  "Today we were skating around, and guys were laughing and going 'Yep, same ruts.' There were leaves on the ice we were trying to get off and we said, 'That looks familiar.'"

The Leetch-led Bruins alumni got two goals from Ken Linseman and one each from Craig Janney and Canadian-born actor Cameron Bancroft, an honorary celebrity participant. Scoring for the Whalers legends were Yvon Corriveau, Verbeek and Ray Neufeld. Corriveau matched Linseman with a pair of goals, including the game-tying score with 3:30 remaining.

The second half of the game featured the legendary Hanson Brothers, of the hockey classic “Slap Shot.” That in itself, was a treat for hockey fans on a very cold and windy February evening.

Former Rangers forward Rick Middleton, who played without a helmet during a 14-season career that saw him score 988 points, did not wear one Saturday, but he found another way to keep his head warm.
"This is a whole different element. It's fun," said Leetch.  "All the guys in the locker room, as soon as we went in after the half and the Hansons were all dressed in their gear sitting there, everybody had big grins on their faces.  It was awesome."

For many of the players who don't skate very often, Saturday’s Legends Game was an easy invitation to accept. The fun wasn't just for the fans.

"It's the second time I've been on skates in over 20 years, and I'm going to have to start doing it again on a regular basis, that's for sure," said Chris Kotsopoulos, who broke into the NHL with the Rangers in 1980-81 before spending the next four years as a Whaler.

Leetch, who retired in 2006, is still seen regularly by Rangers fans in his role as an analyst on MSG Network. He also coaches his 10-year-old son Jack’s youth hockey team. The 42-year-old admitted that getting back on the ice on Saturday gave him brief thoughts of an NHL comeback.

"I've been out just long enough now just to think that I can come back and play.  But you forget how hard it is and how good everybody is, but if I could still do it, I'd be out there."

Leetch shared a special moment with fellow Rangers great Park when the two former Blueshirts captains started Saturday’s Legends Game as defense partners.  As Rangers, both players wore the now-retired No. 2 jersey, and as Bruins they shared No. 22. As a result, there was some confusion as to what number Leetch would wear on Saturday night, but in the end both he and Park agreed that sharing No. 22 again in Bruins jerseys was only appropriate. 

"(Brad's) always like 'You're taking my numbers wherever you go.'  So, (Rick) Middleton had called me and said 'What number do you want,' and I said whatever Brad doesn't want. That's the one I'm gonna take," said Leetch. "Brad said, 'No, he's wearing the same number I am' so we both wore the same thing out there. That was pretty cool."

Leetch won’t have to wait long to get back on the ice with former Blueshirts greats, since he is scheduled to be part of the Rangers Alumni team that will face the winner of the upcoming "Skate to the Garden" tournament on March 24 at The Garden. Adult hockey players interested in competing for the chance to play against Leetch, Adam Graves, Stephane Matteau and other former Rangers can register for "Skate to the Garden" up until the March 1 deadline.
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