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By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
One of the great aspects of being a New York Rangers fan is the ability to look back over 84 years of tradition that only an Original Six NHL team can boast.
Many of the team's traditions date back to the first half of the 20th Century, while others took root after the move to the current Madison Square Garden in 1968. At the start of the current century, however, a new tradition was born, and a decade later it is one of the most touching annual player-fan moments in all of New York sports.
|Rangers defenseman Marc Staal signs his jersey for 26-year-old Stephen Tallman of Tampa, Fla. Despite living out of state, the New Jersey native Tallman remains a passionate Rangers fan. |
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Since 2000, the "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" ceremony that follows the final regular-season home game has brought fans and players together for a moment of mutual celebration. The tradition continued on Friday night at MSG, following a thrilling 4-3 victory over Philadelphia, when every Ranger who had played in the game -- as well as those who weren't in the lineup that night -- came onto the ice and presented their jerseys to a group of very lucky fans.
Over the past 10 years, more than 200 Rangers fans have had the honor of seeing a player remove his jersey, sign it, and hand it over to them. For the first several years of the event's history, the lucky fans were chosen at random from the 18,200 attending the final home game. Random selection continues, but more recently, fans have also had the opportunity to enter a contest in which deserving individuals are nominated for the honor.
One of this year's recipients came from as far away as Tampa, Fla. Stephen Tallman, a 26-year-old lifelong Rangers fan, was born in Flanders, N.J., where he developed a love of the team that stayed with him when he moved to Florida as a third-grader.
"My dad got me into the Rangers back in 1994," said Tallman. "I became a Rangers fan and then I moved with him to Florida when he got a job relocation. And I've just been a big fan ever since."
Living in Tampa, Tallman has never missed a Rangers-Lightning game at the St. Pete Times Forum, and he never misses a game on television.
"I buy the NHL Center Ice package every year at my house," he said. "... I kind of like to convert all of my friends who are not hockey fans and make them Rangers fans by default."
Tallman was one of the first Rangers fans to join Blueshirts United, something he said was a no-brainer for a fan like him.
“I love the Rangers, so I figured I had to do it (join BSU) because I love the Rangers,” he said. “The first time I ever saw the Blueshirts United promotion on the TV during a game, I ran right to my computer and signed up. I said if it's the Rangers and I can be closer to the club and feel like I'm a part of the Rangers, then I've got to do it.”
He never saw a game at Madison Square Garden until he was 24, when he arranged a special trip to New York just to see the Blueshirts. He has followed that up with many more trips, including the one for Friday's game, where he received a jersey from Marc Staal
, after winning the "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" contest for his remarkable support of the team.
"I can't tell you what this means to me," he said. "This is one of the most exciting things I've ever done. Ever."
Tallman certainly knows his hockey. He accurately predicted a Rangers victory on Friday and also showed a tremendous appreciation for Staal after the game as he admired the jersey he had received.
"Getting Marc Staal
is a dream come true," said Tallman. "He's going to be one of the franchise players for us. He hasn't been here that long, but when you see him out there, you know he's been one of the best players for us. He's going to be here for 10 to 15 years to come, and it's really a dream come true to get the jersey from a franchise player like him. He's going to be like a Brian Leetch or a Norris Trophy winner in the future."
Meeting the players as part of the ceremony is a big highlight of the experience. Tallman said the opportunity to have a brief chat with Staal was as exciting as the opportunity to leave the building with his jersey.
"I thanked him for the jersey and thanked him for the great game," said Tallman. "He thanked me for being a fan."
Tallman is also a member of the Blueshirts United Fanatics Club. Fellow Fanatics Club member, Anna-Lisa Matteson of Peekskill, N.Y., was also among the jersey recipients as a winner of the contest. Matteson, who was nominated by her husband, Doug, has been an avid fan since the early 1970s and has worked a second job to help pay for her family's trips to about eight Rangers games per season.
"You have no idea how shocked I was when my husband told me that I won this," Matteson said of being picked to take part in the postgame ceremoney. "I have been a Rangers fan since I was in like sixth grade. My dad came from Canada. He was a Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs fan, and he got me into watching hockey."
Among Matteson's most prized possessions in the Rod Gilbert autographed stick her husband gave her roughly 15 years ago. The Matt Gilroy jersey she received at the "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" ceremony is sure to rank right up there with it.
Indeed, she watched the "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" ceremony for years and felt great envy for the other fans on the ice.
"I was so jealous watching all the time, and I never though I would be part of it. I'm still saying I really can't believe I won," she said.
Two others who receive Blueshirts at the ceremony were contest winners Shane Ugliono and Joe Rivera.
Ugliono, a longtime hockey player and Rangers fan, was serving in Iraq two years ago when insurgents attacked his unit and killed three of his fellow soldiers. Ugliono, who nearly lost his left arm, survived but required a long stay at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. One of the things that kept Ugliono's spirits up during his recovery was his love of the Rangers and the determination that he would one day be able to play hockey again.
Ugliono received the No. 26 jersey from Rangers forward Erik Christensen on Friday night.
Rivera, a retired New York City police officer who was a first responder during the Sept. 11 tragedy, dedicates his life to helping others. One of the few times he allows himself to relax is when watching Rangers games with his family. Now working with the NYCTA/MTA Department of Security, Rivera had been nominated for "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" by his wife, Janine.
He received a jersey from Jody Shelley on Friday. Shelley had worn the jersey when he scored his first goal as a Blueshirt in the 4-3 win over the Flyers.
John Montalto, a Rangers Season Subscriber since the 2000-01 season, has been at countless games over the past 10 years, but he said there has never been a moment like the one he experienced in receiving Olli Jokinen's jersey on the ice after the win over the Flyers.
"It was an amazing experience," Montalto said. "I'm a lifelong fan who has been coming to the Garden since 1967. It was a great game and a great experience."