The New York Rangers' first 100-point regular season since the 1993-94 Stanley Cup championship year was packed with memorable moments, but when team members look back on 2005-06, their fondest memories aren't limited to things that took place on the ice.
On Monday, as they said goodbye to teammates at the Madison Square Garden Training Center and began their off-seasons, several players said the thing they will remember most about 2005-06 was a preseason trip to West Point. In those few days, players began forging new friendships and relationships after a year without NHL hockey.
At West Point, the Rangers participated in team-building exercises and spent time with members of the U.S. Army. For a group of players who did not know each other well, this "boot camp" set the tone for a season that exceeded all expectations.
"My favorite memory from this season has got to be going up to West Point, by far," said forward Jason Ward, who went on to post best offensive numbers in 2005-06. "Because we were all coming from different places, I think it was a great idea to go there, and it will be something I'll remember for a long time."
Ward says a day out with U.S. Army Cadets helped all of the players "get in touch with the guys we didn't know and getting that feeling of being a team early in the year."
"We were all coming from different organizations," said Ward. "Usually you have a group of guys that kind of know each other, so having that type of camaraderie at the beginning of the year was definitely important."
Rookie Ryan Hollweg agreed that the Rangers organization made all the right moves in starting this season with the West Point trip. He also considers it an experience he'll remember for many years to come.
"It was just that we went into it not really knowing a lot of the guys, but everybody was so much closer once we came out and we felt more like a team once we were done," said Hollweg.
Goaltender Kevin Weekes was another player who enthusiastically recalled West Point.
"I'm always a big believer in the military. I like the way in which they do things, and I kind of have a similar type of mindset. I just think there are a lot of parallels between what they do and what we do as professional athletes. I think there's a lot that we can and did learn from them," said Weekes. "I just think that it was the right time to have that type of an experience. It just reinforced all the right things right from the beginning -- teamwork, accountability, responsibility."
Bonds that were formed at West Point came to fruition seven months later when the Rangers clinched their first playoff berth since 1997. Several players listed the playoff clincher among their top memories of the season.
"I think we all believed in each other at the beginning of the season and we knew we could do great things," said center Dominic Moore. "Obviously, a focus on the playoffs was our primary goal, but we also focused on working hard and doing the right things each and every game. We would let the other things take care of themselves, and to arrive there was a nice feeling."
The clinching game itself ended with a thrilling overtime shootout win against Philadelphia at Madison Square Garden.
"It was a pretty amazing game," said Moore. "It had been a long time coming for these fans, and they deserved nothing less than that. It felt great for us to be able to accomplish that for them."
Defenseman Tom Poti, who had been to the playoffs earlier in his career with Edmonton, said the April 4 game against the Flyers was also his favorite memory of the season.
"That was pretty special," said Poti. "I had been trying to do it (clinch a playoff berth) for a couple years here in New York and it was pretty special when we finally clinched."
Other players surveyed at the Training Center on Monday picked individual moments from the season as the memories they will cherish longest.
"I think (Marek) Malik's goal (in a 15-round shootout) is probably something I'll always remember," said Jed Ortmeyer. "That and just being a part of the success that guys like Jags and Petr (Prucha) and (Henrik) Lundqvist had in breaking records and stuff like that."
Weekes also mentioned the experience of playing on Messier Night as one of the season's highlights, and fellow goaltender Henrik Lundqvist
, a rookie who took the league by storm in 2005-06, said his best regular-season memory comes from even earlier in the year.
"I think the first two or three home games I played are what I'll remember the longest," Lundqvist said. "I got a few wins there. It was an amazing feeling to play in the Garden for the first time and to feel the excitement and the atmosphere."
And then, of course, there was the postgame on-ice salute to the fans. This gesture following home wins became a symbol of the team's success, and even for NHL veterans like Jason Strudwick, it was a thrilling ritual.
"I would say the thing I'll remember most about this year was going to center ice and raising our sticks for everybody after our wins," said Strudwick. "You got a sense that the fans were in the fight with us out there. It's a special thing. I'm sure other teams will copy it in the future and I know they do it in Europe, but I'd never seen it done in North America. It was kind of the first time a team had acknowledged the fans after every game. I think it was special."
Ironically, Strudwick wasn't sure he liked the idea of the on-ice salute when the subject arose early in the season, but a fellow defenseman helped convince him it was worth doing.
"It (the salute) was (Darius) Kasparaitis' idea. He's the one that brought it up," Strudwick recalled. "To be honest, some of the North American guys were a little bit resistant because it hasn't been done here before. But once we did it, I started to look forward to it after a win. Other teams can duplicate it, but it won't be as special as when the Rangers do it."