|Dylan McIlrath, the 18-year-old WHL defenseman selected by the Rangers with their first-round draft choice last month, looks up at the Empire State Building during his first official tour of New York.
• BUS TOUR PHOTO GALLERY
• Rangers Got Their Man in McIlrath
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
Being drafted into the NHL is exciting enough for any 18-year-old hockey player, but going to the hometown team of the league's largest city makes the experience even more remarkable.Dylan McIlrath
, a hard-hitting defenseman picked 10th overall by the Rangers at last month's draft, grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba -- a significant Canadian city that is still less than one-tenth the size of New York. Prior to being drafted, McIlrath had never visited the Big Apple.
Since the draft, McIlrath has already been to the city multiple times, but if he thought he had any idea of how big the city is after those first visits, he got much better sense of its scope from the top of a Gray Line Double-Decker Bus on Wednesday as part of a sightseeing tour he said he will never forget.
McIlrath, fellow Rangers defense prospect Dan Maggio, and Blueshirts legend Adam Graves were the guests of honor Wednesday as 10 lucky fans joined them for the young players’ first official tour of New York. The 10 fans included five winners of a sweepstakes in which entrants had suggested specific locations to show McIlrath from the bus.
Each of the five winners was able to bring a guest on this unique, two-hour drive from Madison Square Garden down to Battery Park and then back up to Times Square. Winners could point out the sightseeing locations they had chosen as they personally welcomed both young players to New York.
"These fans are so passionate," McIlrath said after the bus trip. "They really know a lot about the game."
McIlrath's reaction to the close contact with Rangers fans hardly surprised Graves.
"I think for him it was a little bit of an eye-opener," said Graves. "You hear about Rangers fans and you hear about their passion, but he got to experience it firsthand and to see their absolute love for the game of hockey. He got to sit there amongst people who are so gracious in supporting us and hear them talk about the team and their passion for their team, and the direction of the team, and their hope for a championship in the future."
There were four ways for fans to enter the sweepstakes -- via Facebook, Twitter, text-messaging, and newyorkrangers.com. Thousands of entries came in, but only five were chosen.
Winner Ann Marie Schubert's location was Madison Square Park, site of the original Madison Square Garden. Gary Berkson, a Facebook entrant, chose Greenwich Village. Michael Smith, who has his own blog and entered on Twitter, suggested Ground Zero, and Erica Schlesinger picked the Canyon of Heroes, where she hopes to one day see McIlrath taking part in a Rangers Stanley Cup parade.
Perhaps the most memorable moment in the tour was a stop suggested by firefighter Mike Vindigny, a longtime Rangers fan and Season Subscriber. Vindigny is stationed at the historic Engine 7, Ladder 1 firehouse on Duane Street, just a few blocks north of Ground Zero, and he was there on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center.
"I have been here just over nine years, and we were probably the only firehouse from midtown all the way downtown where everybody survived (Sept. 11),” said Vindigny. “… The firehouse itself is well over 100 years old in this location, serving this neighborhood. Ladder Company 1 was the first organized ladder company in the New York City Fire Department.”
Vindigny, who learned about the sweepstakes through a Rangers Insider e-mail alert, wanted McIlrath, Maggio and Graves to meet his firefighters and tour the station that was featured in the remarkable 2002 documentary film titled "9/11". Thrilled firefighters posed for pictures with their guests.
|New York firefighter Mike Vindigny talks to Rangers great Adam Graves at the historic Engine 7, Ladder 1 firehouse. Vindigny won a seat on the bus tour as part of a sweepstakes that drew thousands of entries. |
• MORE PHOTOS
"Most of the guys that came up to us right away were Rangers fans," said Vindigny. "I have season tickets, so I'm always grabbing one of the guys from work to go up to a game. For the games we miss or the away games, we go over to Sean Avery
's Warren 77, which is just a couple blocks away."
After leaving Engine 7, Ladder 1, the bus headed for Ground Zero. Taking the microphone from the tour leader, Michael Smith told McIlrath and Maggio that this was an extremely emotional place for New Yorkers, and that if they are going to be part of the city's fabric as hockey players one day, they should experience it now, early in their careers.
"I love New York, so I really wanted the opportunity to come here and meet these two young guys," said Smith. "I knew I could show them that this is a city unlike any other."
A Rangers fan since he was "6 or 7 years old", Smith said he is particularly excited about having McIlrath in the team's future.
"I was actually struck by how young he (McIlrath) is even though I'm young myself," Smith said. "He's got a lot of potential, and the Rangers are really putting together a good core of young, talented players. It's just exciting to have that promising future right around the corner."
After seeing more of lower Manhattan, including the Canyon of Heroes, the entire group headed up to Times Square and capped the evening off with dinner at John's Pizzeria.
"Checking out the city with the fans has been a neat experience I won't forget," said McIlrath. "Every street is packed with people, and there were so many sights that it was tough to get it all in. I'm just really looking forward to being part of New York."
McIlrath and Maggio weren't the only ones awed by trip. Graves, a part of New York since his arrival in 1991, said he exited the bus with a new perspective on both the city and the two young Rangers draftees.
"Even when you've been around and been part of New York for a couple of decades, it's still overwhelming to get on a tour like that and realize the history and detail and why things are the way they are," said Graves. " ...To see these young guys wide eyed, taking it all in and really enjoying the experience is what it's all about. There's not a better place to play than New York City and being a Ranger, and this is all part of it."