Rangers coach Tom Renney displays a Rangers jersey with a special Puerto Rican flag patch.
In their next preseason game on Saturday evening, the Rangers will make NHL history by becoming one of the league's first two teams to play an exhibition game in Puerto Rico.
Already 2-0 in the seven-game preseason, the Blueshirts face the Florida Panthers at 7:30 p.m. in San Juan's Coliseo de Puerto Rico (Coliseum of Puerto Rico). The arena, opened in 2004, is the only major sports facility in Puerto Rico capable of hosting such a hockey game, and this will be the NHL's first opportunity to showcase its players for a local audience.
Saturday's game was more than six months in the making. Representatives of MB Sports, the largest sports promoter in Puerto Rico, contacted the NHL about hosting an exhibition game on the heels of the company's success organizing the 2006 World Baseball Classic. MB Sports was also responsible for bringing several Montreal Expos home games to the island in 2004.
MB Sports marketing executive Anna Munoz said the company was particularly interested in having the Rangers visit Puerto Rico because of the large number of New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent. Because of this connection, the New York teams tend to be very popular in Puerto Rico, where both the Yankees and Mets have a significant fan base.
"MB Sports is committed to bringing pro sports to the island," said Munoz. "Our intent is to bring this type of event every year for people to enjoy. So, we approached the NHL, talked with them and made it happen."
Munoz said the Rangers-Panthers game is drawing major media attention in Puerto Rico, where reporters are covering everything from the creation of the ice surface itself to the Rangers' plans to visit a local children's hospital. She also said that 2,600 tickets are being provided to local kids from low-income neighborhoods.
One of the NHL's goals in sending teams to Puerto Rico is to help spread a love for the game in an area not traditionally exposed to it. Munoz said there is only one public rink on the island, and it is mostly used for figure skating. The Rangers-Panthers game, however, has helped spark a new interest in hockey, and a youth league is in the process of being organized.
Rangers head coach Tom Renney is excited about this weekend's opportunity and would make an effort to play as many of the team's well-known veterans for this new audience.
"Any time hockey can reach out and touch people to bring them enjoyment, I think it's a good thing," said Renney at a news conference prior to Wednesday night's Rangers-Devils preseason game at Madison Square Garden.
Renney added that he saw the trip to Puerto Rico as a way of bringing the players together by sharing a "really exciting moment" in their hockey careers.
With Kevin Weekes nursing a groin injury, goaltender Al Montoya, who is fluent in Spanish, will also go to Puerto Rico for the game in San Juan.
Montoya, a native of Chicago, is on track to become the first Cuban-American player in NHL history and could become a popular role model for young Latino sports fans.
Renney said he was confident that the Rangers players making the trip would do everything they could to make a connection with local fans and help grow an appreciation for hockey in a non-traditional market. Munoz said she was happy to have the Rangers' support in such a venture.
"Puerto Ricans are really passionate about sports," Munoz said. "I think we are really breaking the ice here."
The game will air live on MSG Network, which is also available in Puerto Rico.