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Reunion nights bring fans, legends together

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
Rules changes have made this year's NHL somewhat different from the old-time hockey many longtime Garden Faithful remember. So it's hard not to wonder if popular Rangers of the past would have been comfortable playing in this new era.

On Tuesday night, four former Rangers were reunited in the lobby of the Theater at Madison Square Garden, and just as they were known for giving it all on the ice, they didn't hold back when sharing their opinions of the game today.

"I like most of the new rules, but I really don't like all the penalties they're calling" said Pete Stemkowski, who played center for the Blueshirts from 1970 to 1977. "This is a contact sport, and some of these penalties ... well, I think there should be more discretion. ... And the other thing I'm kind of dubious about is the shootout. I know a lot of fans love it, but I really think this is a team sport. You don't decide a football game by having the two kickers come out for a field-goal kicking contest. Let them play more overtime, but keep it a team sport. The shootout is the one rule I'm not crazy about."

Gilles Villemure, who shared the Rangers goaltending duties with Hall of Famer Eddie Giacomin in the early 1970s, had a very different opinion than Stemkowski, a teammate on the Rangers squad that fell to Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins in the 1972 Stanley Cup Finals.

"As a goaltender, I love the shootout," said Villemure. "They're great. And the other rule I'm really happy about is the change in the size of the goaltenders' equipment. Those guys in the last season looked way too big for me. The equipment is fair right now."

The back-and-forth banter, covering a wide range of topics, highlighted the Rangers organization's second Season Subscriber Reunion Night of the 2005-06 season. Stemkowski and Villemure were joined by 16-year Rangers defenseman Ron Greschner and New York native Brian Mullen, who spent four seasons with the team after having been its stick boy as a teen.

The event, held Tuesday night prior to the Rangers' game against the Buffalo Sabres, brought together 200 True Blue fans who have held their season subscriptions for 20 years or more. The Season Subscriber Reunion Nights, a new feature this season, were developed in response to requests from season ticket-holders who wanted the chance to meet and greet some of their favorite players from the past. An earlier event featured Villemure and 1994 Stanley Cup champion Glenn Anderson, and up to four more gatherings are in the works for the remainder of the year.

Attendees on Tuesday were treated to drinks and hors d'oeuvres, as well as autograph sessions with all four special guests. In this room of die-hard Rangers fans, it was just as easy to find people recalling the 1972 Cup Finals or the day in 1975 when Giacomin returned to Madison Square Garden as it was to find them talking about the team's playoff hopes for 2006.

The highlight of the evening was a question-and-answer session with the former Rangers, followed by a raffle for memorabilia signed by members of the current team.

Mike Golub, the Rangers' Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Operations, served as the emcee for the lively Q-and-A session, and he asked each of the four former Rangers what they thought of the 2005-06 squad.

Mullen, a forward, was quick to single out his favorite player on the current team.

"I love Petr Prucha," said Mullen, who scored 100 goals in 307 games with the Rangers. "I was amazed by the kid. He's got a lot of talent."

Villemure fielded a question about another Rangers rookie - goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

"He looks awful good to me," said the former Vezina Trophy winner. "I like the way he plays the game. He's very quick with his feet. I think he's going to be a superstar one day."

When it came to talking about defense, there was no better person to ask than Greschner, a former Rangers captain who retired with team records for goals, assists and points by a defensemen (records later broken by Brian Leetch).

"The reason this team is in the top five or six right now is because of the goaltender," Greschner said. "But this whole team goes out and works hard. The defense is mobile. The only problem they have is that the new rules have made it tough to touch anybody in front of the net. It seems like you get a penalty for touching!"

Guests at the event asked a wide range of questions, covering everything from the new salary cap to Game 6 of the 1979 Stanley Cup playoff semifinals against the heavily-favored Islanders, an unforgettable classic in which Greschner played a major role.

"That whole series felt like it happened in five minutes," Greschner said of one of the great upset victories in Rangers history, when the team ousted the Isles from Cup contention. "The lslanders had a great team, but John Davidson played just great. J.D. won it for us. Without John, we'd have all been fishing after that series, because we didn't play golf in the summers back then."

Mullen was asked about growing up in New York City in the 1970s and making it to the NHL against all odds.

"Ice time was really tough to get," Mullen recalled. "There was only one rink in Manhattan. It was Skyrink, and it was owned by figure skaters. They would only let hockey players use the rink between 11:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. So our team (the New York Westsiders) skated at 3:45 am. I then came home and had to go to school. The thing that really helped was roller hockey. We didn't play on inline skates, we played on the old quad skates. But roller hockey really helped so much with the skills."

Only one question drew the same answer from all four former players. Asked to single out their proudest moment with the team, they men agreed it was the day they skated in a regular-season NHL game with the Rangers. At the same time, they couldn't help but reflect on how much times had changed since those days.

"Today, you go in the locker room and you see a whole bunch of stationary bikes - and you see guys riding them right after the games," said Stemkowski. "When I was playing, we had only one stationary bike in the locker room, and that''s where we hung our coats."
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