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The very raw memories of a tragic day

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
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Video: Current Rangers Honor New York's Heroes

By Dan David,

No one who lived through this date 10 years ago will ever forget where they were when it became apparent that the United States was under attack by international terrorists.

On a day when so many of their fellow New Yorkers -- and some of their biggest fans -- lost their lives at the World Trade Center site, Rangers players were at Madison Square Garden preparing for their 2001-02 NHL season. Training camp had just opened, and for the first time in team history the Blueshirts were going to spend their first few days of the camp at The Garden, enabling fans to observe their practices.

A special guide book had been printed for fans who would attend the events at MSG. On the first page of the book was an open letter from Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather, welcoming guests and expressing his own excitement for the special sessions at MSG.

Rangers captain Mark Messier wore one of the Sept. 11 victims' helmets during the emotional ceremony that preceded the Rangers' 2001-02 home opener against the Sabres at Madison Square Garden.
The welcome letter was dated Sept. 10, 2001.

Who could have known what was about to happen? Who could have known what sacrifices were about to be made?

At the time the Rangers first decided to hold the training camp sessions at MSG, the initial plan was for players to stay in a hotel adjacent to the World Trade Center complex. In May 2001, however, that plan was changed and three hotels located closer to The Garden were chosen.

The Rangers organization could feel how fortunate it was to have made such a hotel switch and was determined from the outset to help the city cope with this horrible tragedy that had taken New York by complete surprise.

The 9/11 catastrophe was painful for every American, but its impact on New York was monumental. Most of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day were residents of the Tri-State area. Many of its greatest heroes were New Yorkers, too – the first responders who rushed to the World Trade Center site to help save others. Hundreds never returned, as the devastation at Ground Zero claimed the lives of 343 firefighters, 37 Port Authority officers and 23 city police officers.

The tragedy also hit home for several members of the Rangers family. Former Blueshirts star and then executive Don Maloney lost his brother-in-law. Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch lost a close friend.

"It's not part of a movie. It's part of our life now," Leetch said when asked about the tragedy.

Several Rangers players, including captain Mark Messier and goaltender Mike Richter, were among the first New York athletes to visit Ground Zero.

"It's such an enormous thing it's hard to put into perspective," said Richter at Ground Zero. "The scale of the destruction is the biggest thing that hits you. Those buildings were 1,400 feet high and now there's pieces of rubble and the rest was pulverized. One of the reasons why it's so hard is that in our lifetime there is nothing to gauge this against. The theory that we can protect ourselves has been tested and broken. It's not paranoia anymore, it's reality."

The Rangers moved their training camp back to Rye, N.Y., and the NHL pushed the start of its preseason back by three days, canceling 22 exhibition games, including two involving the Blueshirts.

One of the prevailing sentiments throughout the country in the wake of Sept. 11 was not to allow the terrorists to feel that they had won. America fought back in many ways, and one of them was to overcome the fear that enemies had tried to instill by showing the world that the nation would rebound.

"You wonder when is it okay to laugh again. You need a break from the gravity of it," Richter said as the city was still reeling from its loss. "Wall Street people going back to work Monday was comforting to me. Now, athletes hae a role in getting back to living life."

The first local sports teams to return to work -- and help make the statement that terrorists could not change the country's way of life -- were the Rangers and New Jersey Devils, who met in an emotional preseason game on Sept. 19 at The Garden. The passion of Rangers fans could not be denied. Despite the fear associated with a mass gathering that could invite more terrorism, thousands of True Blue fans came to The Garden that night to reconnect with something that could never be taken away from them.

The MSG dasher boards were cleared of all advertising on Sept. 19, 2001. Instead the boards displayed a statement: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of all the injured and lost, New York's Finest and Bravest, and all volunteers."

Fans at the game waved little paper American flags, and the Rangers and Devils players wore a ribbon patch on their shoulders as well as NYPD and FDNY stickers on backs of helmets. There was a moment of silence to remember the victims, and then John Amirante sung "God Bless America" as the fans chanted "USA, USA". It was an emotional moment that inspired all who were there.

The following night, the Rangers played at Philadelphia. During the game, President George W. Bush gave a nationally televised speech about how the U.S. would pursue all those terrorists who had authored Sept. 11 and would make fighting international terrorism a priority going forward.

The speech was shown on the arena scoreboard, and when Bush came on the air, the game came to a temporary halt. Fans and players watched the President together.

"This has been an awakening," said Messier. "The way we do things will change. But to say we'll never feel confident again, never is a long time. And I think it is important we establish freedom again in our everyday lives. The point has been made a lot about going back to work as a little way of showing we are fighting back. More important, it says a lot about our confidence in our government and leadership, the people responsible for our safety and security."

Messier would take on an even more emotional role in the city's reaction to Sept. 11 just one month later when the Rangers played their their 2001-02 regular-season home opener against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 7.

Rescuers were still digging through the rubble when the 2001-02 NHL season began, and in the face of such tragedy, the Rangers-Sabres game might have seemed of little consequence, but it was also a necessary step in the national healing process. Life had to go on in the great city, and for many New Yorkers, hockey was a big part of life.

The game of hockey has long held a special place in the hearts of so many New York firefighters and police officers, and the 30-minute ceremony prior to that Rangers-Sabres game was a truly stirring event that can never be forgotten. It began with the FDNY and NYPD hockey teams skating onto the ice and forming a tunnel for the 2001-02 Rangers to skate through during player introductions.

As the players came out, they took their places at the blue line, where they would stand through the remainder of the ceremony. Messier, did not wear his helmet onto the ice that night, taking his place in the line bareheaded.

As the FDNY hockey team watched the ceremony unfold, a very dear friend was on their minds. Ray Downey, the FDNY's Chief of Special Operations who perished at Ground Zero but whose death was still not officially confirmed at the time, was both a founding member of the FDNY hockey team and a passionate Rangers fan.

The highest-ranking FDNY official to die on 9/11, Downey was beloved by fellow firefighters, who told countless stories about how much hockey meant to him. To give him a presence at the ceremony, the team had brought his fire helmet with his picture tucked into the front of its brim.

Noticing that Messier was bareheaded, FDNY hockey co-captain Larry McGee of Engine 66 in the Bronx had a spontaneous idea.

"I said to the other captain on our team, 'Gimme that hat. He'll wear it,'" McGee told a reporter after the ceremony. "Everyone laughed and thought I was out of my mind, but I skated over and gave it to Messier."

A bold move, indeed, even for a firefighter.

"It was all done on a whim and I didn't want to embarrass (Messier)," said McGee. "I introduced myself and told him who Ray Downey was and that it would be an honor if he would wear the helmet. He was a perfect gentleman. He said, 'Sure, whatever you need.' If there was one man worthy of wearing that helmet and paying tribute to Ray, it was Mark Messier."

A visibly touched Messier donned the helmet. He flashed his famous smile as the Garden erupted in cheers.

The ceremony continued with a video tribute to the 9/11 victims and those who had worked so valiantly to rescue them. This was followed by the introduction of some true New York heroes directly affected by the attack, a group that included Port Authority Canine Unit officer David Lim, Local 40 ironworker Gene Flood, Local 14 operating engineer Robert Gray, Ladder 24 firefighter Brian Thomas and NYPD Emergency Services officer Lt. John Murphy.

Then Messier took the microphone and addressed the crowd, pledging that the Rangers would dedicate their 2001-02 season to the first responders of New York City.

"We dedicate this entire season, from the top of the organization on down, to you," he said.

Fittingly, the Rangers went out and beat the Sabres 5-4 in overtime that night. Messier set up the game's first goal.

While the OT victory closed an emotional evening on a happy note, it was only the start of the Rangers' participation in the city's post-9/11 healing. They continued to honor victims and heroes throughout the season, and months later, following the 2001-02 home finale, Messier gave the Blueshirt off his back to Rosalie Downey, Ray Downey's widow.

A decade later, the memories of 9/11 are still vivid, and the sacrifices of the victims will never be forgotten. At the same time, there are also memories of those important first steps back toward moving forward without fear in a changed world. Sports fans in general, and Rangers fans in particular, were among the first to answer that call.
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