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Toy Drive a night of fan appreciation

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

By Dan David,

Fans who would like to come face-to-face with the Rangers stars of tomorrow should probably make a habit of attending the team's Holiday Toy Drive to benefit the U.S. Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program.

The 18th annual Toy Drive was held on Tuesday evening at the Theater Lobby at Madison Square Garden, and for the third straight year, it featured a chance to collect the autograph of a very promising Blueshirts rookie.

In 2009 that rookie was defenseman Michael Del Zotto. Last season, it was center Derek Stepan. This year it was winger Carl Hagelin, the former University of Michigan star and recent call-up from Connecticut, who registered points in each of his first four NHL games.

Rangers defenseman Jeff Woywitka looks on as rookie Carl Hagelin signs an item for a fan at the 18th annual Rangers Holiday Toy Drive on Tuesday at the Theater Lobby at Madison Square Garden.
Asked if his presence at the Toy Drive might be a sign that he is on his way to the NHL success that both Del Zotto and Stepan have already enjoyed, Hagelin smiled.

"It's fun to be here," he said." I'm just trying to make the most out of it by working hard every day and trying to help the team win games. Then we'll see what happens."

One thing that instantly impressed Hagelin upon reaching the NHL was the passion of the Rangers fans. Although the 23-year-old from Sweden knew all about die-hard sports fans from his years at Michigan, the former Wolverines co-captain said he has been amazed by the True Blue spirit of so many New Yorkers he has met, including the hundreds who lined up for his autograph on Tuesday. In exchange for the signatures of Hagelin and four other Rangers, fans donated an unwrapped toy to Toys for Tots.

"It's amazing to see all the fans and how dedicated they are and how much they love the team," Hagelin said. "Hockey isn't the biggest sport in the U.S., but here in New York, the fans really love this team.”

At the Toy Drive, Hagelin was already experiencing what Blueshirts legend Adam Graves often refers to as the "privilege of being a Ranger."

"When I see young guys like Carl Hagelin and others who haven't yet had the opportunity to interact with our fans and be part of the community coming out to this, it's a big thrill for me," said Graves" "At the end of the day, we take for granted that there's going to be something under the tree for all the kids out there, but that's not necessarily the case. So to be part of a night like tonight -- that's the privilege of being a Ranger and playing in New York.

“It's not only the support you get playing at the Garden, which is obviously unbelievable, but it's equally as unbelievable at any  event or anything you're doing in the city. And that's what makes it so special to be a Ranger and play here."

Graves embraced New York when he arrived in the city more than 20 years ago and was a driving force behind the first annual Rangers Holiday Toy Drive in 1994. Coming off a Stanley Cup championship, Graves and his teammates helped to organize and promote an event that became a local hockey tradition.

"I love seeing the people here," Graves said he looked around the Theater Lobby on Tuesday. "They are people that I consider friends. They are people that I've gotten to know over the years, who have been coming here and supporting the kids and bringing presents.”

Graves was one of three former Rangers stars at this year’s Toy Drive. Hockey Hall of Famer Rod Gilbert and fellow Blueshirts alumnus Brian Mullen also stopped by this year’s event. They mingled with the fans, took photos, signed autographed and even took part in a little stickhandling drill with some of the youngsters in attendance.

Over the past 18 holiday seasons, Rangers fans have donated tens of thousands of toys to Toys for Tots, and dozens of players have been there to thank them with an autograph. The support of the fans has continued to grow each year with approximately 800 fans lining up at this year’s event. As they waited in line for their autographs, fans were kept entertained by a magician and a juggler with a talent for riding unicycles. 

Rangers legend Adam Graves, who has been a part of the annual Toy Drive since Day 1 in 1994, poses with the lucky recipient of a team-autographed stick.
Tuesday was no exception. Many fans didn't simply bring the requisite one toy -- they brought several. One guest came lugging a large bag filled with footballs, basketballs and a wide range of items that far exceeded the number of autographs he stood to collect.

"The fans here are excited to come see the players, but at the same time I think they're just as excited to donate a toy to a less fortunate child," said veteran Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi, who was on hand for his third Toy Drive on Tuesday. "It's such a great event and I'm glad to be a part of it again."

A total of five current Rangers took part in the autograph sessions. Hagelin opened up signing alongside defenseman Jeff Woywitka and then stayed on for an additional session with Girardi. Forwards Ruslan Fedotenko and Artem Anisimov signed in the last of the three one-hour autograph periods.

"It's exciting for me being in New York. The fans are passionate here, and it's good to give back to the community, the city and kids who don't otherwise get toys," said Woywitka, who came to the Rangers this fall after having played in both St. Louis and Dallas. "The support out here has been tremendous and it was fun to be here. The fans come up and talk to you. They know the game of hockey and they know all about our team."

The first 16 Toy Drives were held in outdoor locations around the city. For the past two years, the setting has been indoors, and the Theater Lobby offers fans an opportunity to engage in other activities besides autograph and photo sessions. On Tuesday, the Lobby was filled with games (air hockey, bubble hockey, and the Rangers Road Tour's Slap Shot booth, to name just a few. There were also a caricaturist, face-painting stations, and an opportunity to talk to Santa Claus, who was wearing a Rangers jersey, of course, as he roamed the lines to distribute a little holiday cheer and candy canes.

Players enjoy the intimate atmosphere as much as those who came to see them.

"They're very, very passionate fans, and that's why we love them," said Girardi. "They're just so excited and they're always happy to see us, and they just want to talk about everything that has to do with hockey. It's great to come out and relax and have some fun."

Graves said the opportunity to be part of a larger community and interact with fans is one of the reasons the team has been able to attract some of the league's top free agents.

"The best evidence of what it means to be Ranger and what it means to play in New York is when you have some of the best guys in the game like Brad Richards who want to be a Ranger and want to come to New York," said Graves. "That's not by accident. They know what it's like from word of mouth and talking to people that have played here – as far as being a Ranger and the reputation that the fans have and the city has and playing at the Garden here. It's not just on the ice. It's also in the community and anything that you do. And I think that's the greatest compliment that can be made to Rangers fans -- is that there are so many great players around the league that want to be a Ranger."

By the end of the evening, one could hear the fans yelling thanks to players, while many took the time to stop event staff members and let them know how much the enjoyed the night. 

Woywitka said that all of the Rangers value the fans' passion at off-ice events such as the Toy Drive as well as in the arena.

"The intensity that goes along with playing in New York has been awesome," said Woywitka. "When we score a goal or when we come out for warm-up, you can just hear the crowd and feel the energy in the building. I think that's something that really gives us an advantage -- knowing that we've got fans like that who are behind us. We're thankful for that."
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