As the season-opener vs. Tampa Bay neared, Rangers players were clearly focused on hockey this weekend – even more than on the unique location of their first game for the 2008-09 regular season.
|Backup goaltender Stephen Valiquette says the trip to Europe has been a "win-win" for both the Rangers players and the game of hockey. |
The Blueshirts have been in Europe since last Sunday and in Prague since Thursday morning. Being away from MSG is no longer a culture shock for any of the players. If anything, they are grateful for the chance to play in these historic events – the first two NHL regular-season games in the Czech Republic.
“It's a new experience for everyone here,” said Rangers defenseman Marc Staal
after Friday’s practice. “I never thought I'd be playing an NHL game in Europe, but it's been pretty exciting so far. It's a lot of fun.”
Forward Ryan Callahan
, also in his second full season with the Rangers, echoed Staal’s comments.
“When I first joined the Rangers, nobody had ever mentioned I might one day be playing in Europe, but I'm really glad that I'm on a team that gets a chance to do it, especially in the first season,” Callahan said. “It's going to be something special.”
While some Rangers, including Henrik Lundqvist
, Michal Rozsival and Petr Prucha, have actually played in the O2 Arena before, Staal, Callahan and backup goaltender Stephen Valiquette are paying their first visit to Prague.
Far more members of the Czech crowd are expected to be supporting the Rangers, who have a bigger following in the Czech Republic than most other NHL teams. Coming out of the lockout, there were seven Czechs on the Rangers roster, which helped build up interest in them overseas.
“I expect the crowd to be on their feet and excited for the game,” said Valiquette, who played one pro season in Russia. “It's going to be a true experience for these people in Prague, because they haven't seen an NHL game and it's going to be awesome.”
Fans have drawn notice from all of the Rangers, who could not help but notice the passion that Europeans have displayed for the Blueshirts. During two preseason games in Switzerland last week, there were numerous chants of “Let’s Go Rangers”. Even though players were deeply into the game, they could still hear those chants.
“Yeah, I definitely could hear it,” Callahan said of the pro-Rangers chant. “That was something cool. We're across the way, and we're hearing Let's Go Ranger chants, so it's pretty neat. ... I think they (the fans) are most excited just about the game itself. It seems like everywhere you go, you find a couple of Rangers fans. There's something special about playing for this team. There's fans everywhere. So I'm sure there will be few Rangers jerseys out there, and we're excited to see them.
Staal also heard the chants, which grew in volume during the third-period comeback victory over Metallurg Magnitogorsk on Wednesday night in Bern.
“I think it was after the game that they were chanting really loud. That's when I could really hear them. I also heard them a few times during the game once we started making our comeback,” said Staal. “That's a long trip to come see an exhibition game, but it just shows us how dedicated our fans are and how much they love this team, so it was really good to see.”
While the passion of Rangers fans – even in Europe – was never in doubt, Valiquette said the trip abroad has meant a great deal to the team itself. For the Blueshirts, the legacy of this trip might not be the historic appearance in Prague, but rather the bonding effect it had on the 2008-09 team.
“I believe this is a win-win for everybody,” Valiquette said of the Rangers’ travels. “We win as players and as coaches because we become closer. We get to spend 10 days with the new players on our team all the time. Team meals, walks, shopping, everything. And this is how we become a team. We feel so much closer now already, and it's almost like getting a head start on the other teams in the league. … there's camaraderie that's built on these types of trips. It's a great thing that we don't have to wait until November or December to have our first long trip.”