At each year's regular-season home finale since 2000, the Rangers and their fans have engaged in one of the truly great team traditions -- the annual "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" ceremony.
After the final buzzer of the final home game, a group of just over 20 lucky fans comes out to one of the two bluelines to receive a signed jersey from Rangers players lined up at the opposite blueline. The event brings the player face-to-face with an admirer and the expressions on the faces of recipients -- as well as Rangers players themselves -- are priceless.
|Lifelong Rangers fan John Montalto will be participating in the April 9 "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" ceremony after being honored between periods on Thursday at MSG. |
Historically, "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" were given to randomly selected attendees at the final home game. Some recipients are still randomly selected, but for the past three seasons, fans have been given an opportunity to nominate deserving die-hard Rangers fans who are eligible to win tickets to the game and a spot in the ceremony.
So far in 2009-10, three Rangers fans have been pre-selected for the "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" ceremony as a result of their dedication to the team. The third winner, John Montalto of Neptune, N.J., was announced during the first intermission of Thursday night's game against Pittsburgh.
Winning a spot in the end-of-season event came as a surprise to Montalto, a lifelong Rangers fan who has also been a Season Subscriber since the 2000-01 season. Montalto has witnessed all nine of the past "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" ceremonies, and he can hardly believe he'll be part of this year's.
"It's certainly a fantastic thing that the Rangers do," Montalto said of the annual jersey giveaway. "I was actually thinking about nominating a friend of mine who went through a lot on 9-11. He's a Rangers fan and was the only fireman to survive the collapse of the command post that day. I had season tickets during that 2001-02 season, and I have always respected the Garden for what they did to honor the 9-11 victims."
One of the biggest thrills for montalto on Thursday night was a chance to receive an additional Rangers jersey from Nick Fotiu. Both Montalto and Fotiu grew up on Staten Island in the 1960s and 1970s, and Fotiu became a legend in the borough when he went on to play for the Rangers. Although they two never met, Fotiu and Montalto knew many of the same people, and one of Montalto's high school classmates was Fotiu's neighbor.
Montalto was a few years younger than Fotiu but no less passionate about playing hockey. A former goaltender who played competitively in Coney Island, he was forced to give up the game because his high school did not offer the sport.
"It really was my dream to be a hockey player," he said. " I used to play ice hockey or roller hockey every single day back in the early 1970s."
Introduced to hockey and Ranger fanaticism by his father, a New York City police officer, more than 40 years ago, Montalto regularly attended games with his parents as a youngster. His first game was a Rangers-Montreal matchup at the current Garden shortly after post-1967 expansion era began. He also was at Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals on May 11, 1972. That night, Bobby Orr's Boston Bruins beat the Blueshirts 3-0 to win the Cup.
"My dad always wanted us to leave the games with two minutes left so we could beat the crowd out of the building," said Montalto. "I'll never forget that we had to leave that game early, too. We already knew Boston was going to win, but I really wanted to see the Cup presented in person. Instead, I remember that on the way home I looked in a window of a building where a TV was playing and seeing Phil Esposito skating around with the Cup."
Montalto's all-time favorite Ranger, Rod Gilbert, played in that 1972 Stanley Cup Finals, and Montalto said the opportunity to meet and talk to No. 7 in and around The Garden during his adulthood has been a thrill. -- almost as great as the one he experienced in the mid-1990s, when he saw his own play on The Garden ice prior to a Blueshirts game.
"I'll never forget how we were going to The Garden that day and, as we crossed the street on Eighth Ave., we ran right into Rod Gilbert," Montalto said.
Asked what makes the Rangers fans so unique in the New York sports world, Montalto pointed to their undying loyalty.
"It's their dedication, I think, that makes Rangers fans stand out from all the other teams," he said. "I also love how unique the cheers at The Garden can be. Rangers fans have always been creative in the way they cheer at games."
Montalto and the other "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" participants will be receiving their jerseys from players immediately after the April 9 regular-season home finale vs. the Philadelphia Flyers.