Tuesday, December 23, 2014

How to Be a Devils Fan at Madison Square Garden -- 2014-15 Edition


December 23, 1992, 22 years ago today (at least 5 years later than I should have): I attended my first live National Hockey League game.

I've been a New Jersey Devils fan from Day One, the day it was announced that the Colorado Rockies (whose name was taken by the expansion baseball team 10 years later) were moving to New Jersey, May 27, 1982 (which would later the anniversary of both "Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!" and "Henrique, it's over!"). However, that 1st game was not at the Brendan Byrne Arena at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford. Nor, of course, was it at the as-yet-unthought-of Prudential Center in Newark.

It was at Madison Square Garden in Midtown Manhattan. The Devils were the visiting team. The home team, of course, was the New York Rangers.

The Devils fell behind, 4-1. And won, 5-4. Stephane Richer, a man who played so well against the Rangers he even scored on them on an episode of Seinfeld, scored twice, including the overtime winner, a laser beam that John Vanbiesbrouck still hasn't seen.

Needless to say, I got out of The Garden real fast. The home fans were not happy customers. Well, to hell with their feelings. They don't care about ours.

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There are certain requirements to being a Devils fan:

* You have to love hockey.

* You have to love New Jersey, and be ready to defend your home State against all who would insult it.

* You have to hate Rangers.

* You have to hate the Philadelphia Flyers, although giving them a grudging respect is permitted.

With regard to the Rangers, a.k.a. The Scum:

* You have to remind them that they don't get to talk about "history" when they've won the Stanley Cup just once since Pearl Harbor, while we've won it 3 times since Oklahoma City. They don't get to brag about being an "Original Six" team when the Six weren't really original, and that 7 Cups have been won by "Original Six" teams since they last won it.

* You have to explain why Henrik Lundqvist is no "king," and will never be as good a goaltender as Martin Brodeur was.

* You have to explain why Mark Messier was never as good a Captain, and Brian Leetch was never as good a defenseman, as Scott Stevens was.

* You have to explain why Claude Lemieux was a real player, while Sean Avery was never anything more than a classless thug.

* And, eventually, at least once, you have to go into the belly of the beast, Madison Square Garden, and see the Devils play the Rangers.

The Devils go into The Garden this Saturday night. At the rate both teams are going, the experience could get ugly -- for reasons that have nothing to do with the physical appearance of either The Scum (the Rangers) or the Scummers (Rangers fans).

(And, in case you're wondering: I've adopted the terms "The Scum" -- always Capital T, Capital S -- for your team's arch-rivals, and "Scummers" for their fans, from English soccer. If you don't like to see a sports-themed blog with that kind of language in it, too goddamned bad.)

Follow these directions, and, most likely, you will get in, see the game, and get out in one piece.

Before You Go. This game is in the same metropolitan area, so the weather will not be noticeably different upon your arrival than when you left your residence. Saturday is currently forecast to be in the low 50s in daylight, and the high 30s at night. You'll need a winter jacket, but you won't have to bundle up too much.

Nor will the time zone be any different, although Ranger fans often act like it's still 1994 and they're still a successful club. (It isn't, and they're not.) So "Set your watch back 20 years" is merely a joke. Much like the Rangers themselves.

Tickets. Pretty much since the Rangers' late 1970s revival, they've been averaging 18,200 fans per game, a sellout every night. Since "The Garden Transformed," which is at least the 2nd major renovation of the 1968 Garden (this 2011-13 revamp followed one in 1991-92), capacity has been reduced slightly to 18,006, and they're still selling out every game. (They are 1 of 13 NHL teams currently doing so.)

Contrast that with the Devils, who are averaging 15,018, or 85 percent of capacity.) This is a sore spot in the rivalry: Ranger fans love to point out that they sell out every night, while the Devils don't even come close. Well, what would you rather have in your building: 15,000 people with taste, or 18,000 drunken, boorish animals?

At any rate, if you don't already have a ticket for Saturday's game, you're probably out of luck, unless you want to take your chances with StubHub or a scalper. The Garden website isn't linking to available Ranger tickets. That could just be an easily fixable glitch, but, if so, it says something that the richest team in the NHL can't find a good webmaster.

As of this typing, with 5 nights to go, StubHub has about 700 seats left, from $137 on up. If you take your chances with a scalper, figure that, whatever price is listed on the ticket, you'll be charged at least double. Law of supply and demand, and all that.

At least you can know that there really isn't a bad seat in the house. Let me rephrase that: There isn't a bad view in the house, and the seats are comfortable -- but those around you might make it a "bad seat." I'd especially advise you, as a visiting fan, to stay out of the uppermost seats, the 400 sections, what used to be known as the "Blue Seats": This is hardcore Blueshirt fan territory. If your choice is a seat in the 400s and a seat in the 300s for $50 more, spend the extra half-C-note and be safer.

Getting There. Madison Square Garden is in Midtown Manhattan, between 31st an 33rd Streets, between 7th and 8th Avenues, on top of Pennsylvania Station. The official address for the arena is 4 Pennsylvania Plaza -- if they used a traditional address, it would be either 400 7th Avenue (the main entrance for The Garden is on 7th), or 200 West 32nd Street.

It's 14 road miles from the Prudential Center, and if you were going to drive from pretty much anywhere in New Jersey, you would take the Turnpike to Exit 16E, and take the Lincoln Tunnel in, taking the right, downtown fork as you came out. But there are only 2 types of people who drive in Manhattan: Professionals (taxi drivers, chauffeurs and deliverymen) and people who end up asking themselves, "Why did I do this?" The fact that The Garden is on top of Penn Station makes it all the more sensible to avoid driving, and take public transportation.

If you go in by New Jersey Transit train, it's simple enough: Just ride to New York's Penn Station. If you go in by bus, Penn Station and The Garden are just one stop away on the Subway: Take the A, C or E train from 42nd Street to 34th.

Once In the City. You are, most likely, a native of the New York Tri-State Area. Certainly, if you are a Devils fan, you live in the Tri-State Area. You already know this stuff. If you don't, check the link for my piece on how to go to a Knicks game, and scroll down to "Once In the City."

Going In. The 4th and current version of Madison Square Garden has only one real entrance, and that's on the 7th Avenue side. You'll see giant posters referencing the current Knick and Ranger squads, and historic moments that occurred at The Garden. Besides those involving the home team, these include: The 1st fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier (the 2nd was also held there, but was far less significant because neither man then held the title), Nadia Comaneci performing the 1st perfect 10 in an international gymnastics meet (before doing it again later in the year at the Olympics at the Montreal Forum), and various concerts and political conventions.

Once your ticket is scanned, you will be directed to a "tower" at one of the "corners" of this completely round arena: Tower A (33rd & 8th), Tower B (33rd & 7th), Tower C (31st & 7th) or Tower D (31st & 8th). These are escalator towers, and will make it easier for you to find your seating section. Although I am a Devils fan and I hate the Rangers (I'd say I hate their guts, but they are completely gutless), the only things I don't like about The Garden as a structure are these escalator towers (they take too long, going either up or down) and the narrowness of the concourses (about half the width of those at the Prudential Center, and no wider than those at the inadequate Nassau Coliseum).

The 100 and 200 Levels are now accessed by the Madison Concourse on the building's 6th Floor. The 300 and 400 Levels are accessed by the Garden Concourse on the 10th Floor. The old color system of red seats down below, white in the middle and blue up top is long gone. So is the system that replaced it, of purple seats in the 100 and 200 Levels and aquamarine in the 300 and 400s. They're all purple now. Fortunately, there really isn't a bad view from seat in the house, not even in the 400 Level, and the sound carries spectacularly well.

The rink is laid out east-to-west. The Rangers attack twice toward the west side, the 8th Avenue end.

Food. Although New York is one of the world's great food cities, The Garden isn't exactly known for great food. Perhaps having so many well-known restaurants and bars around the place is a reason: The Madison Square Garden Corporation might have good relationships with these establishments, and not want to outshine them. Some of these places would go out of business without Knick and Ranger postgame traffic.

There are specialty stands of interest, though. The 10th Floor has Garden Market between Towers B & C (on the 7th Avenue side), and the 6th Floor has one behind Sections 108 and 115.

Also on the 6th Floor, there is Carlos and Gabby's Kosher & Mexican Grill (I don't know whether to say, "Oy vey!" or "iAy caramba!") at 111, and Senzai Sushi at 118. Ice cream is available at 110, and 16 Handles Frozen Yogurt at 115. "Coffee and Deserts" are at 114.

Team History Displays. There used to be a "Madison Square Garden Hall of Fame," with the names listed on the marquee at the main doors on the 7th Avenue side. That was removed a few years ago. But the Knicks and Rangers still hang banners for their titles and their retired numbers.
The Rangers hang banners for their 1928, 1933, 1940 and 1994 Stanley Cups; their 2014 Eastern Conference Championship; their 1992 President's Trophy for finishing 1st overall in the regular season; and their regular-season Division Championships of 1927, 1932, 1942, 1990 and 2012. (Although the Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1929, 1937, 1950, 1972 and 1979, these were not "championships" of any kind, and there is no notation for any of them.)

The Rangers have 9 banners honoring retired numbers, although (as with the Yankees) 1 number is retired for 2 different players. Despite being around since 1926, they didn't retire a number until 1979 (Rod Gilbert), and as late as 2004, 78 years into their history, they only had 2 (Eddie Giacomin's was retired in 1989). Over the next 4 years, they had 5 ceremonies for 6 players, including 2 guys who'd debuted for them in the 1950s (and, thankfully, were still alive to enjoy it, and still are at this writing).

The numbers are: 1, Eddie Giacomin, goaltender 1965-75; 2, Brian Leetch, defenseman 1987-2004; 3, Harry Howell, defenseman 1952-69; 7, Rod Gilbert, right wing 1961-77; 9, Andy Bathgate, center 1954-64, and Adam Graves, left wing 1991-2001; 11, Mark Messier, center 1991-97 and 2000-04; and 35, Mike Richter, goaltender 1990-2003. And, of course, while he only played 3 seasons with the Rangers, and only got as far as the Conference Finals in 1997 (making it a bit silly to claim him as a "Ranger Hall-of-Famer"), the Number 99 of Wayne Gretzky is retired throughout the League.

(Bathgate is an interesting case: The Winnipeg native won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP in 1959, and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated that year, the 1st Ranger so honored. The article suggested he was, already, the greatest Ranger ever. Yet he didn't get his number retired by the team until 2009, when he was 78 years old. He also won the Stanley Cup -- in 1964, with the Toronto Maple Leafs, mere weeks after the Rangers traded him away. His grandson Andy is currently in the Pittsburgh Penguins' minor-league system.)

There are 25 players who played at least 5 seasons with the Rangers who are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, yet only Giacomin, Leetch, Howell, Gilbert, Bathgate, Messier and Richter are honored with retired numbers. (Graves isn't in the Hall yet.) Frank Boucher was the Captain of the Rangers' 1928 and 1933 Cup wins, and the head coach of their 1940 win. They didn't win the Cup without him being directly involved until 1994. Have they retired his number? Yes -- but for Gilbert; it was 7. Nor have the numbers of his linemates on the "A-Line" (named for the 8th Avenue Subway) been retired Hall-of-Famers and brothers Bill and Frederick "Bun" Cook (5 and 6, respectively). Ivan "Ching" Johnson was a Hall-of-Fame defenseman in that era, but Number 3 isn't retired for him. Bryan Hextall (father of 2 NHL players and grandfather of infamous goalie Ron) is in the Hall, and scored the winning goal for the 1940 Cup, but his Number 12 isn't in the rafters. From their 1970s teams, the Rangers could have retired 2 for Brad Park long before Leetch arrived, and 10 could have been hung up for Jean Ratelle. And, of course, the greatest Ranger of them all, Lester Patrick, their 1st head coach and general manager, could have been honored with the retirement of the Number 16 he wore just once,as an emergency goalie in the 1928 Finals. (Today, that wouldn't be allowed, but with today's 2-goalie rosters and better protection, it wouldn't be necessary).

As I said, there used to be a display on the marquee at the 7th Avenue entrance showing a "Madison Square Garden Hall of Fame." It's gone now. And the Rangers certainly have enough club legends to have a Monument Park-like display someone in The Garden. But they don't. If it wasn't for MSG Network's program MSG Vault showing clips from the 1970s and '80s, a stupid man (of which Ranger fandom has many) could easily believe that the club's history began with Messier's arrival in 1991 -- especially now that chanting "NINE-teen-FOR-ty!" no longer works. All that history, yet the club honors only one man who (barely) played for them before the Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and only one other who played before that of Lyndon Johnson. While Ranger fans like to brag about their history (its length if not its fleeting glory), the club has done a poor job of recognizing it.

In addition to the Knicks' and Rangers' banners, 2 music legends are honored with banners at "The World's Most Famous Arena": Bronx-born, Long Island-raised Billy Joel has a Number 12 banner, for the Garden record 12 straight sellout concerts he played in 2006; and Elton John, who has played The Garden more than any other musical performer, including for the 60th time on his 60th birthday, got a Number 60 banner for that occasion. He's now played it 64 times -- each and every one a sellout.

There aren't, however, banners honoring some other landmark concerts at The Garden, though some of these are mentioned at the entrance: The 1968 opener with Frank Sinatra; the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh headlined by ex-Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr, with appearances by Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton; ex-Beatle John Lennon's One to One Concert of 1972 and his surprise guest appearance with Elton John on Thanksgiving night 1974, his last live concert appearances; Elvis Presley in 1972; Led Zeppelin's 1973 shows that formed the concert film The Song Remains the Same; and the all-star shows that paid tribute to Dylan in 1992 and Michael Jackson in 2001, and raised funds for charities following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Stuff. There are souvenir stands all over The Garden, including at the front entrance. The Garden's teams also now have the MSG Team Store open a block away at the Manhattan Mall at Herald Square.

I could make a joke about Ranger fans being illiterate. Actually, there are probably more books written about the Rangers than any other hockey team -- given the relative size of Canada, they may have more written about them than the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. With "the Hockey Maven" himself, Stan Fischler, cranking out books at a Stephen King pace, it's as if there's always a new Ranger book available. Stan's most recent effort, published about a year ago, was in partnership with Rod Gilbert: We Are the Rangers: The Oral History of the New York Rangers. In 2000, slightly jumping the gun, John Halligan published a coffee-table book, New York Rangers: Seventy-Five Years.

There's not much available on specific eras in Ranger history. Colleen Aycock and Mark Scott (not the sportscaster who hosted Home Run Derby in 1960) wrote Tex Rickard: Boxing's Greatest Promoter. George Rickard was from Texas, made his money promoting big prizefights, almost singlehanded got the State of New York to drop its legal ban on boxing, built what became known as "the Old Garden" in 1925 for boxing, allowed the fledgling New York Americans to play hockey there, and, seeing the profits, founded a team that he, through the Garden corporation, would own, a team that was immediately nickname "Tex's Rangers." (And now you know why a hockey team in New York has a Wild West name.)

Eric Whitehead's book The Patricks: Hockey's Royal Family, published back in 1980 but available on Amazon.com, will tell you about Lester, and his sons Lynn and Murray (a.k.a. Muzz), who played or him on the Rangers' teams of the 1930s and '40s, including the 1940 Cup. It will also tell you how, even before the Rangers' founding in 1926, Lester and his brother Frank practically invented professional hockey as we know it (as a business, not just a game).

And for the 20th Anniversary of the one that will have to last a lifetime (technically, it already has: 1940 to 2014 is 74 years), John Kreiser of NHL.com and then-GM Neil Smith wrote The Wait Is Over: The New York Rangers and the 1994 Stanley Cup.

For Ranger videos, a DVD package of the 1994 Finals shouldn't be too hard to find. But that's about it. There was no 75th Anniversary team history DVD in 2001 (though that was the dawn of the DVD era), nor for the 80th in 2006. Maybe there will be one for the 90th in the 2015-16 season. Nor is there an official Greatest Games package from the NHL. That may be just as well, since about 6 of the 10 would probably be from 1994.
 

During the Game. Don't say I didn't warn you: A New York Rangers home game is one of the few occasions in North American sports where even a fan of a non-rival team, should he be willing to wear visiting team gear, can legitimately wonder if his safety is in question.

Indeed, the worst example of fan violence I have ever seen (if not the worst actual fighting) took place during a Rangers-Devils game at The Garden -- and it happened just 1 row in front of me. There were 4 men from the Czech Republic, each wearing the jersey of a different Czech on the Ranger roster: Jaromir Jagr (now, of course, on the Devils), Martin Straka, Michal Rozsival and Petr Prucha. They were visibly drunk even when they arrived. For nearly 2 full periods, they were drinking, and yelling in Czech. At least one of them did have a grasp of English, the one on the aisle, clearly the leader -- in such a situation, there's always a leader. They didn't give me an especially hard time, mainly because, being a Polish-American of my size, I wasn't going to take on 4 big Czechs who were already 17 sheets to the wind. But a couple across the aisle from them, also wearing Ranger shirts, stood up and objected. The wife was on the aisle, and the leader got up and pushed her down. He pushed a woman. Wearing the jersey of the same team that he was wearing. Ladies and gentlemen, a New York Ranger fan. The husband was no dope: Instead of taking on this Bohemian brute himself, he signaled to security, and the Czechs were ejected. (The wife was okay.)

The date was January 22, 2006, and the Rangers won, 3-1, as the Devils really didn't even show up. And I paid $130 for a $70 seat. You know what? Being able to tell this story about the depravity of Ranger fans eating their own is worth more to me than the win would have been.

"But, Mike," you might say, "those guys weren't New Yorkers. You said it yourself: They were there to cheer on the Czech players, not the Rangers. Real Ranger fans aren't like that." Oh no? I've seen most of the NHL's teams, and their fans, at the Prudential Center. The only teams whose fans I've seen stir up trouble are the Rangers and the Flyers -- and the Flyers, only once, and it was settled quickly. Ranger fans are animals. How can these people, the majority of them also Yankee Fans, be such great people from April through October, and be such bastards from October through April? I'd hate to see what happens if one of these Yankee/Ranger fans ever made it to Fenway Park. Considering that all bullies are truly cowards, I suspect that none would dare go alone.

Historically, John Amirante has sung the National Anthem at Ranger games. But the Ranger fans usually shout through the entire thing, showing great disrespect for country and or singer. Did I mention that these people were animals?

The Rangers' goal song was written especially for them: It is "Slap Shot" by Bad Apple. The most familiar Ranger fan chant is, of course, "Let's go, Rangers!" They may also chant, "Hen-REEK!" for goalie Henrik Lundqvist, although they have yet to figure out that one does not become a "king" until he wears a crown. One good thing about Martin Brodeur no longer being on the Devils is that their derisive "Mar...tee!" chant is gone, even though it's obvious to any objective observer that "MAR-ty's-BET-ter!" Their suggestion that Brodeur was "fat" as always stupid: What does it say about your team that a fat goalie is better than your thin one?

At the end of the game, if the Rangers win, the players will gather at center ice and raise their sticks to salute the crowd. If they lose, well, good.

After the Game. New York's reputation as a high-crime city hasn't been true in years. But that may not matter much at a Ranger game. As you are directed to one of the escalator towers at the corners, a process that will take a while, your wisest move is to observe the advice of the legendary football coach Paul Brown: "When you win, say little; and when you lose, say less." Or, as Kenny Rogers put it, "You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table. There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done."

In other words, if the Devils win, accept your victory, get out, and don't taunt the animals; if the Rangers win, take your verbal (if slurred and incoherent) abuse, don't respond, and get out; and if they get physical, find security and report it. Never, under any circumstances, fight back, because you are hopelessly outnumbered. Let security handle it.

If this were a Knick game, there are dozens of bars around The Garden that are popular among postgamers that you could check out. But it's a Ranger game: If you live in New Jersey, get downstairs into Penn Station and get on the next available train to your area. If you came into The City by bus, get back to Port Authority. Do not fool around with this: You did what you came to do (see the Devils play the Rangers at The Garden), now get the hell out of Dodge.

Sidelights. This is where I discuss other sports-related sites in the metropolitan area in question, and then move on to tourist attractions that have no (or little) connection to sports. Since most people reading this will be from the Tri-State Area, I'll limit it to just The Garden.

There is a Madison Square, where 23rd Street, 5th Avenue & Broadway all come together. The 1st 2 buildings to be named Madison Square Garden went up across from it, in 1879 and 1891, respectively, at 26th & Madison. The New York Life Insurance Company held the mortgage on the 2nd Garden, and in 1925 decided it wanted the land for its headquarters, which still stands on the site (the official address is 51 Madison Avenue).

But Tex Rickard, who ran the boxing promotions at The Garden, had made so much money (mainly off promoting fights of Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey, that he could afford to build a new Garden all by himself. He did so, at 49th Street & 8th Avenue. This building, now usually referred to as "the old Garden," became "the Mecca of Basketball" and "the Mecca of Boxing." It was torn down shortly after the new Garden opened, and a skyscraper called Worldwide Plaza is on the site now. Underneath, the 50th Street station on the Subway's C & E lines has a mural depicting events at the old Garden.

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Every Devils fan should see his team play The Enemy on enemy soil at least once. But it is not for the faint of heart. Go to the game, see the game, behave yourself, and get out.

And remember: Never, ever mix it up with the Ranger fans. As I've said in my post about being a Yankee Fan going to Fenway Park, it's better to be an uninjured coward than a hospitalized tough guy.

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