Monday, February 23, 2009

Congratulations and Apologies. . .

First things first. I'd like to take a minute to congratulate #9 Andy Bathgate and #3 Harry Howell on their much deserved and long overdue jersey retirement.

It was a very different feeling than any of the previous retirement ceremonies I had the pleasure of attending. But, that being said, there was something both more regal and more fun loving about this one, if that is possible. Regal in that you knew you were in the presence of players who skated in a different era, who made a mark on a game - the same game we all love - but a game long before many of us came to know it. And fun loving in that these guys, this is the end of their journey, presumably. They skated long ago. They are grown men, those days merely memories, although great they may be. Their sense of life, though, through laughter and shared memories, cannot be mistaken. From all indications, not only two great and humble athletes, but two great and humble men.

Bathgate and Howell were teammates for over 700 games with the Rangers which is simply amazing. It was fantastic to get to share in a moment of history with them.

As for those currently wearing red, white, and blue, they are writing a different type of history. On that will not inspire and people will not want to remember when it's over.

I may only have been a Rangers fan since the early nineties, but this might just be my most frustrating time as a fan. And I am saying this with full knowledge that this team failed to even make the playoffs for seven straight seasons. And with full knowledge that this bumbling group may still very well make the playoffs this year. They are still, in my opinion at this present time, quite possibly the most disappointing group I may have ever seen.

The seven years this team failed to make the playoffs (eight with the more recent lockout) was a sad time for me. There were tears because I expected better. There was a sadness because I wanted more for them. They were my heroes, all of them, merely because they played a game I loved for my team. It's a type of hero worship you can only have when you are younger, when stats don't mean as much and all that matters is that you like them, because.

As I got older and the Rangers continued to disappoint, my sadness for myself not getting to see the second season was replaced for sadness for guys like Richter, Leetch, and Messier, the second time around, because players that great, I felt, deserved to play for what matters. As much as I felt cheated, I felt they were cheated much more.

Those reactions can not be further from my reactions today. I have never felt this numb to a group of players, save a select few. Never. Even in the dark years of not making the playoffs there were reason for me to be happy, players I clung to because they seemed to want to succeed, even as the team struggled. Petr Nedved and his Czech mates. Eric Lindros and his FLY line. Say what you will about those groups and the few others I can name, but they were bright moments on a dark team. And I remember them. I remember them and what they did years later. And with fondness.

In contrast, when it ends I will do seemingly anything to forget the better part of this season. Although there hasn't truly been that much any of us would want to remember.

That is the true tragedy. One would hope during the dark years you fight through as a fan that there is something keeping you going. Loyalty, sure. But a hope and tangible knowledge that things will get better. That the team will improve. That they are putting pieces in place so that a new, better team will emerge in the future.

The Rangers do not give me that hope. There is nothing tangible with this team. The seven/eight years of no playoffs was supposed to be the time to wait, the time to wait for the team to figure it out, to rebuild it from within. The great fire sale of spring 2004 was supposed to be a time of young guys playing - finally - even if it took a few years for them to gel. Bottom line, we as fans paid that time, and we are not only no further towards that excitement, that future we've all waited patiently for. We are falling, steadily and by the day, so much further behind.

Last night, and there are precious few, was one of the few nights I didn't blame Tom Renney for his decisions. Last night I blamed that group of players on the ice. If watching Adam Graves's #9 go to the rafters a couple weeks back was not enough to inspire, I truly thought that seeing those two greats from another era would be enough. I should have known better.

How - after seeing men who literally bled for this team, who wore the sweater with the pride it deserves, who got nothing - nothing - of the comforts that these players have become accustomed to - how after seeing them humbled and honored in such a achingly bittersweet way, how they could not muster up enough strength, compassion, and heart to win a hockey game is beyond my comprehension.

To me, that shows you all you have to know.

Now I wrote apologies in the title. And after last night I absolutely must say that I think Hank deserves apologies from everyone on his team. Not for last night, but for this entire season. This guy is the single biggest reason that the Rangers started as well as they did and that they are still, somehow, hanging onto a playoff berth. That guy deserves a medal. Well. . . another medal.

He is not perfect. He might not even be the greatest goalie when all is said and done. But he is great. He is important. And he is being drastically taken advantage of by this team. Oh, we have Hank. It's okay to not score goals. It's okay to not play strong defense.

Fine. But you know what. Hank will be 27-years-old next week. At this rate - physically and emotionally - he will not be able to take too much more of this. He takes every goal against very personally. He wants to be perfect. He doesn't want to lose. He's a strong, very proud man, but he's human. I watched his post game interview, and for the first time in a long time, he struggled with his words. And you could see straight through what he was saying and what he was thinking.

"We need to score goals."

That's not a man stating a fact. That's a desperate man making a final plea.

Score goals so I don't have to be inhumanly perfect with a very less than perfect team. I've helped you all year long. Can't I get a break?

He's too proud to say so, but if I had to take a guess that's probably not too far from what he's thinking.

The "we're not at rock bottom yet" charade continues for another day. . .

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