Before I can even begin to process what the Rangers and other NHL clubs did today, the first thing I absolutely must do is take a few minutes to give
thanks and wish luck to a guy that was and will still remain a favorite hockey player of mine.
I went through similar emotions today that I did for the last few trade
deadlines and free agent frenzy days. I thought, nervously, is this it? Is
this Petr Prucha's last day as a Ranger.
For some reason today I felt pretty good about his chances. He seemed to
finally be getting a real and much deserved chance under a coach that
seemed to understand what he could do. And I thought maybe perhaps Sather would just stand pat and give a team that already just brought in a new coach and Sean Avery, again, a chance to gel.
When I heard that Nik Antropov - a right wing - was coming to New York, my heart started to pound. When I heard Derek Morris's name, and they ticked off the names of the Rangers going back. . .Dmitri Kalinin, Nigel Dawes. . .I thought he was safe. But then there it was. Petr Prucha. My heart sank. I had a very unprofessional reaction for a person listening at work. I immediately stood up and went to take a walk.
So, I said to myself, it seems the "heart" of the Rangers would be a Ranger no more.
And it all happened in a matter of seconds, even though I'd been feeling the fear for years.
Without getting into the good/bad/indifference of this trade - because, face it, we won't know now, we may never know - I want to continue to embrace the guy. The guy that was and the guy that is.
I don't want this to seem like a eulogy. Petr will not cease to be. He is just gone from the place he began, and the place we came to know him best.
I certainly didn't know anything about Prucha before the 2005-2006 season. I rarely kept up with prospects at that time, so he was just another name, and at that time in New York, just another Czech. Well certainly not "just" because goodness knows I've always had a fondness for those players from that country. For their soft-spoken pride and love of the game.
Petr was no different.
He quickly endeared himself to Ranger fans, scoring 30 times in that rookie season, including 16 powerplay goals, a Rangers rookie record. He might have not gotten much league recognition, because guys like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were playing their rookie years as well, but Prucha's energy and talent were not lost on those in New York.
Those who know and have followed his time here know his next few years were not as successful numerically. They also know that one thing never changed.
This guy had heart. He had spirit. And he had a smile to rival all others. A true champion in that regard, it was hard not to respect a player like that, someone who always put the team first and someone who never complained or felt sorry for himself.
Fast forward to this year. I thought - very mistakenly it would seem - that Petr's place on this team finally - finally! - was shored up and that he'd see regular time again, at last.
How truly wrong I was.
But the smile didn't fade. And every time he got the chance to play, he played as if he were the most talented player on the ice. I've said it before, that some people may take their time in this league, their place in this game, for granted. Petr never did. He played every shift as if it was the most important he'd ever play, every game as if it was his last.
Fans of the team might not agree on whether he should have played or whether he was ever going to be as good as he once was. That's fine. And thanks to circumstances beyond any of our control, we may never know.
But those that loved him, loved him despite all that, and with a faith that he could be that player again, if only given a true chance.
Even though we thought - myself included - that chance would come now on the Rangers, post-Renney, maybe it was just not to be. Maybe, he can only truly get a chance if he moves on.
I know I'm not the only one sad now - and I am sad, as anyone is to lose a favorite player - and it's hard for me to say what I am going to say next, but I think I am not the only one that needs to hear it.
Four months ago, two months ago, three weeks ago, we were hoping that Prucha be traded away. Hoping that he'd get released so that he'd get a chance to play, play a game he loves. Be a hockey player again. It was selfish, we said, to keep him here, just because we loved him. We had to let him go.
What we have to realize is that we still have to think that way. We have to. Because of the moves made today, we have to admit, begrudgingly perhaps, that Prucha would have been the first guy back in the press box tomorrow anyway. No matter how much Tortorella may have liked him. No matter how good he had been playing. He wouldn't have been a full time player on this team anymore.
So even though we knew months and weeks ago what the best thing for him would be, it hurts now to realize the truth in our wishes, because we just saw a few powerful glimpses of the player we once loved coming back to life.
His fight against Bergenheim a week ago.
His goal and his coming to the defense of his teammates on Saturday.
That was vintage Prucha. That was the player we loved, showcasing just why we loved him.
Some people alluded though, and you have to find it in your hearts to agree, if he had to leave, he left everything he had on the ice Saturday night. His final goal. And everything he stood for all this time.
Pride. Sportsmanship. Loyalty.
You'd be hard pressed to find better.
Yes, I've shed a few tears today, and I surely will again. It's never easy to watch your favorite player no longer play for your team. No one would expect it to be.
But I have one more plea for you tonight. We were lucky and blessed to have Petr Prucha on our team - our favorite team - for the better part of four seasons. Truly blessed.
Say he had not been on New York. Say he'd played for another team from the start. Would we, any of us, have the respect and love for him that we do today?
Probably not. Because in a world where favorite teams get priority, and the rest of real life takes precedence over so much else, some other team's "good guy" might not have crossed our radar. We might not have ever had the chance we are now so grateful for.
But now - now - we get the chance to share him with others. Give a whole new group of fans the opportunity to see the player that we so loved watching. And get to know he's going to be the same guy worthy of that love.
For me, I'm going to try at my best moments to look at this as the opportunity to watch and embrace a whole new team. Again. I've done it with other players. And I will - with open arms - do it again. Certainly for someone like Pete.
I've always felt it made me a more well rounded hockey fan, to follow the departed, and in following them, learn about new teams and different players.
And just as I always doubt that there will be another player I will like again on my own team - the Rangers - I am always proven wrong. The heart is fragile, but it does love again. Therein lies the true magic of life.
No, we won't love another as much or in the same way, but others will come. The sun will rise. The puck will drop.
And fans of Phoenix, they are going to love this guy. A loyal, hard-working player, who cares more about his team than himself. Someone who never takes a night off. Someone with passion for a game we all love, passion that is evident in every check, every stride, every goal, and every celebration.
They are going to enjoy him there, of that I have no doubt.
For the rest of us, we get the memories. Memories of a guy who along with the greatest European scorer ever and one of the brightest young goaltenders in the game - in Jagr and Lundqvist - played a big role in bringing back pride to a Rangers organization sorely lacking something to cheer about.
He gave us hundreds of reasons to cheer. Right up until his last moment on Garden ice.
I'll forever remember being there, looking down at that little ball of fire standing at center ice, before being escorted off into the lockerroom to chants of his name.
Better players surely played here and better players will again someday. But not everyone gets their name chanted loudly by a crowd of 18,200 because they did something so worthy of wearing the sweater.
In Petr's rookie year, after a game in which he had a goal, he was interviewed off ice at the Garden for TV - a rarity. When asked about his performance and the goal, he said:
"I was lucky."
He may have been lucky that day.
But we were lucky for 237 games.
For 63 goals.
For 50 assists.
For 113 points.
We were lucky for four seasons to have someone with such humble integrity, such sense of pride, and such character of heart, to play for our favorite team.
Make no mistake.
Pete may have been lucky that day.
But we were the ones that were truly lucky.
**Best of luck, Petr. You will be missed.**