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Graced by the King

Recounting my brush with Rangers royalty

New York Rangers v Carolina Hurricanes Photo by Andre Ringuette/Getty Images

As it is with any original six team, it’s easy to get lost while looking up at the rafters of Madison Square Garden. A lot of names and numbers hang from the ceiling of the arena, some maybe a bit more familiar than others. Each of these players has their honored place in the history of one of the greatest organizations in the National Hockey League, but like anything else competing with Father Time, their legacy begins to dim as the decades go by. In a few days, there will be another name and number hoisted up to join their rightful ranks, and this player is a special one. Special even amongst the leaders of the New York Rangers the past almost 100 years. Henrik Lundqvist may not have succeeded in bringing the team down through the Canyon of Heroes, but he came damn close. Others may disagree with me, but I believe Henrik Lundqvist can stand the test of time.

Henrik was extraordinary. It became apparent to all of us almost immediately when he first took to the crease on that fateful October night in 2005. With the NHL lockout canceling the previous year’s season, every NHL fan was yearning for ice hockey, but even my 16-year-old self at the time was skeptical about our situation in net. A lot of folks say the Blueshirts have been blessed with All-Star goalies the last few decades, and admittedly we have been, but there have been a couple of seasons littering that span of time where the team has struggled in net, and the few years before Lundqvist arrived on the scene is the perfect example.

The season prior to the lockout, we saw Mike Dunham and Jussi Markkanen split the majority of games, and the 2005-06 season wasn’t looking much better with Kevin Weekes poised to be the starter. I think it’s safe to say a lot of us had recent 6th overall pick Al Montoya on the brain and were wondering if and when he would make his way to the NHL and save the day. Boy, how silly does that thought sound now when eight hundred and eighty-seven games over fifteen NHL seasons later, the King has more than earned his crown. Henrik cemented his legacy as the best goaltender in the history of the New York Rangers franchise and went on to become one of the best of all time in the entire history of the league.

Living in Massachusetts as a New York Rangers fan has never been an easy ride. The constant jeering and prodding you receive on all sides can at times be almost too much. In that 2005-06 season, for the first time in my life, I was able to attend a Rangers game in Boston where they were able to beat the Bruins. Henrik Lundqvist stood tall in the shootout as Petr Sykora won the game for New York in the sixth round.

Adorned in my Lady Liberty jersey with Bure stitched on the back, I walked out of TD Banknorth Garden with my head both held high and covered in beer from angry Bruins’ fans. While this was a momentous occasion, there was still one thing on my mind: getting to Madison Square Garden. I needed to watch this young goalie surrounded by the ilk of my own, in a sea of blue. I could already hear it in my mind, the echoes in the arena chanting Henrik after one of his routine brilliant saves.

Fast forward over sixteen years later, I’ve accomplished that dream and it was honestly everything I could ask for and more, but ironically, it’s not even this moment that sticks with me the most from his career.

There are one hundred and seventy-five miles between the city where I live and Madison Square Garden. Breaking this down a bit further, that’s a two hour drive down I-84 onto the Merritt Parkway into Fairfield County, another hour and change waiting for and sitting on the Metro-North to get to Grand Central Station, and finally a short Uber away from arriving at the world’s greatest arena. I’ve made this journey countless times now, and between you and I, reader, if you have any advice on a more efficient route, please don’t hesitate to share it below. As a now self-declared NY outsider, I will certainly heed it.

It was the weekend after Thanksgiving in 2018, I had tickets to go see the Washington Capitals face off against the New York Rangers for an early matinee contest. As it was the second night of back-to-back games for the Rangers, Georgiev was getting the start and it ended up being a battle of the backups as Pheonix Copley got the nod for Washington.

The teams traded goals throughout the game, with Washington taking the final lead late in the third and going on to seal the deal with an empty net goal. If I’m being honest with you, it was a mostly forgettable game—the only tidbit I actively recall is that it happened to be the day Ryan Strome got his first goal as a New York Ranger. As my then girlfriend and I were exiting the arena with the rest of the disgruntled Rangers fans, she convinced me and dragged me along to walk down W 33rd Street to try and find some players leaving the building.

We followed the small crowd of fans and made our way down towards the small blockade. The ramp leading down to the garage underneath the Garden was an active one. We saw everything from John Giannone walking out to the Washington Capitals boarding their bus and leaving, but no Rangers players just yet. We were beginning to lose hope but then suddenly both Marc Staal and Brendan Smith (who was texting and driving) promptly drove out the ramp and past security and the growing number of fans. As the crowd recognized both players and began to grow a bit more antsy, I found myself pushing towards the front, holding my girlfriend’s hand and pulling her with me for dear life.

That’s when it happened—a luxury car that I didn’t even recognize appeared and began moving up the incline of the ramp. The vehicle pulled up to the barricade and gently came to a halt. The window slowly rolled down, and lo and behold there was His Majesty himself, perfectly pouffed hair, tailored navy suit, and last but not least, that dazzling trademark smile.

I was so close yet felt miles away. I could hear the conversation he was having with the security guard, pleasantries to begin with of course, as this royal Rangers legend treats all his vassals with respect. I focused my ears and it felt as if my entire existence depended on hearing this discussion and that’s when I picked up on his intentions of signing things. I quick turned to my girlfriend, and we rapidly tore through the inventory of things we had on our persons. Did I even own anything worthy of this man’s signature? To answer that, probably not. But we settled on an old Hartford Wolf Pack roster sheet found at the bottom of my girlfriend’s purse from a game we happened to attend a couple weeks prior.

I grabbed the sheet and desperately held it out to the security guard and by some stroke of divine intervention it was taken and handed the rest of the way to Henrik who quickly jotted down his John Hancock at the bottom and gave it back. I like to think he looked up at us and smiled, and maybe he did. But by this point I was in pure bliss, an absolute euphoric state. I wouldn’t exactly call this a meet and greet, but getting the chance to be in the presence of and get an autograph from Lundqvist immediately makes any other items on my bucket list seem insignificant and unworthy.

This Friday night, the fans at MSG will get to honor Lundqvist one last time as they raise his number to the rafters alongside all those Rangers legends whose legacies are kept alive through our memories. And once again I will be making the two hour drive down I-84 onto the Merritt Parkway into Fairfield County, wait another hour and change to take the Metro-North into Grand Central Station, and finally grab an Uber to the Garden and witness history in the making—as I did all those years watching this once-in-a-lifetime player battle for my favorite team in the world night in and night out.