A 50-year anniversary with the great game of hockey

It was November 24, 1968, a Sunday evening, when Dad took me to my first hockey game at Madison Square Garden between the New York Rangers and the Oakland Seals. I had expressed some cursory interest in the sport from the spring before, when I would ask Dad how the Rangers had done after each game of their opening-round playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks. After winning the first two games, the Blueshirts dropped the next four, prompting me to say, “Better luck next season.”

On this night, next season was here. Before the game, Dad took me to the Horn & Hardart AutoMat for dinner. Although we’re now in an era of instant information and the ability to watch live games on a smartphone, I thought it was the coolest thing at the time to get a sandwich and slice of chocolate cake from a machine.

Once inside the Garden, I saw signs advertising hockey as “The Fastest Game on Earth,” and I was captivated from the outset by the sound, color and atmosphere. In the nine-month-old Garden, our seats were fairly close to the ice, in the old yellow section.

Less than two minutes into the game, two fights broke out simultaneously. With fans jumping up in front, Dad quickly put me on his shoulders to get a better look. I was less concerned about seeing the fights than I was about being dropped!

I vividly remember the eventual game-winning goal happening right in front of us during the second period. Rangers star Rod Gilbert was set up by linemates Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield, and blasted a slap shot from the top of the right-wing circle past Oakland goalie Charlie Hodge to give the Rangers a 3-1 lead.

Soon after, New York defenseman Jim Neilson picked up a puck sitting in the crease, resulting in a penalty shot for the Seals. Dad had been going to hockey games for over a quarter century and had never seen a penalty shot in person. I was seeing one in my very first game!

Ed Giacomin got a good piece of Norm Ferguson’s shot but saw the puck skitter just over the goal line to make the score 3-2, which is how the game eventually ended.

As we walked to the car after the game, I commented to dad what a good game Oakland had played — my first piece of analysis. It also confirmed I was already hooked on hockey. At school the next day, I made it a point to tell everyone where I had been the previous evening, and it wasn’t long before I was sneaking transistor radios under my pillow to listen to West Coast games. Dad was onto me quickly and, while saying goodnight, would reach under the pillow for the radio while I pretended to be asleep. As soon as he left the room, I would reach under the bed for a second radio. Many a morning I’d wake to static from the still-running transistor.

During my 34-year media career, primarily at ESPN, no season was more thrilling and nerve-wracking than the Rangers’ run to the Stanley Cup in 1994. Working on ESPN’s National Hockey Night for all 12 years of the contract between 1992 and 2004 put me smack in the middle on both a professional and personal basis.

The Rangers went 16-7 en route to the Cup, yet Dad and I would never celebrate a win in each other’s presence:

  • We watched Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final, a double-overtime loss to New Jersey.

  • We went to Game 5 of that series, a 4-1 defeat that put the Rangers on the brink of elimination.

After the game, Dad and I met up with our late studio host John Saunders and his best friend, Rangers general manager Neil Smith, and Smith’s mother, a walking hockey almanac in her own right. Amid the pressure, which was continuing to mount on the franchise, Neil could not have been more cordial after that game. At one point, Dad said to Neil, “Boy, would I like to have your job.” Neil chuckled and replied, “Right now, you can have it!”

The Rangers managed to prevail to win Games 6 and 7 in dramatic fashion, and then win three of the first four games against Vancouver in the Stanley Cup Final. With the Rangers coming home for a potential Cup clincher, I asked John if he could reach out to Neil to help get Dad into the Garden. And boy, did Neil come through. Press pass in hand, Dad was seated with John, Barry Melrose and Darren Pang 10 feet off the ice at the end of the rink, where the Rangers would shoot twice. The celebration of a lifetime was all set.

The Canucks had other ideas and took a 3-0 lead early in the third period. Then, incredibly, the Rangers ran off three quick goals to tie the game. I waved down to Dad from the ESPN broadcast booth. We were a goal away.

However, before the Garden could settle down, Vancouver was back in front. They subsequently added two more goals, and I was headed back west the following morning. I walked Dad back to his car — the same route we took in 1968 — and told him, “I don’t give a damn if they ever win now. This was our night, and they ruined it for us.”

Five nights later, it was Game 7. By then, I was in a considerably more rational place. I called Dad and told him I didn’t think he should come to the game. The team had lost only seven times in the playoffs, and yet we were in the same building for three of them. Yes, this was superstition at its apex, but he understood. Whether it was superstition or not, the Rangers obliged, winning their first Cup since 1940.

When Dad picked me up in New York the morning after the dream came true, we began a celebration that never seemed to end. In fact, every subsequent June 14 at 10:59 p.m. — the end of the game, according to the official scoresheet — we would speak on the phone and wish each other “Happy Anniversary!”

Thanksgiving fell on November 24 in 2016. By this time, Dad’s physical health had been on the decline, although he was as mentally sharp as ever. At some point during the meal, I shouted across the table and asked him if he knew where we were 48 years ago on this date. “At the Garden, right?” That was the final memory we shared.

Less than two hours after that exchange, Dad went into cardiac arrest and passed a week later, a day shy of his 86th birthday.

This is a truly bittersweet week, but one filled with special thankfulness to Dad. Even in his absence, the gift of that first game continues to bring joy a half-century later.

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