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How unpoetic that the city's first sporting event since September 11 would be a pre-season NHL game between the Rangers and Devils. A meaningful September baseball game might have been more fitting and have worked far better as a spiritual balm. The Great American Pastime would have harmonized perfectly with the patriotic music and the bumper crop of flags that have bloomed from the dust of Lower Manhattan.
Instead, this imported gamenow more internationally flavored than everhelped us try to make a brand-new start of it in old New York. Maybe that's good. If ever we needed reminders that the world is bigger than the U.S., now's the time.
Of course, even in the best of times, whatapart from the fate of the Spice Girlscould be of less consequence than pre-season hockey games? They don't reveal much about the teams. Their chief function, besides letting NHL wannabes punch each other out, is to put newcomers on display and give youngsters a chance to show they belong.
But now, how could even the Garden debut of former archenemy Eric Lindros or a glimpse of hot young goaltender Dan Blackburn ever matter when thousands lie buried three miles due south? And still, a few thousand did show. Some, no doubt, came to escape the new reality, but they might have walked past the TV transmission truck parked on 33rd Street plastered over with "Missing" leaflets. This would not be a grand pep rally. Teams usually line up for pre-game ceremonies on opposite blue lines, but tonight the Devils and Rangers lined up side by side on the center red line. The Rangers wore patches on their sweaters and decals on their helmets. The Devils wore nothing symbolic. John Amironte belted out "God Bless America" and "The Star Spangled Banner," and the sparse crowd did its best to sound loud, answering him with chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"the cry that was born during the 1980 Olympics, the last time Afghanistan was headline news.
Introduced to a mixed chorus of cheers and boos, Lindros took the opening face-off and bumped Devil antagonist Bobby Holik. He and his teammates made a few smart moves when the Rangers took two early penalties. Then Jersey got into penalty trouble. In a three-minute span, the Rangers put three goals, all stoppable, past Devils rookie netminder Fredric Henry. Before the contest was 12 minutes old, it was over.
Lindros crashed a few more Devils, Blackburn made some acrobatic saves, but above them conversations turned to other things. "Did you know anyone who worked down there?" led to stories of where you were, how much TV you've watched, whether you found the coverage too extreme, speculation on future attacks, what the military options are, and, ultimately, "How are your wife and kids?"
As the second period started, I ran into a Canadian friend who moved to Battery Park City last year. "When the first plane hit," she told me, "I ran downstairs. I couldn't walk north. I had to go south to the tip of the island. The second plane flew right overhead. Things started falling from the building," she said, shuddering. "The things I saw . . . " and she didn't finish the sentence.
The Devils scored. No one seemed to care.
The game continued, with Lindros bigger, stronger, and faster than anyone on the ice. He seemed determined every shift to win over his troubled new city and prove himself again to the hockey world.
By the third period, the crowd seemed to have exhausted more important topics and again took interest in the action, which was all one-sided. The score ballooned to 5-1, a time when many would consider an early exit. But they stuck around, and when Lindros worked a nifty give-and-go with ex-Devil Zdeno Ciger to make it 6-1, no one booed.
In the waning moments, Lindros slid to block a shot. At the buzzer, he roughed up a Devil. When he took his curtain call, selected as the second of the game's three stars, some boos did return. Everyone cheered the first star, Blackburn. "The Devils didn't seem to want to be here," a player agent told me after the game. Then, the wounds of the last eight days still fresh, he wondered aloud, "Who did?"
I didn't, and I am one of those unfortunates who cannot get enough hockey. In my midnight confessions, I tell myself I have loved this game not wisely, but too well. Still, I've felt the events of September 11 burrow deep within me. I pick up the cheese grater and see the outer skin of the Twin Towers standing alone. I turn on my electric razor and hear the whine of doomed jet engines. I grind coffee and think of pulverized cement. For seven days, I had little stomach for trivialities like pre-season hockey.
On the eighth day, I began to feel differently. Then a Toronto friend phoned. "You have to go," he said. "They want you not to gothat's what terror is. It's a political act to go." He was right. I'll be back.
Contributor: Stu Hackel Sports Editor: Ward Harkavy