Ice Guys Finish First

Wait, the New York Rangers are actually winning

No other sports beat can adequately prepare you for the smell of an NHL locker room. I'm told it's due to the moisture of melting ice and moldy equipment, but I don't think that can explain the odor, which suggests that something has crawled inside the walls and died (say, has anybody seen Thomas Pock recently?). Last week, in addition to the usual bruises, welts, hastily stitched-up gashes, bloody scrapes, strains, sprains, and missing teeth common to all hockey teams, the Rangers were hit with a paralyzing strain of stomach flu, and the room took on the air of a battlefield triage tent in the pre-penicillin era.

Tom Renney, the man Glen Sather replaced himself with, is even-keeled, polite, and deeply Canadian, which can sometimes obscure his underlying toughness. After a dismal 6-1 loss to the division-rival New Jersey Devils, he told the press that he did not even want to discuss the impact of the injuries and illnesses, lest his team use it as an excuse for their poor play.

"I could protect everybody and say all kinds of wonderful things as to why this is happening—I'm not going there. No way. We're paid to play," he said. "We have to accept that responsibility—and they do. The guys do." (I should possibly mention here that I came down with the flu myself the next day and have used it as an excuse for a whole boatload of things, without any compunction whatsoever.)

Sure enough, taking a cue from the coach, every Ranger who was asked about his health after the game insisted that the team had no excuses—"Feeling sorry for ourselves isn't going to help" or "We just have to play better," along with the always popular "[Rival team] isn't going to feel sorry for us, that's for sure." The guys puking their guts out in the bathroom, however, were unavailable for comment.

If they haven't already, Glen Sather and Isiah Thomas should form a support group. Three years ago, the embattled Ranger president, general manager, and coach was in his fourth losing season at the Garden, despite a massive budget; he was excoriated in the media, and enraged fans called for his firing, resignation, and/or head on a pike. "Fire Sather" chants were fired up at every home game, but owner James Dolan refused to get rid of him despite the years of failure. There may be a glitch in the Matrix.

Sather stepped down as coach in February 2004 but stayed on as GM. The next year the entire hockey season was lost to the lockout; almost the only nice thing you can get a Ranger fan to say about Sather is that he anticipated the strike and the NHL's subsequent rule changes, designed to make the game faster and higher-scoring, and planned accordingly. When hockey resumed, the Rangers surprised everyone by making the playoffs—though, once there, they were promptly swept by the Devils—and despite its fair share of flaws, this year's team is a legitimate contender to do so again.

That said, it's been an odd season for the Blueshirts, who beat some excellent teams, lost to some lousy ones, recently followed a five-game winning streak with three (as of this writing) consecutive lopsided losses, and cling to first place in the Atlantic Division by one point.

All teams, of course, rely on their stars, but the Rangers' offense without any of their "four horsemen" (future Hall of Famers Brendan Shanahan and Jaromir Jagr, playing up to their résumés, along with Martin Straka and Michael Nylander) or their defense without star goalie Henrik Lundqvist is chilling to contemplate; they're one or two bad injuries away from total disaster, as everyone was reminded last week when seemingly half the team went down with a panoply of short-term but incapacitating ailments.

The latest victim of the Ranger Death Flu was Henrik Lundqvist—Hank to his teammates, King Henrik to fans. Goaltenders have a long-standing reputation as hockey's eccentrics: The job involves having a hard object hurled at your body at speeds up to and over 100 miles an hour 30 or 40 times a night, so it's generally assumed that you have to be more than a little crazy to want it at all. Hockey lore is full of tales of loners, brooders, oddballs, troubled intellectuals, and insomniacs—head cases who threw up before every game or performed dozens of odd, obsessive- compulsive pre-game rites. Lundqvist, however, appears to have none of these traits. Asked about his own pre-game rituals, he thinks for a moment and says, "Well, I like to take a nap, maybe listen to music."

Handsome, friendly, open, and easygoing, the fan-favorite 24-year-old could pass for a wholesome, corn-fed Midwesterner if it weren't for the slight Swedish accent (he made his name with the Frölunda Flyers). Last year, his first in the NHL, he emerged as a star, played an enormous role in the team's revival, won a gold medal with the Swedish Olympic team, and landed on People's 50 Most Beautiful list. He lives on the Upper West Side and says he's loved getting to know Manhattan: "It's great, so many things to do off-ice."

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