Ice Guys Finish First

Wait, the New York Rangers are actually winning

In the Rangers' recent loss to the Islanders, he came up with a goal and two assists despite battling the flu—but the Islanders' Brendan Witt managed to goad him into throwing a punch, which Witt took, smirking as a somewhat sheepish Shanahan was directed to the box. It was a rare reminder that he is, in fact, at least partly human—and that he was a solid fighter back in the day. This is a sport in which you can throw a right at someone's head and merely get called for a two-minute "roughing" penalty; I will never understand why hockey isn't more popular in America.

Before every game, the players carefully pre- pare their sticks. And I mean carefully. Jagr, who has been doing this a long time, pads down the hall in his long johns and brings his stick to a cartful of tools in the hallway, where he measures it against an old stick, saws off the top inch or two until it's the right length, files it down, tapes it, and then—this is the part I didn't see coming—sprays it with an accelerant and sets it on fire with a blowtorch, so that he can get the curve just right.

Hockey is a cult-like sport, and it values its rituals. The goalie leading his team through the hallway and onto the ice is one of the best entrances in all of sports; the sanctioned fights—so strange in an era when a punch at the Garden on a non-hockey night threw the sports world into a frenzy—seem anachronistic, if ultimately fairly harmless. But not much is likely to change, particularly since hockey fans are just as set in their ways.

Ranger fans are notoriously long- suffering, having waited since 1940 for a Stanley Cup victory by the time one finally rolled around in 1994. They aren't willing to let a little thing like a canceled season throw them off; attendance bounced right back in 2005–2006, and Madison Square Garden has sold out every home game since last October (though, it should be noted, there are often several thousand unused seats). They also have long memories, chanting "Potvin sucks!" enthusiastically at every home game—although the original object of their derision, Denis Potvin of the Islanders, retired in 1988.

So if a 54-year championship drought and six years of Glen Sather have not been enough to drive Ranger fans away, surely they'll stick with the team through ineffective defense, aging scorers, and the flu. Among the fans gathered at the Garden hours before game time are always numerous small children, ready to be indoctrinated. "Don't say 'sucks,' honey," said a woman (Messier jersey) to her six- or seven-year-old son (Lund-qvist jersey). "Say 'Potvin stinks.'"

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