Ice Guys Finish First


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.”

All right, so the trope of the wacky goaltender may be outdated—”old wives’ tales that have been passed on for years,” according to backup goalie Kevin Weekes. Improvements in safety equipment and coaching “have contributed to that not being as true as perhaps it may have once been,” though he acknowledges, “You have to prepare mentally . . . because you’re ultimately accountable, so accountable, for the end result.”

In any case, while Lundqvist is hardly twitching or talking to himself, he’s not immune to the pressures of the position either. When he struggled in the 2006 playoffs, it was generally attributed to a lingering hip injury and possibly fatigue from the Olympics; it wasn’t until this fall that he admitted he’d been suffering from migraines, which doctors said were brought on by grinding his teeth in his sleep.

“There is a lot of stress, emotions inside of you, pressure, expectations—all the guys have different ways to deal with it,” he says now. “I’m pretty quiet before games. I don’t say much, try to focus.” (Weekes echoes that: Other players “can horse around before a game . . . just kind of feel their way into a game. We don’t have that luxury, if you want to call it a luxury.”)

Because the Rangers have struggled so often defensively, Lundqvist’s play is particularly crucial. This year he’s risen to the occasion with absolutely brilliant play over long stretches—and in shoot-outs, where he has stopped all 22 pucks sent his way—but kept things interesting with an occasional meltdown. On December 14
in Dallas he saved 43 of 45 shots, including a batch of unlikely highlight-reel plays, and almost single-handedly earned the Rangers a win they did not particularly deserve, but he couldn’t repeat the performance against Toronto two nights later, allowing eight goals on just 24 shots over the course of two horrific periods.

“I think any team will tell you that great goaltending will cover up some issues,” said Tom Renney after not receiving it for the second night in a row, “even the great teams.” He paused and added, “We’re not a great team. We want to be.”

The fact that Lundqvist was left to suffer through the second period after a miserable first was no accident. He raised some eyebrows during a December 3 loss to the Islanders when, having allowed four first-period goals, he suggested that Renney remove him for Weekes; he was having “a really tough time” and hoped a switch would jump-start the team. This is by all accounts a common practice for European goaltenders, and it’s perfectly reasonable—but American athletes are taught that you never ask out of a game, ever, even when dragging broken limbs and bleeding from the ears. Lundqvist, who had been innocently honest about the incident, was flummoxed when it sparked a mini-controversy; he said nothing after the first period of the Toronto game. Said Renney afterward, “I think this is a real gut-check time for our entire team—not just Henrik—and I thought that we had to show real singleness of purpose beyond the first period last night. Obviously you can view that as being unsuccessful, but only time will tell.”

Renney is typically honest and precise when evaluating a recent game or a particular player’s role in it, but he is fiercely vague when talking about his plans for the future; favorite phrases include “There’s a reasonable chance,” “I’ll be thinking about it,” and “I don’t want to speculate aboot that.” He is also, when talking about the more rough-and-tumble elements of the game, prone to euphemisms, as when he talks about placing another team under “physical duress.” When he added Darius Kasparaitis—a tough defenseman, despite an amiable demeanor and a long, straight blond mane with bangs that
make him resemble a Lithuanian Muppet—

to the lineup, he praised his ability to “bring a little sandpaper to the game.” This is apparently hockey coach–speak for “He will smash opposing players’ ribs against the boards if they so much as look at Jaromir Jagr cross-eyed—and if they object, punch them in the face.”

The Rangers’ main enforcers are Ryan Hollweg and Colton (no relation) Orr, and while neither will ever be accused of backing
down from a fight, they will also never be mistaken for Mike Tyson; the spirit is willing, but the flesh, as likely as not, ends up flailing around with a jersey pulled over its head.

It should be said that neither Jagr nor Brendan Shanahan needs much help taking care of himself, but the Rangers can’t afford to lose either of them to the penalty box this season. Jagr is, as of this writing, a close second in the NHL in points; Shanahan is one off the
league lead in goals scored. Both celebrated their 600th goal earlier this season and lead all active players. Rangers fans may hate that
Sather keeps throwing money at aging veterans instead of developing a core of
homegrown players, but these particular aging veterans are, thus far, hard to argue with.

Shanahan doesn’t look his age, which is 37—until you see a photo of his face in his rookie year and realize how many pucks, sticks, and fists have put their two cents in since 1987. He arrived in New York this fall and took seemingly all of two periods to become a fan favorite and a de facto team leader; Renney talks about him as if he were an extra assistant coach, and he’s endeared himself to the media by speaking well and willingly. He also displays the kind of modesty you can get away with when everyone knows exactly how good you are, crediting his quick success to his teammates (“The guys have done a great job of making me feel comfortable”) and coaches (“They’ve given me the opportunity to succeed”). He will admit, however, that leading the league in goals after 30 games probably didn’t hurt either.

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.'”