After a five-day “bye week”, the Rangers returned to the ice tonight to face the Toronto Maple Leafs. They also came to celebrate the life of NYPD Detective Steven McDonald, who died earlier this week at age 59. McDonald, who was paralyzed in the line of duty in 1986 and then later forgave his shooter, was a huge Rangers’ fan.
The McDonald family became a big part of the Rangers’ family and inspired the very popular “Extra Effort Award” given yearly in his honor. Over the years, the fans not only adopted McDonald, but also his wife Patti Ann and son Conor as their own. Conor (now a NYPD Sargeant) and Patti Ann, who were escorted to center ice by Adam Graves and Mark Messier, participated in the ceremonial puck drop, and then stood there as the fans stood and cheered the courage and character of the fallen officer.
If that was not emotional or inspiring enough, during a break in the first period, the Rangers played a beautiful tribute to McDonald on Garden Vision. While Patti Ann and Conor stood at the edge of the tunnel, current and former Rangers spoke of what McDonald’s courage and willingness to forgive meant to them.
It reminded all of us what hockey is really about. While other sports are often only about performance, in hockey, performance without character is never revered. Scouting staffs and teams are always looking for guys who have that “right stuff” inside of them. McDonald certainly had it and he showed it to us every time he entered MSG. Which was why tonight so many fans (and a couple of sportswriters) had tears in our eyes. McDonald was a class act, who reminded everyone what each of us can be if we are at our best.
The Rangers, though, were not at their best tonight. Losing by a score of 4-2, the return of Rick Nash and Pavel Buchnevich made no difference to the game. The Rangers kept coming, but when faced with an incredibly talented and well coached Leafs’ team, it just was not in the cards. Toronto is fast, aggressive and excellent in their own zone. They outskated the Rangers, who had excellent chances (netminder Frederick Anderson was definitely beatable), but could not convert.
Going into the evening, the Leafs were in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, but don’t be fooled by their place in the standings. They had at least two games in hand over most of the teams in the Conference, and have a winning record. Toronto could easily still make the playoffs and, if they get there, they will be a formidable opponent. The team keeps getting better and better as the season moves along. The Leafs may not be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders yet, but it won’t be long until they will be.
The team that should really be worried right now, however, is not the Rangers. It’s the Islanders. John Tavares is a Toronto area native, and he is only signed for one more year. Tavares would be a huge addition to the Leafs, a team that may be a contender just about as he would get to the GTA. Scary thought for the rest of the league.