HARD HITS: A Father’s Day Hockey Celebration

By show of hands, how many fans got into hockey due to their Dad’s? It might not apply to all. But there are certainly plenty of hockey fans who love the sport because our fathers taught us about it.

On a Father’s Day on June 19 where the temperature isn’t sweltering at least here in Staten Island, New York, they’ve played two games of the Stanley Cup Finals. The high powered Avalanche have overwhelmed the two-time defending champion Lightning by taking Games 1-2 by a combined score of 11-3.

Of course, it looks much worse due to Colorado dominating Tampa Bay last night by blowing them out 7-0 in an uncompetitive Game Two. The crazy part is the Bolts got two goals in succession during the second period of Game One to force overtime. But Andre Burakovsky scored early in sudden death to give the Avalanche a huge first win to start the series.

They did whatever they wanted on Saturday night. The seven goals were the most Andrei Vasilevskiy has ever given up in the postseason. A brilliant performer who has always been very mentally tough, the former Vezina and Conn Smythe winner will have to move on very quickly as will his Lightning teammates when a pivotal Game Three takes place tomorrow night at Amalie Arena.

Whether they lost by a goal or a touchdown and extra point last night, it’s still an 0-2 series deficit for the Bolts. They were in this exact scenario against the Rangers during the Eastern Conference Final. Trailing by a pair, they rose up by getting two power play goals from Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos before Ondrej Palat scored the game-winner with 41.6 seconds remaining for a gutsy 3-2 win in Game Three.

The rest is history. The Lightning reeled off four in a row to stun the Rangers and make their third straight appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. It’s still a numb feeling over a week later after what happened in Game Five. The goal by Ryan Lindgren from a near impossible angle beating Vasilevskiy high short side, only to see Mikhail Sergachev tie matters on a similar play. Palat again delivering the crushing blow late in regulation. They’d wrap it up on a fluky Stamkos goal that answered a Frank Vatrano miracle off a face-off win.

Unlike Game Five where I went for a ride after the empty netter from Brandon Hagel, I sat there in stunned disbelief as the Lightning celebrated their hard fought 2-1 clincher in front of the home crowd that included Ranger fans who live down south. They blanketed Mika Zibanejad, who was a hero when he scored the tying goal to force extras in Game Seven of the first round against Pittsburgh.

Zibanejad led the Rangers in scoring with 10 goals, 14 assists and 24 points. One better than Adam Fox. However, neither hit the score sheet over the final three games. The Lightning shut them down along with Chris Kreider, whose memorable season saw him match Adam Graves for the most combined goals (62) by a Ranger for the regular season and postseason. Artemi Panarin, whose memorable overtime clincher on the power play that beat the Penguins, also was kept in check. It wasn’t easy to watch him struggle.

Still, it was a great season and run. One where pride was restored to the Blueshirts. An Original Six franchise I’ve followed for over three decades. All because of Dad. His loyalty to a team that hasn’t had much success since he was a kid in the 50’s, is part of the tradition when it comes to the Rangers.

Dad’s favorite players are Andy Bathgate, Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, Ed Giacomin and Brad Park. He could tell you all about Bathgate, who is one of two Rangers to win the Hart Trophy over the last 63 years. He won it in 1958-59. The other is the legendary Mark Messier, who took league MVP in 1991-92. The Captain as he’s affectionately known by fans delivered on his promise by leading the Rangers to the Stanley Cup in ’93-94. The only one this franchise has seen since World War II back in 1940.

As tough a history as our beloved Blueshirts have with only one Cup over the last 81 years (80 seasons due to ’04-05 cancelation), we stay true to the only team we’ve known growing up. It’s in our blood. So, I can still rattle off names like Vanbiesbrouck (Beezer), Sandstrom, Kisio, Granato, Miller, Mullen from the late 80’s. That’s really when I started following the Rangers. They actually had some games televised on the old WWOR, Channel 9 with the legendary Marv Albert on the call.  I even recall Bob Froese as a backup goalie. Talk about a name.

I wouldn’t be the passionate Rangers fan I am today without Dad. He went to games while at St. John’s where he graduated and earned a degree in accounting. He’d also stay and get his Masters.

It was in 1972 that the Rangers had their best chance to win their first Cup in 32 years. But a broken foot to Ratelle saw him miss most of the playoffs before returning for the Stanley Cup Final where he was a shell of himself in a gut wrenching six-game series loss to the hated Bruins. Bobby Orr skated with the Cup at MSG as Dad watched among the crowd. A story that’s been told many times to me and Justin throughout the years.

A huge missed opportunity for a team that boasted the famous GAG Line. It featured Gilbert, Ratelle and Vic Hadfield. The greatest scoring line in Rangers franchise history. Although you could get some debate from hockey historian Stan Fischler, whose knowledge dates back to the Bread Line that featured Bill Cook, brother Bun Cook and Frank Boucher. They won two of the team’s three Cups while playing together.

One thing is certain about that era under the late Emile Francis, who turned the franchise around by rebuilding in the 60’s to form a tremendous team that seriously challenged in the 70’s. While some modern historians view it differently, Dad absolutely hated the blockbuster trade that sent Ratelle and Park to the Bruins for Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais. Although both Espo and Vadnais had success on Broadway with both helping a rebuilt 1978-79 Rangers upset the Islanders on the way to a Stanley Cup appearance against the mighty Canadiens, all-time fans like Dad never got over trading two of the greatest players in franchise history.

The one that broke the camel’s back was the misguided trade of Rick Middleton to Boston for a washed up Ken Hodge. While the longtime former Bruins teammate of Esposito had nothing left and promptly hung up the skates, Middleton went onto a great career with the old rival Bruins. It really is mystifying that he’s never made the Hockey Hall Of Fame. But they’ll put in checker Guy Carbonneau due to his Cups with Montreal.

Middleton for Hodge might be the worst trade ever made by the Rangers. Of course, there are others. I hated trading Ray Ferraro, Ian Laperierre, Mattias Norstrom and Nathan Lafayette to the Kings for Jari Kurri, Marty McSorley and Shane Churla. A move by then GM Neil Smith that ruined the chemistry the ’95-96 team had. To this day, Ferraro doesn’t understand the trade. After coming back from two down to eliminate Montreal in six, the Rangers were dismantled by both Lemieux and Jagr as the Penguins won in five games.

It’s these kind of moves that stick with you when it comes to rooting for the Rangers. Maybe that’s been instilled in me from our Dad. As close as they came to winning the Cup which also included the memorable Pete Stemkowski goal in triple overtime to beat the Blackhawks in Game Six of the Semifinals at The Garden, the Rangers went onto lose that series in seven games.

The tales of such games are etched in Rangers lore. Even though they fell short. I wonder to this day what it was like for our father to witness Orr, Esposito and the Bruins celebrating their second Cup in three years at MSG. An Orr who was at the peak of his dominance. Whenever we discuss the game’s greatest players, he always puts Orr at the top of the list over Gretzky and Howe, who he of course loved growing up.

Having seen enough clips of Orr, he was something special. He changed the way the game was played by revolutionizing the sport for defensemen. The skating combined with the speed, skill and instincts define why Number 4 is the greatest player at the position. Imagine if he had stayed healthy what he could’ve done. For six years, he dominated by winning two Cups, three consecutive Harts and six of eight straight Norris Trophies. Plus an Art Ross.

It’s astonishing to think injuries to his knee finished Orr at 27. His final season in Boston was only 10 games. He put up 18 points. He’d finish his career with the Blackhawks by playing only 26 more games. When they show highlights, Orr’s overtime winner at 40 seconds to win the Cup over the Blues in 1970 is replayed. It’s an airborne Orr flying in the air in celebration after he scored. A famous shot that is a beautiful image. Like art.

As great as it is to hear Dad talk about Orr, my favorite moment will always be Game Seven of the ’94 Eastern Conference Final. We were all crammed into his office watching the game on our old TV. The Rangers led 1-0 on a brilliant goal by Brian Leetch. They held the one-goal lead throughout a tense third period. But in classic Ranger fashion, they allowed the Devils to tie it when Valeri Zelepukin scored with 7.7 seconds remaining in regulation. It was unbelievable.

In what felt like an eternity, the Rangers and Devils went two overtimes to decide the well played series. There were some close calls along the way. If you watched (who hasn’t?) Sam Rosen’s, “Where’s The Puck,” call it was nerve racking. Luckily, Steve Larmer cleared it out of harm’s way. You also had Mike Richter stop Bobby Holik on a breakaway. He was only able to chip the puck on goal. On the opposite end, Martin Brodeur robbed Mark Messier of a sure winner on the doorstep.

It finally ended when Stephane Matteau got to a loose puck in the Devils’ end and skated around the net where he fortunately had his wrap-around bounce off a sliding Slava Fetisov past Brodeur for the series clincher at 4:24 of the second overtime. I was the first to notice that the puck was in. I had to tell Dad that Matteau scored and they won. I’ll never forget his reaction. Total shock. It was a great moment.

Of course, they blew a three games to one lead against the Canucks, who forced a winner take all Game Seven at MSG on June 14, 1994. I can still recall our history teacher even getting involved by having a friendly little classroom pool on the big game. I opted not to participate due to my playoff superstition. The only thing I knew was that the final score would be 3-2. It was just a feeling. Yes. I had our team winning by a goal. Little did I know how much anxiety it would cause.

Watching Game Seven was intense. You could feel your stomach in knots. But being able to watch it on MSG Network as called by Sam and JD (the great John Davidson) was a treat. At that time, we didn’t know it would be the final year home networks could televise the Cup. It was a very different time. A better one. I’m not exactly a fan of national TV having exclusive rights from Round Two on. That’s garbage.

The ultimate seventh game sure delivered. Sergei Zubov made a great pass for a wide open Leetch, who took his time before firing into an open side with Kirk McLean out of position for the first goal. Then, Alexei Kovalev was able to take a great Zubov pass and feed Adam Graves for a power play goal that made it 2-0 in a great first period.

Easy. Right? Not so fast. You had an unbelievable individual effort by Trevor Linden, who was able to beat Richter for a shorthanded goal that cut the deficit in half for Vancouver. But on what amounted to a mad scramble in front with both Messier and Brian Noonan parked there, the Captain was credited with a power play goal that made it 3-1. To this day, I don’t believe he ever touched it. It looked like Noonan’s goal. Regardless, the Rangers led by two. They were closing in on the Cup.

If you’ve followed this team for a while, then you understand by now that nothing ever comes easy for them. That’s the Rangers Way. When Linden buried his second on a power play early in the third, it was nervous time. There were still over 15 minutes left for the Canucks to tie it. Given how the Devils series was where three games needed sudden death, it wouldn’t have surprised us.

They sure made it interesting. Martin Gelinas came close. But he hit the near goalpost. Then, you had the same Nathan Lafayette all set up for the tying goal. However, his one-timer from the slot rang off the crossbar with Richter fully outstretched. At the time, it looked like he got a piece of it with his glove. It made for quite a nervous call by Rosen. He was at his best along with Davidson, whose signature call, “Oh Baby,” appropriately became the title for the Rangers’ Stanley Cup video on something called VHS. I miss those days.

Following that close call, the Rangers defended better. As they drew closer to winning their first Cup in 54 years, you still had Kevin Collins calling an icing on a Steve Larmer clear where the puck slowed down to the point of Pavel Bure looking defeated. He thought it was over. So did Rosen. The crowd booed. Yet with 1.6 seconds remaining, you still were waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Aside from Rosen’s memorable call that included, “The waiting is over. This one will last a lifetime,” you had Davidson talk about how long these players and fans had waited. I think he was referencing former players like himself. It was JD who backstopped the ’78-79 Rangers to the huge upset of the Islanders before losing in five to the Canadiens Dynasty. He sure understood along with Rosen what it had been like for fans and players.

My favorite part was seeing our proud father reduced to tears of joy. He couldn’t believe it. He thought he’d never see it. That Stanley Cup were for longtime fans like him and even the older generation. Those were the diehards. The ones who stuck it out. Never wavered in their loyalty and support. I look back now and think how lucky Justin and I were to see them win that Cup while we were younger.

Now, it’s almost 30 years later. We’re still waiting for another Cup celebration. They came close in 2014. That was a great run inspired by the death of Marty St. Louis’ Mom France. They dug deep to rally back from a 3-1 second round deficit to beat the Penguins behind Henrik Lundqvist. Then defeated the Canadiens in six. Game Six is the best game we ever attended. A 1-0 clincher. Brian Boyle to Dominic Moore for the game’s only goal, which followed a ridiculous save by Lundqvist on Thomas Vanek.

I never thought in all the seasons we went to games that they’d ever clinch the Prince of Wales Trophy to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. That was truly special. I guess we haven’t been as fortunate as Devils fans on the other side of the Hudson. Even though their team is in a bad way, they’ve seen them win three times including ’03 which Hasan attended Game Seven. That must be like going to heaven. I can only imagine.

Since the heartbreaking loss in 2015 to the Lightning, I no longer care if I’m ever in the building for such a big game. At this point, I just want to see them win another Cup while we’re all around. The run they gave us was exciting. Especially after five years out of the playoffs. Seeing guys like Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren and Igor Shesterkin blossom throughout the season and especially in the postseason was pretty special. Especially with so much of the core homegrown. That includes K’Andre Miller, Braden Schneider, Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko.

For the first time in a while, things are looking up. I can’t say for sure what will happen with the off-season. But our team will be back. They can use the experience they got in the postseason as motivation. They went a lot further than many believed. The heart and character they showed in coming back to beat both the Pens and Hurricanes to reach their first Conference Finals in seven years was tremendous.

To quote the legendary Biggie Smalls, “The sky’s the limit.”

I hope one day soon we can celebrate one more Cup with our Dad. The best person I know. To all out there, Happy Father’s Day!!!!! 💜✨️⭐️

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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