Sunday, November 8, 2009

That Championship Feeling

I was pretty excited and emotionally drained when the Yankees won their 27th baseball championship Wednesday night, but my all-time cathartic sports experience was the Stanley Cup victory by the NY Rangers in 1994 which ended 54 years of frustrating hockey for Rangers fans.

Aside from the Yankees, the two teams I root for are the NY Giants football team and the Rangers. I have almost no interest in watching basketball, and only if really bored will I watch a sports event that does not involve any of my favorite teams.

I became interested in hockey in 1962 because of Elliot Levine when I entered 9th grade. Elliot was a rabid Rangers fan. Those Rangers teams were led by Andy Bathgate, Camille Henry, Jim Nielsen, Harry Howell and Gump Worsley. Rooting for the Rangers back then was an education in humility.

I first met Elliot in 1957 when I was eight-years-old, my second year at Camp Massad Aleph in Tannersville, Pa. Though a scrawny (read that, really skinny) kid, I was a pretty good athlete. The prior year I was arguably the best in my division.

So on the first day of my second year at Massad, I was quickly alerted to the prowess of one of our new bunkmates. I was told he could punch a ball all the way up the hill to the flagpole, a truly prodigious feat. With trepidation, I stepped outside to witness what proved to be an accurate accounting of his talent. He also could pitch softball better than I. He was, in short, a better athlete.

Naturally, we sustained a rivalry throughout that summer and the next three that we shared together, culminating in an after-lights out fight one Friday night when we were 11. The fight ended after he flipped me against the metal frame of a bed and a counselor mercifully showed up to end the mismatch. Actually, it didn’t quite end there. As we wanted to tangle, the counselor said, let’s do it the old fashioned way, with boxing gloves. Elliot outweighed me by about 30 pounds, but that didn’t matter to anyone except me. I’d like to say I acquitted myself admirably, but I’m still a little woozy as to the particulars of that encounter.

By the time we re-engaged in high school, our rivalry had pretty much ceased. I even turned out to be the pitcher on our school softball team, undefeated our senior year. Elliot played shortstop. Elliot took me to my first hockey game at the old Madison Square Garden. I became hooked with the sport. I suffered through the lost opportunity years of Gilbert, Ratelle, Hadfield, Park, Tkaczuk, Nevin, Stemkowski, Neilson and Giacomin.

When the Rangers traded Ratelle and Park to the hated Boston Bruins, I lost interest in hockey. It was not rekindled until the Mark Messier-Adam Graves-Brian Leetch-Mike Richter era. Messier remains the single greatest team leader I have ever seen. I won’t recount his exploits here, except to say that he not only guaranteed a Stanley Cup, he virtually single-handedly delivered it. He surely willed his teammates to victory.

The night the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, I stayed up into the early morning hours watching highlights and locker room interviews. Though I had waited just 32 years, my whole body felt released from the weight of 54 years without a championship.

Fifteen years have passed, but the good feeling remains. It’s been nine years since the Yankees last won the World Series. Yes, I’m overjoyed they won again. But it feels nothing like it did back on June 14, 1994.