Kids offer welcome infusion of change and excitement to ho-hum Rangers day


There were so many youngsters being escorted into Madison Square Garden that you half expected them all to be twirling flashlights in the darkness and watching the Flying Gutkowskis or some other daredevil circus act.

But there was no pungent aire de pachyderm wafting through the Garden. It is not yet springtime. There was, of all things, a matinee hockey game, to celebrate the day after St. Valentine's Day, or whatever Feb. 15 is.

After the Rangers met the Blues on what turned out to be Kiddies' Day, there would also be a Legends Game so that the chaperones could impress the youngsters with the way hockey used to be when men were men and did not wear helmets.

It is always good for one generation to pass along the folkways and mores to the next generation. I had this image of parents telling their children, "Here's the way we do the Potvin Chant."

Actually, the children were so intimidated by being in such a fun place instead of school that they did not shriek the way their elders normally do during "The Star-Spangled Banner." For the first time in decades, the words "the land of the free and the home of the brave" were heard in the Garden.

Then the puck was dropped, and exactly 21 seconds later, two alleged adults named Mark Messier and Basil McRae, were out there whacking away at each other, and another alleged adult named Adam Graves was joining in the festivities.

Puzzled children turned to the grown-ups and asked: "Daddy, Daddy, why are they fighting? The game just began!"

For such behavior in the second grade, a child would be banished to the principal's office, and that's exactly what happened to Graves, much to his surprise. The league has got touchy about its knuckle-nose image in much of the Lower 48, and has tightened the rules for the third-man-in on fights.

Graves, who has taken on the role of protector for the Rangers' creaky superstar, was ejected from the game.

The Rangers' new coach, Ron Smith, who looks startingly like the Dallas Cowboys' Jimmy Johnson without the plasticized pompadour, was probably mad at Graves, but he took it out on the official. And there was no serious fighting for almost the entire game.

With no stupid distractions like mugging and grabbing, hockey can be a breathtaking game and the children got into it.

In the second period, with the Rangers leading, 3-1, there were two plays that were as good as they get. St. Louis' Brendan Shanahan fired from down low, and John Vanbiesbrouck, flat on the ice, stuck up the claw-like mitt on his left hand and made a clean swipe. Shanahan lay on the ice and muttered, and when he got back to the bench, he gaped at the replay on the message board overhead, and then he grinned. He had been robbed, and he took it well.

"Shanahan liked that save," somebody would tell Vanbiesbrouck.

"He didn't really like it," Vanbiesbrouck said. "I just got lucky."

Literally seconds later, there was a roar on the other end as the puck skittered straight to Alexei Kovalev, a Russian who is trying to overcome centuries of authoritarian rule in just a few months in North America. He is trying to get by on sheer talent, and he just might make it.

Instead of backchecking and doing the dirty work, Kovalev was lurking way up the ice -- playing hookey, as it were -- hoping for a miracle. Suddenly the puck materialized at his feet, and Kovalev flashed in on Curtis Joseph and gave him a head fake to the right, and Joseph leaped halfway to New Jersey, and Kovalev swerved left and flipped the puck in the net. The kids enjoyed the sheer artistry of it.

In the third period, there was another ejection, after the Rangers' James Patrick had drawn blood on a high-sticking penalty to Craig Janney. A man in the upper deck shouted something that any child could hear in an Eddie Murphy movie on HBO at 8 o'clock, but it sounded pretty rank on Kiddies' Day.

A couple of ushers actually marched up to the Murphy-like heckler and gave him a stern warning, and he seemed a bit confused, since this is normal social conversation in the upper deck.

The game ended in a 4-1 Rangers victory, which they surely needed. The children and the grown-ups went out into the cold to enjoy the rest of the holiday.

The Rangers will be away until the night of March 3, when you won't be able to hear the national anthem but you will be able to hear other things. It was nice while it lasted.

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