NEW YORK – Only at Madison Square Garden does No. 2 fit so perfectly between 11 and 35.
It happened Thursday night when the New York Rangers retired Brian Leetch’s famous number. They raised a banner next to those of Mark Messier and Mike Richter, the stellar defenceman’s teammates on the 1994 Stanley Cup championship team that ended 54 years of waiting.
“I have felt this building shake, starting in the blue seats and filling this arena,” Leetch said during the 51-minute ceremony before the Rangers’ 2-1 shootout victory over the Atlanta Thrashers.
Then the 11-time all-star, who was the NHL rookie of the year, twice the league’s top defenceman, and the MVP of the 1994 playoffs rocked the house again.
Always one to deflect praise and attention away from himself, Leetch stunned the packed arena by announcing a secret he held that the Rangers will retire the No. 9 of longtime teammate and ultimate fan favourite Adam Graves, who stood a few steps away at centre ice.
“I said, ‘If you want me to do it, I’d love to it,”‘ Leetch recalled.
No one played more games as Leetch’s teammate than Graves, who suited up 690 times. He didn’t put up Hall of Fame numbers in the way Leetch, Messier and Richter did, but Graves’ humanitarian side and passion for the game always resonated with the adoring public.
Messier, who had already begun to cry in introducing Leetch, shed more happy tears for Graves, his teammate in Edmonton and New York.
“The only thought that came to my mind was how humble I felt,” Graves said. “Wearing that jersey was gift enough. Having this opportunity, I’m lucky.”
It was an honour that many figured would never come for Graves, who saw Pavel Bure wear the No. 9 after his departure from the Rangers. Graves’ ceremony will be held next season.
“That kind of made me calm because I knew I had that to come and it was going to be exciting,” Leetch said. “I knew Adam was going to be blown away.”
Leetch clapped and smiled widely as his teammate and close friend was feted on his night, clearly thrilled that he could even upstage himself.
“I was foggy. I had no idea,” Graves said. “It caught me off guard and I was like, ‘Go back there, it’s your night.”‘
Leetch is second in Rangers history with 1,129 games played in 17 seasons from 1988-2004, first with 741 assists, second with 981 points, and first among defencemen with 240 goals and 981 points.
He clutched his two-year-old son, Sean, in his arms as the banner was raised over the goal on the east side of the rink, beside tables holding the Stanley Cup, and the Calder and Norris Trophies that Leetch won.
Always in control, Leetch never really came close to tears. He left that to Messier, who has become almost as famous for his weepy speeches as he is for bold victory guarantees.
“I had a lot of advice from friends who said, ‘If you start forgetting what you want to say, just start crying. Just break down and everyone will feel bad and you can just cover up,”‘ Leetch said.
When Messier got choked up in lauding Leetch, calling him “the greatest Ranger ever,” one fan yelled in the otherwise silent building “There it is.”
The longtime captain, who played 610 games with Leetch in two Rangers stints, didn’t mind a bit. He was the only speaker, other than master of ceremonies Sam Rosen, and when he finished talking he took his place alongside Richter, and fellow Hockey Hall of Famers Eddie Giacomin, and Rod Gilbert – the only other Rangers to have their numbers retired.
That select group wore blue jerseys while several other former Rangers made a semicircle at centre ice dressed in white sweaters. When the current team filled the bench during the ceremony, the players sported the No. 2 on their left shoulders.
Leetch’s rugged former teammates Tie Domi and Darren Langdon rode along the ice on an Army ATV that pulled a gifted Harley Davidson motorcycle. Richter presented Leetch with a US$25,000 check, on behalf of the Rangers organization, for the John J. Murray Foundation – founded in 2002 in memory of Leetch’s close friend, who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack in New York.
Craig Patrick, the New York general manager who selected Leetch with the ninth pick of the 1986 draft, sat in the stands as did Neil Smith – the GM of the 1994 title team.
Leetch’s No. 2 has been painted behind each net for several weeks during the buildup for this event that was announced before the season.
Before Leetch took the ice, he stopped into the Rangers dressing room as this season’s occupants stood and clapped. Leetch shook hands with Brendan Shanahan and saw his former stall, just to the right, filled with his familiar blue jersey.
“I was not that nervous, not that scared of what I was going to say,” Leetch said. “I was just really enjoying it and I was not sure I was going to be able to do that.”
Cheers and chants following Leetch as the big video board over centre ice showed his stroll to the ice through corridors that lead from the dressing room.
The fans begged for “one more year” but that wish didn’t come. Instead they enjoyed one more night with No. 2.