Halfway through the third period of Saturday night’s St. Patrick’s Day Rangers-Avalanche game, Cuba Gooding, Jr. showed up on the Jumbotron. Gooding, looking delighted to be on screen somewhere, frantically waved his arms, appeared to holler a few things about the Rangers and made a generally honorable attempt to excite the sluggish crowd. Remarkably, it worked, where the return of Henrik Lundqvist, Mats Zucharello’s first goal of the year and an excellent second period fight hadn’t.
Earlier that day, the Bruins and Flyers played a bruising, dramatic, thrilling game before a sold-out Boston crowd covered in green and yellow and black. The Bruins wore green jerseys for the pre-game skate while fans in paperboy hats and Gaelic tattoos turned to take photos in front of the TD Garden ice. A man in a green tuxedo sang “The Star Spangled Banner” and the rafters roared and shook as the B’s put in two first period goals. But the Flyers muscled back to tie the game, the frenzied crowd hanging on every check, turnover and shot—chanting and singing and screaming throughout the entire contest. Then, after a ferocious overtime and a rousing Bruins victory in the third round of a shootout, the arena erupted in hugs and more singing and poured into the streets of Boston to continue the celebration while the players, smiling with reporters in the locker room described the game as “special.”
But back at MSG, where the mostly green and blue crowd was busy getting itself worked up over Cuba Gooding, Jr., it became clear that the Rangers organization had missed the moment. To the fans in Madison Square Garden, just like those in the shaking bleachers in the Boston Garden, St. Patrick’s Day was a special occasion game. Many, wearing green under their jerseys, were primed to sing and chant and hang all over their own “special” contest. The only problem was, it didn’t feel very special. Except maybe for the few Avalanche fans in attendance. Seymon Varlamov, had perhaps the best game of his career, making 41 saves in the 3-1 win for the Avalanche—a very young, middle-of-the road Western Conference team. But on a day that presents the perfect opportunity for hockey as something bigger than itself, the Rangers schedule a team with no superstars, no distinctive story and no real chance of winning the Cup. And abstained from any genuine acknowledgement of why the day itself was “special” to the fans.
Pro sports are littered with depressing and hilarious incidences of ham-handed team efforts to create fan friendly sports experiences (c.f., The Haier Shooting Stars Competition, Dinger the Pandering Mascot, the NBA’s chaotic 80's nights, and the Florida Marlins' center field catastrophe inspired by the buffet at the Rio Casino). When they’re not distracting, they’re often overblown or disproportionate or patently ridiculous.
But this should be an easy one for the NHL: Two cities in North America boast the oldest, longest, deepest ties to Irish heritage. They also have a hockey rivalry among the toughest and most robust in the NHL. They also happen to be hugely important strategic markets that don’t particularly care for one another: Boston and New York. One, home to the largest Irish population in the country, and the other, the city through which most Irish Americans can trace their lineage.
The details practically fill themselves in: alternate the home team annually, have a bagpiper perform the National Anthem, give both squads a one-game “Shamrock Classic” chest-patch, let the home team wear green jerseys and drop the puck for a matinee so fans can enjoy it when most people actually celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. March 17th falls about a dozen games before the end of the NHL season, a time when teams are jockeying for playoff seeding—a perfect moment to get the Rangers and Bruins together for an old-fashioned head basher before a well lubricated sell-out crowd and thousands of packed pubs around the country. A circled game on the calendar for the fans, the players and the league, it would be the much needed NHL equivalent of a Yankees-Red Sox series on a crisp weekend in mid-September. The fans who already arrive dressed, liquored and fired up - as they do everywhere on St. Patrick’s Day only need some sort of modest but non-insulting effort from the league.
Instead, here’s what we got from the Rangers and maybe $250 worth of the NHL special promotions budget: Someone named Steve Murphy gave a throaty, Darius Rucker-style rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” an Irish Step-Dancing troupe did a routine on the big-screen from the upper deck during TV-timeout in the first period and an intern in a leprechaun costume threw Rangers t-shirts to fans in expensive seats. But fans don’t want artifice, they want traditions rooted in the game itself—where the mutually reinforcing excitement between players and the crowd is at a higher level because the game actually is special. The NHL knows this because they’ve done it before by creating the massively successful Winter Classic.
On my way to the locker room after the game, in an empty industrial hall under MSG, I walked past a thoroughly pleased Cuba Gooding, Jr. If nothing else, the game had been special for him—he had been loved and cheered and able to imagine for about 25 seconds in the third period that it was 1997 again. But for everyone else involved, the night seemed pretty regular. Just another home loss. Running a pro sports franchise — to say nothing of an entire league—certainly can’t be as easy as we might want to imagine it is. Sometimes, though, you have to take the easy wins.