UPDATE: The Rangers claimed winger Mark Bell on re-entry waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs, according to TSN. The 6'4-220 pound one-time 25-goal scorer will be a free agent at the end of this season -- the Rangers and Leafs will split what remains of his $2.5 million salary cap hit this season. Bell has a troubled past that includes a hit-and-run drunk driving incident and a resulting month-long suspension and stint in the NHL's substance abuse program. He had just 27 points in 56 AHL games this season.
Yesterday was a strange day in Rangerland for me. Tom Renney, who had been the coach during my entire tenure covering the team, had literally fallen off the face of the earth, gone without a good-bye one day after being the omnipresent ruler of the roost. Gone was the calmness that always made the inside of the MSG Training Center (at least the Rangers' half) as unassuming as the nondescript exterior, replaced by a giddyness and near frenzy that seemed appropriate to John Tortorella.
Gone too was the pall that had descended over the place in recent weeks as the team floundered and the coach was put on notice. There wasn't exactly a sense of hope in its place, not with most observers still skeptical that any coach can get some of these Rangers to play up to a past potential that may be just that -- in the past. But there was the unmistakable buzz of the Rangers being a story again, a team that will have at least one personality behind the bench, a personality that will do his damnedest to bring that personality to the ice as well.
An apt symbol of that personality emerged when Jim Ramsey passed through the locker room and screamed at the media throng to "Get the hell off the logo" -- the Ranger crest woven into the fabric of the rug (as far as I could tell, he said "hell" not the F word reported elsewhere, although I may not have been listening when he said that). Rammer's command did not pertain to me, as I have always made it a point not to step on the logo even when no one ever cared -- as a matter of fact, no one seemed to care about fifteen minutes earlier when the players threw their equipment into bins and bags strewn across the crest, Henrik Lundqvist treading straight across it in full regalia with his skates and all. So you'll have to excuse me if take the new no-step policy with a grain of salt, especially as a symbol of some newfound respect, as if Renney was lacking in that respect.
I was talking to Chris Kotsopoulos and Ron Duguay about power play goals and players with no pulses when the order came down -- Kotsy, if you're reading, excuse me for acting like the starstruck fan I don't usually act like, but I was just a fan, not a reporter, when you and Doogie were Rangers, and I still have to pinch myself after I get to talk hockey with guys I used to root for. And that goes even more so than for the current players, all of whom I've gotten to know as a reporter rather than strictly as a fan, and who all remain guarded in a way when talking to media types (no doubt with good cause).
The first person I talked to in the locker room after the morning skate was Marc Staal. Just the other day after the Toronto game I asked Marc if he knew that he was the only one of his brothers to still be playing for the coach he started the season playing for. Today I apologized for jinxing him. I talked to Lauri Korpikoski about the uptempo drills the team went through and he told me they were Jim Schoenfeld's drills that he already knew from playing for him in Hartford. I didn't have the heart to ask Lauri about what I was thinking, that the new coach's history of riding his stars would probably affect his ice time.
I likewise did not have the heart to go across the room to where Aaron Voros sat alone while the throngs pressed Drury, Gomez, Redden, Lundqvist, and even Dubinsky, not even casting a glance his way, the cameramen following each other around the room like a school of piranha. What would I ask Voros anyway, whether he expected to ever play again now that his sponsor, Renney, was gone? Anyway, it was more fun to listen in while Gomez and Larry Brooks (who used to be the Devils' PR guy) ran through the Devils' playoff history trying to figure out whether Gomer won or lost to Tortorella's Lightning during the two teams' respective Cup runs, Gomez wanting to bet Brooks a hundred dollars that it was Kevin Weekes in Carolina who beat them, not Weekes in Tampa.
We started a pool among the reporters as to who would be the first person Tortorella snapped at. I thought I could win the pool by choosing myself and immediately asking Torts the stupid Kovalev question I had been asking everyone the past few days -- after all, I was the last person Renney ever snapped at when I asked him that question during his last press conference (the only person Renney ever snapped at, said some, though I'm pretty sure he snapped at me at least once before for pestering him about the power play). The other night I turned on the NHL Network to see what they were saying about the coaching change after watching 24 with my wife, and there was Renney barking out, "How well did you think we played tonight?" My wife said, "Wow, he's not a happy camper." I said, "Yeah, that's me he's yelling at there."
Anyway, they didn't let me choose myself, and I didn't want to ask Torts about the Kovalev treatment anyway, so I chose another guy, one whom I admire for being able to speak up as much as he does but who sometimes doesn't think his questions through all the way, like the time in pre-season when he asked a player who was fighting for an NHL job (and who won it, by the way) how he would feel to go back to Hartford. I figure he'll be the guy to pipe up with the candid question after a particularly tough loss and have his head bitten off. I'm sure he's going to read this and bite my head off the next time he sees me.
Well, that's the kind of day it was. It really started the night before during Glen Sather's teleconference about the coaching change when, during a technical glitch, Sather yelled, "Hello-o!" over and over into the phone in a most unbecoming manner -- guys are trying to figure out how to make that their ring tones today. There are signs of life again at the Training Center, at least among the press corps -- we'll fnd out starting tonight in Toronto whether there will be signs of life on the ice as well. As much as I still believe that this mess was not Renney's fault, that he earned a chance to turn it around through season's end, and that I doubt anyone is going to get anything out of some of these underachieving veterans, even the fiery Tortorella, I have to admit that fan interest had dwindled dangerously close to non-existent, and my little venture here needs this to be a shot in the arm as much as the team does.
One good thing at least to come out of the press conference is visual evidence that I still have more hair than Zipay, as you can see in the accompanying photo at right that shows the backs of our respective heads. Both of us forgot to bring hats to the rink to protect our bald/balding pates from the overhead heaters that keep the media's corner of the rink warm. While I did not appreciate the impromptu tan, Zip was happy for anything warm in late February of the coldest winter since 2005.
To read more on Tortorella's first day: Newsday here and here, Times, Post here and here, Daily News, Journal News here and here, NY Sports Day, NYR.com, NHL.com here and here, AP, PA Sports Ticker, CBC here and here. More from the blogs -- Blue Notes, Ranger Rants, Rangers Report, Faceoff, Game On!, Howlings, and Prospect Park. The Tampa Tribune has a note on the tampering issue. The Rangers are in Toronto tonight for the second half of a home and home series -- a win will be a response to the coaching change, a loss will be growing pains as Torts evaluates his new team. For previews, see NYR.com and NHL.com. The Record has a note on Paul Mara's progress. And incredibly, a second article on the Potvin chant in as many days.