By stuhackel
July 31, 2011

Believe it or not, the Rangers' home in the old Madison Square Garden on 8th Avenue near 50th St. in Manhattan was worse than the Islanders' run-down Nassau Coliseum is now. (John G. Zimmerman/SI)

By Stu Hackell

The last few days have brought a number of interesting stories -- the Kings filing a grievance on the Ryan Smyth-Colin Fraser deal, Oilers goalie Nikolai Khabibulin beginning his DUI sentence, a pair of veterans -- Brent Sopel and Alex Kovalev -- heading to the KHL, and the bid submitted in the complicated sale of the Dallas Stars. Any one would be worth writing a post about.

A few New York-area items crawled into the hockey headlines, too, including the Rangers re-signing their heart-and-soul RFA Ryan Callahan, and the Devils and Islanders pulling off a trade that helps both teams -- but not really for hockey reasons. The Devs shipped Brian Rolston and his big contract to the Isles for Trent Hunter and his less-big contract. The deal made Rolston the highest-paid Islander at slightly over $5 million and brought them to within a mere six million -- or a few RFA signings and one Alexei Yashin -- away from the cap floor of $48.3 million. The deal also freed up money the Devs needed to sign their RFA leftwinger Zach Parise for the season at $6 million.

Also, today (Monday) is the big referendum on Long Island as Nassau County residents decide if they want to pay for a new arena for Charles Wang's Isles that he declines to finance himself. I wrote about that a bit last week and before the week ended, both the Rangers and Devils issued statements in support of the new coliseum, and why wouldn't they? They don't want the Isles to move. Consider this: 1) The Isles' two local rivals love the bus ride road trips to Long Island, which are much cheaper than flights elsewhere. 2) The Devs gladly welcome Islanders fans buying tickets when the two teams play in Newark. 3) The Rangers' parent company, Madison Square Garden, owns the Islanders' TV rights and wouldn't want to lose that property. But whether the rivals' endorsements will mean anything in the final tally is pretty questionable.

Despite its image, the truth is that Nassau Coliseum isn't an awful place to see a hockey game. Au contraire. It has very good sightlines and a traditional intimacy compared to the huge buildings that most NHL clubs now call home. To me, that's what matters most: If I go to a game, I want to be able to see the game. I don't care much about the stuff on the scoreboard or the ice when play stops, or the snippets of irrelevant ear-splitting music, or the size of the menu at the concession stands. If I don't have a good view of the game, what's the point? And the Coliseum has really good views everywhere.

Still, the Coliseum is old, the dressing rooms are outmoded, and in a world that fetishizes the new, it's something of an embarrassment. But mostly it doesn't have the revenue-generating extras that make owners drool and want to spend to build a winner that will, in turn, attract wealthy fans and corporations to support the team. I understand that's more important in the hockey business than good sightlines, and if Long Islanders feel that's worth paying for in these increasingly tough times, well, that's what they'll vote for today. I don't live in Nassau County. It's up to those who do to determine, through the blizzard of claims and counterclaims, if what is good for Charles Wang and the Isles also makes sense within the bigger picture.

And that brings me to one last New York hockey story from last week. Reporters got a look at the improvements being made to the NHL arena in Manhattan -- which is not on Madison, not Square and not a Garden. The big round concrete building on Eighth Ave. between 31st and 33rd Streets is currently undergoing a massive $850 million three-year offseason renovation, with more work to be done during each of the next two summers. And that got me thinking back to when I saw my first NHL game at the old Madison Square Garden that was between 49th and 50th Streets. That's coming up on 50 years ago.

The Old Garden was a great ramshackle of a building, a place nowhere near as nice as Nassau Coliseum was 40 years ago when it opened -- or even now. But I didn't care much what it looked like if there was a hockey game inside.

My first NHL game was a Rangers-Black Hawks (that's how they spelled it back then; two words) matinee on a rainy winter Saturday in February 1962 and it was a transforming experience. It started the moment I entered the arena after climbing flight after flight on dim switchback staircases. I suddenly looked down to see this very large patch of very white ice, illuminated from lights above. The lights also produced a light blue haze from all the cigarette and cigar smoke rising to the ceiling.

When the teams came out -- the Rangers in their dark blue sweaters, Chicago in white -- and the action started, I was instantly mesmerized by how the players all turned to chase the puck at once, or go off for a line change in synchronized fashion, how the patterns broke when bodies started to fly and how they tried to pull the sweater over the other guy's head when they fought. Most of all, I was fascinated by the goalies (and that's my first hockey hero, Gump Worsley, in the photo above; he didn't play for the Rangers in this game, however). The beer was flowing, the crowd was nasty. When they got on a player, they might chant "Fleming stinks!"--  and that was considered vile for its time. This wasn't kids' entertainment like the circuses I'd seen at the Garden (although the Rangers in those days often played like clowns). For me, it was a "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore" moment.

Over time, I came to really love watching the games at the Old Garden from a mezzanine seat that probably cost less than $10. If I had bought a few 45 records recently, I'd have to settle for an end arena seat. They were only around $4 bucks, $2 in the balcony. I don't think there's anything you can buy in an NHL arena today that's only $2. I had to buy a program; that was 50 cents. I know that lots of fans who sat in the side upper balcony couldn't see the whole ice, especially the students who got in for a reduced rate (half-price, I think) with what was called a "G.O. Card." That wasn't for me. I'd spend a bit more to see everything. Actually, I once got stuck behind a pole in a partly obstructed-view seat -- a little cheaper, but it was Bobby Orr's rookie season and I wanted to see him play; I mean, he was only a couple of years older than me.

Of course, if someone else was paying, like my father, sitting about 15 rows from the ice was really great.

Now, at the Old Garden, the Rangers were nearly strangers in their own building; the league's other five teams enjoyed a greater advantage on home ice. For one thing, the Rangers could never practice there. Some event was always scheduled -- basketball, boxing, rodeo, an ice show, something -- and they had to skate at a rink built on top of the arena -- Ice Land it was called -- that was much smaller than regulation size and it had metal boards. And in the spring, if they made the playoffs (which didn't happen with much regularity), they sometimes had to play their home playoff dates in another NHL city because the circus came to town to coincide with spring break in New York's schools.

Well, things change and the Garden eventually started paying more attention to its hockey club's needs. The Rangers started practicing on regulation-size sheets outside the city and could schedule their playoff dates at home. Still, when the new Garden was built in its present location (destroying, in the process, the architectural marvel that was Penn Station), the seats were angled for basketball and boxing. The slope of the arena bowl for a big chunk of fans in the 300 level (or the Green Seats as they were once known) was not steep enough for hockey and that created awful sightlines for thousands of spectators.

As I read through the stories over the weekend about the changes in the renovated Garden  -- wider concourses, better seats, more concession stands, a new entrance way and lobby, new dressing rooms, new elite private clubs and suites -- the one alteration that excited me most is that those bad sightlines are going to be improved by making them 17.5 percent steeper, according to the plans. Finally, only 43 years later. Good for them.

Of course, who will be able to afford these new sightlines? The kid like me who saved his money to go see Bobby Orr and the kids who got in on their G.O. cards have long been priced out. When you look at this video of all the great new things the Garden promises, you wonder who will and who won't be paying for Rangers tickets three seasons from now, and who these changes are intended to please.

Then I learned that one of the new features in the Garden is going to be a pair of spectator bridges that span the length of the arena over the playing surface to let fans look directly down on the ice. I don't know what to think of that. I mean, it might be a great view, but this is New York. Do you really want Rangers fans suspended over the ice when the Flyers come to town?

When the renovations are completed, I can imagine I'll be sitting wherever they put the press box. I'll look up from the ice and instead of blue smoke, I'll see those bridges. I suspect it will be another "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore" moment.

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