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I went to my first New York Rangers game on Nov. 2, 1969, when I was 8 years old. The Rangers played the St. Louis Blues, winning 6-4 and prompting chants of “We’re No. 1” toward the end of the game. It was true: With that victory, the Rangers — for decades the sad sacks of the National Hockey League — took over first place in the Eastern Division. The season was only a few weeks old, and the Rangers had played only 11 games, going 6-3-2. But why wait until the chant would be meaningful when you haven’t had a chance to shout such a thing in nearly 30 years?
I was a physically and socially awkward kid. My family had bounced around for years, so I had never attended any school for more than one grade until we moved to Flushing in Queens in 1968. And because I was (a) a boy and (b) a boy who could not throw or catch a ball with anything like ordinary human skill, I was pretty hopeless among my peers. But for some reason, I took to hockey. By the following April, as the Rangers squeaked into the playoffs in one of the most dramatic season finishes in NHL history, I was in a youth clinic on Long Island, learning to skate and stickhandle.
I was awful, of course. Hockey is a fiendishly difficult game, requiring large-muscle-group strength combined with extraordinary fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, stamina and great peripheral vision. Oh, and balance. It’s played on ice, you know.
My father, a French-Canadian from Lewiston, Maine, believed (with good reason) that sound skating was the foundation for any hockey player, even though he had never played the game himself. He decided he would drive me to public skating sessions every day after school, and he went so far as to enroll me in a figure-skating class so that I could learn how to turn, pivot and develop an intuitive sense of how the edges of my blades were cutting into the ice. (He has since apologized many times for this, needlessly. I always reply, wryly, that he was at least 10 years ahead of the curve. Eventually hockey players developed training regimens that borrowed techniques from figure skaters, except that they called it power skating so as not to provoke any gender panic among impressionable young boys.) He also enrolled me in the Rangers’ summer camp for a two-week session.
The camp was run by Rod Gilbert, the Rangers’ dashing, sharp-shooting right wing, and Brad Park, who at the tender age of 22 had already settled into the role he would occupy for another decade — that of the second-best defenseman in the league (after some guy named Orr). They were there every day, running practices, organizing drills and leading scrimmages. They didn’t simply put their names on the camp and waltz off into the off-season. So it was in the summer of 1970 that Gilbert, New York’s hockey version of Joe Namath or Clyde Frazier in terms of style and talent, went up to me on the ice one afternoon and began addressing me in French.
It just so happened that my fourth-grade class included French lessons, though we had not gotten much past “Avez-vous un stylo?” and “Les colours du drapeau americain sont rouge, blanc et bleu.” Neither phrase seemed like an appropriate response to whatever M. Gilbert was saying to me, so I stood there, wobbly and dumbstruck. It took the future Hall of Famer a few moments to realize that despite my French name, I was as monolingual as any other ignorant American — whereupon he proceeded to give me instruction on my wrist shot in English. Later, he signed my copy of his autobiography.
The rink was called Skateland, in New Hyde Park on Long Island. It was not only the home of my first youth league but also the Rangers’ practice facility. Which is weird, in retrospect — that the Rangers practiced at some nondescript rink in Long Island that had chain-link fences above the boards instead of plexiglass. Also weird: Most of the practices were open to anyone who wanted to watch. We would stay after our games were done and watch our heroes. Sometimes we could even talk to them and get autographs. We were rink rats; we would have stayed there all day.
A new identity
I was a visibly improved player by the end of the camp’s two weeks, and over the next few months, almost before I knew it, I became one of the best players in my age group. That wasn’t my fond, deluded opinion. We were all seeded before selection into intramural teams for the winter season, and in a group of about 50, I had gone from the bottom five to the top five in six months. I even made the all-star team. When summer came around again in 1971, I went back to Gilbert’s and Park’s camp. This time they were joined by goaltender Gilles Villemure, who gave me a hard time whenever I scored on one of his goalies, which was often. By this point, my father had gotten season tickets to the Rangers, and we attended nearly every home game in the 1970–71 season, in which they lost only two home games (to Chicago, 4-2, and Montreal, 6-2 — and, no, I did not have to look that up). My favorite players were the two most talented forwards on the team, Gilbert and his close friend from boyhood, Jean Ratelle, who spoke little English and never quite got his due from the Rangers organization. I got Ratelle’s autograph one day, but I never spoke to him in any language.
The following year, I switched to a larger and more ambitious league, and in January 1972 found myself playing on the first squad of 10-year-old New Yorkers ever to play in Canada — Brockville, Ontario, to be exact. Before the opening face-off of the first game, my father whistled me over to the boards to tell me something important. “They hate you here,” he said, visibly emotional, “and they hate you because you’re French.”
I was stunned. Up to that moment, I knew nothing of what my father felt about being French-Canadian, and I certainly had no idea that anybody would hate me or anybody else on that basis. And if my father said that to try to light a fire under me, it worked: I scored a goal in that first game, two goals and an assist in a 3-1 win in the next round and a hat trick in our 4-3 last-second victory in round three. And every time they announced my name, “New York goal scored by No. 5, Michael Berube,” they pronounced it Bhey-roo-BHEY — not the ba-ROO-bee I had grown up with. By the end of the weekend, we had made a name for ourselves as the American team that could beat Canadian teams, and I had decided that I was Michael Bhey-roo-BHEY, the dashing, sharpshooting right wing from New York. That was the year I put the accents back on my name. My father, to this day, does not use them.
Chance at glory
Later in 1972, the Rangers went to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 22 years. From 1941 to 1967, even though there were only six teams, the Rangers made the finals only once, losing to Detroit in 1950. This time, they lost to a team led by that guy named Orr. Ratelle did not play; teammate Dale Rolfe had inadvertently broken Ratelle’s ankle on a slap shot weeks earlier. After that year, things quickly went downhill.
Within four years, the Rangers were back to being sad sacks unable to reach the playoffs, and Rangers management embarked on a program of trying to make it impossible to root for the team. We gave up our season tickets. And I stopped playing hockey because I was commuting two hours each day to an academically demanding high school that had no hockey team.
I played hockey in college for a while, leading Columbia in goals as a freshman in 1979, the year the Rangers surprisingly made it back to the finals. Clearly there was some correlation here. Clearly the Rangers and I were connected somehow … but the Rangers were outclassed and outplayed by a Canadiens dynasty that still ranks among the most potent in the history of the sport. A few years later, I moved out of New York for graduate school. There was no hockey rink in the Southern town to which I was moving, so I gave away my hockey equipment. I no longer had a television or much of a desire to watch or play hockey.
I started paying attention again in the early 1990s, when the upstart Pittsburgh Penguins, led by Mario Lemieux (dashing, sharpshooting) won two Cups, followed by the Canadiens’ improbable Cup in 1993, winning 10 overtime games in one year, thanks largely to goaltender Patrick Roy. Then in 1994, the Rangers were the best team in the league during the regular season, stocked with former Edmonton Oiler stars Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Kevin Lowe and Adam Graves and backed up by a brilliant goaltender (Mike Richter) and even more brilliant defenseman (Brian Leetch) — both Americans, something you would never have seen in the NHL in 1972, back when we kids were wondering if any of us would be the first American superstar in the league.
For the first time since World War II, the Rangers were the favorites to win the Stanley Cup — which they eventually did, though not before subjecting their fans to a terrifying Game 6.
It took a nail-biting seven-game final against the Vancouver Canucks — led by the scary-good, blazingly fast Pavel Bure, the well-named Russian Rocket — for the Rangers to claim their first Stanley Cup.
I did not cry when Neil Armstrong took one small step onto the surface of the moon. I did not cry when the Berlin Wall came down. I did tear up when my first child was born — and eight years later, when the Rangers outlasted the Canucks, 3-2, in Game 7, withstanding a series of final frantic flurries from Vancouver (one of which involved Canuck Nathan Lafayette hitting the post with five minutes left). I broke down and sobbed in my wife’s arms. She understood, kind of.
And I have watched in amazement as my Rangers have made the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since the world-changing year of 1994. I picked them to lose to the Penguins in the second round, as did every knowledgeable person. By Game 4 of that series, as the boos resonated in the Garden after an abysmal performance by the home team, I suspect that most of the Rangers faithful were setting their wistful sights on next year. I know I was.
Between that night and today, I have seen the Rangers play some of the best defense I have ever witnessed in a team that does not employ the stultifying neutral-zone trap, and I have thrilled as new arrival Martin St. Louis, an uncommonly crafty and sharpshooting forward, has baffled much larger defenders on the Flyers, Penguins and Canadiens. (You have surely gathered by now that I have a thing for French finesse players.)
Commentators warned of the Penguins’ fearsome power play, and the Rangers shut it down. Commentators warned the Rangers would have to handle the Canadiens’ team speed. They did. Now commentators say the Los Angeles Kings will overmatch the Rangers. We’ll see.
A couple of years ago, I was walking on the east side of Manhattan, not far from the Queensboro Bridge, when into the drizzly night a group of diners emerged from a restaurant. One of them, quite clearly, was Rod Gilbert, still stylish in his 70s.
“Monsieur Gilbert,” I cried, absurdly, as if I had a better chance of getting his attention in French. (Only later did I realize I was unconsciously replaying the scene when he first spoke to me and I was unable to reply.) Turning to the woman I knew was his wife, Judy, I asked, “That is Rod Gilbert, is it not?” She smiled charmingly, said yes and proceeded to tell her husband that someone wanted to talk to him. Ahem. Well, now what was I going to say?
I told him that I attended his hockey camps from 1970 to 1972, that he and Ratelle were my favorite players, that I identified with him and with Ratelle partly because of my French name and partly because I admired the beautiful, graceful way they played the game. At least, I think I said most of that. The moment I told Gilbert I had been in his youth camps, he exclaimed — not because he recognized me, surely, but because he was being stopped on the street at 11 p.m. by someone who had been in his hockey camps 40 years earlier. But he was very gracious (and stylish — did I mention stylish?), asking me what I do for a living now, what brought me to New York … and then we talked about that year’s team, which had some potential but was struggling to make the playoffs.
“If we can just make it to the postseason, that’s so important,” he said. “It’s wide open then.”
It was wide open this year too, and a largely unheralded Rangers team is going to its first finals in 20 years. They will be underdogs. So what? The Rangers have been underdogs almost every single year of their existence. And Monsieur Gilbert? If in the past couple of years you have ever had a moment of wondering what crazy person accosted you that night to talk about 40-year-old memories, that was me. Let’s go, Rangers.