The first time I was allowed to go to New York City with my friends was for a Rangers Open practice on Washington’s birthday February 22, 1965. The event was sponsored by H.O. Oats and if you sent in some box tops you received tickets in return. I remember the date because I still have the souvenir placard with the players pictures on it framed and hanging on a wall in my den.
I was 13 years old at the time and taking the #5 bus with my friends Wayne and Mark from Jersey City to the Port Authority building in the city was quite a big deal. Even though I had made the trip many times with my father, my parents still made me write down the directions; leave the Port Authority on the 8th Avenue side and turn left to make the nine block walk up to the “Old” Madison Square Garden on 49th Street.
Looking back, it wasn’t such a great area even in those days. There were the usual city distractions as well as the Cameo Theater which was a burlesque house that had pictures of the strippers in the windows, with black tape over the good parts. On those many previous walks up to the Garden, I had always wanted to stop and take a peek at the pictures but being with my father I didn’t want to push the envelope, although knowing pop he probably wouldn’t have minded. But on that morning the three of us stopped and surveyed the scene intently, before continuing our journey.
It was open seating and we chose a great location at center ice, right over where the players came out onto the ice. It was actually the first time I sat that close to the ice, since my father and I usually got tickets upstairs in the balcony.
The players came out and started taking laps around the ice to loosen up. Half the team wore their blue jerseys and the other half their whites. Coach Red Sullivan introduced each player and began by putting the team through its paces, while telling the crowd the purpose of each drill. Skating, stops and starts, passing, line combinations and finally shooting drills. Then they scrimmaged, the Whites against the Blues, with Jacques Plante tending one goal and Marcel Paille the other.
Looking at the placard now I realize that the 1964-65 Rangers were a team in transition. They finished the season with a 20-28-12 record and missed the playoffs by 22 points. Emile Francis had just taken over as General Manager and was beginning to make changes. Coach Red Sullivan was fired early the next season and little by little all but the core of younger players like Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield, Arnie Brown and Rod Seiling were replaced.
My friends and I were also in a transition period of our lives, moving from childhood into adolescence. We would graduate from grammar school that June and move on to high school in September. Wayne and I remained friends through high school but Mark drifted away and I lost touch with him.
One last note about the placard. I used it as a trivia question when I published my own newsletter “SportStat the Ranger Report” from 1988 to 1993. I blanked out the names below the pictures and asked my subscribers to identify the players. The only person to get all of them correct was the late, great John Halligan, former Rangers PR Director. Knowing that he took the time to fill in the names and send it back to me with an encouraging note was something I’ll never forget.
When the practice was over, we left the Garden and stopped into Gerry Cosby’s to look at the equipment and jerseys. Back then Cosby’s was one of the few places where you buy quality hockey equipment.
Walking back up 8th Avenue, we were once again drawn to the windows of the Cameo theater for one last look and black tape debate, before continuing on to the Port Authority, getting on the #5 bus and going home. One rite of passage down, many more to go.