Let me say this up front: I am a bandwagon New York Rangers fan. On a surfacy level, I’m here to bask in the glory of a winner. As a reborn fan of a club I supported as a kid, I shouldn’t be lumped in with those who have recently glommed on to LeBron James and the Miami Heat mini-dynasty. Truthfully, though, I really don’t care if I am; New York’s playoff run has been far too entertaining.
This is also about the serendipity of rediscovering youth. Before this year’s Rangers scrapped and clawed their way to the Stanley Cup Finals, there was zero chance I was tuning in any of their games, let alone Game 1 of the finals. And there was less than zero chance I would have interviewed my boyhood hero, Eddie Mio, while it was happening.
When we’re young, our first heroes, sporting and otherwise, tend to be the greats. We see the best, defying probability and gravity, making us painfully aware of our own limitations, and we connect with those who appear to have no such restrictions to their greatness. But back in 1982, when I was a passionate Rangers fan, the team didn’t have any greats available to build a religion around. It was mostly a collection of scrappy, Smurf-sized upstarts led by plaid-jacketed Olympic hero Herb Brooks. My absolute favorite player from that team was Mio, a journeyman goalie acquired from Edmonton. He toiled in the Rangers’ net for just a year and a half, but he was my guy.
Mio had a really nice glove hand and a penchant for making spectacular, sprawling kick saves, but he surely was no icon. Quite the contrary, in fact, as he was often caught out of position and was prone to giving up the occasional sloppy goal or 12. Growing up on the Upper West Side, ice was hard to come by, but I did frequent the blacktop rink, trying ever so hard, despite my own athletic limitations to recreate Mio’s style when I was between the pipes. Like a bad Mio proxy, my signature style was falling down at the slightest provocation as if I’d stepped on a landmine and hoping/praying that the rubber ball that we used would hit me.
In 1983, for the third of what would become four straight springs, the Blueshirts were knocked out of the playoffs by the dynastic New York Islanders. That off-season, Mio, for reasons that I never understood, was traded — along with Sassoon Jeans pitchman and Gotham social gadfly Ron Duguay — for beefy, hulking, immobile defenseman Willie Huber, and a couple of prospect-y forwards.
Children should never be forced to try to understand and/or rationalize their hero being taken away. I stopped playing street hockey and lost interest in the team for what I thought was for good. Not even the heralded summer of ‘94 brought me back. While Messier was guaranteeing wins, I was doing summer stock theater in New Hampshire.
Now, I’m back, back in a New York groove, and everything’s come full circle.
Last night, before Game 1's opening faceoff, I actually found Eddie Mio on Twitter (@eddiemio) and asked him for an interview. Twelve-year-old me was bouncing off the ceiling as we talked about the series, the relative merits of Henrik Lundqvist vs. Jonathan Quick, and the advantages the Rangers’ speed might provide.
“It’s like Gretz always said,” Mio told me. “‘I’ve got one puck. You go and get your own.”
Mio recounted how back in the day, he had acquired his hybrid fiberglass/birdcage mask, explaining that he’d once used a Gerry Cheevers-style full mask, but, “I had the high cheekbones, and every time I got hit on the ice, I got cut.” He went on to recall one incident in particular:
“Christmas eve, in practice, and Pat Price, he was taunting me, and shooting high and all that. So I went after him, he came down and shot high on purpose, but way wide, but I turned around and I didn’t see the next shot. It fractured my cheekbone, and they had to carry me off. [Later], Glenn Sather told me, ‘you’re not wearing that mask anymore,’ [and] he got a hold of Dave Dryden [the first goalie to wear a hybrid mask] .. and he got that mask made for me.”
During our conversation, all I wanted to do was tell Mio that he was my hero and that Willie Huber was a slack-jawed, mouth-breathing stiff. I did ask him if he still had that mask — the one I delighted in drawing into a hundred margins of untold school notebooks — privately wondering if maybe could I buy it since it was probably just gathering dust in the corner of his garage. He still has it. Of course he does. He even broke it out for a Detroit Red Wings alumni game that he played in recently.
Unfortunately, just as I was losing myself in nostalgic bliss, Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi coughed up a terrible turnover in his own zone in overtime, and Justin Williams of the Los Angeles Kings beat Lundqvist on the short side. Rangers lose. They blew it. And it hurts, like Eddie Mio getting traded all over again. But none of that matters, because I care again.
We tend to slander the idea of casual fandom; that only the “ true believers” who’ve through incessant agony really deserve the payoff of an improbable run. We accept as truth that a long-suffering fan’s pain makes their loyalty more noble than those who are only along for the ride when the team does well.
For me, though, it’s about remembering my childhood — particularly when I’d come home with welts across my chest. And even if you are less sentimental than I — and you just want to enjoy a winning team — that’s OK, too. Sure, those hundreds of giddy New Yorkers gathered in Bryant Park to watch the action from afar can’t recite the Rangers’ roster in 1983, but so what? Who cares?
Let’s ditch the puritanical notion that all pleasure must be repaid in equal parts or more with pain. To root for a winner doesn’t mean that you are stealing something. Label me a bandwagon fan, if you must. I couldn’t be more thrilled about it.
@BobSaietta is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New York Times, Salon, ESPN.com, Deadspin, The Classical, and VICE, among others. He is a Contributing Editor at KnickerBlogger.net and co-wrote, We’ll Always Have Linsanity: Strange Takes on the Strangest Season in Knicks History.