I’ll never forget the first time I saw that sweater. It was March 2, 2015. When I saw it hanging in my stall, I marveled at my name and number stitched on the back in red and white. Then, when I put it on, I ran both hands over those seven historic block letters:
I was a New York Ranger.
The jersey said so much with so little. There was no flash about it. The rough stitch of the letters made sense. It reflected New York.
For the first time in my career, I was wearing blue. I walked over from my stall to the bathroom so that I could catch the first glimpse of myself in the new jersey. To be honest, it was really weird to look in the mirror and see myself without the howling coyote that I had worn on my chest for the past 10 years.
But after a few seconds, I couldn’t help but smile. I thought to myself, Damn, this jersey looks pretty good, even on a kid from Mass.
I turned back from the mirror and looked at the rest of the locker room. This room was my new office, these guys were my new colleagues. It’s really like the first day of any new job. You’ve got that nervous energy. Like any first day, I had to get the hang of how things worked at MSG. As I was leaving the locker room for pregame warmups, I heard a voice coming from behind me, calling me by my first name — something a teammate hadn’t done since my early years on the ice.
“Hey, Keith, uh … you gonna put your helmet on?”
It was my captain, Ryan McDonagh.
Why would I put on my helmet already?
“Uh, I don’t think so. I’m good.”
I turned away and started for the tunnel. I wanted to get a good look at the crowd at MSG.
“No, no, come back here. You have to put your helmet on before going on the ice. Seriously. Coach’s orders.”
Great, not even ten minutes in a Rangers jersey and I was already screwing up. I gave Mac a quick apology and quickly fastened my chinstrap. Here we go … MSG.
Everything happened really quickly. Only two days before, I was at a kids birthday party at this cool bouncy castle place in Phoenix with all my Coyotes teammates and their families. It was the final hours of the 2015 NHL trade deadline, and I knew there was a good chance I was going to be moved. But guess what? There was no cell service in the bouncy-castle area. So I had to leave my phone out by the reception desk and go check it every 20 minutes.
Just as they were about to serve the birthday cake, I went to check my phone and saw that I had missed a call from Don Maloney, the GM of the Coyotes. I went back into the party and just showed my teammates the missed call. Everybody knew. It was one of those moments where we all knew my life was about to change when I returned his call. It was surreal.
When I called Don back, he told me that I had been traded to the Rangers. Literally as the candles were being blown out on the cake (there was no chance my daughter was missing dessert), I was figuring out how to get from Phoenix to New York to play in the game the next night.
Once everything was settled the next morning, I flew into New Jersey. When I arrived, the Rangers had a helicopter waiting for me to take me into Manhattan. Talk about a New York entrance. They took me up and flew me right over the skyscrapers and everything, right into MSG. It was just incredible.
When we landed, the pilot said, “Yeah, it would’ve taken you about 20 minutes to drive. Ten minutes in a helicopter. But they wanted to bring you in style. Welcome to New York City.”
Then, to walk into the Garden for my first game and see the jersey hanging there. Goosebumps, man.
In Arizona, the fans and I went through a lot together — from the relocation rumors to the playoff droughts to our trip to the Western Conference finals in 2012. I loved those fans. I still do. But suddenly I was walking out of the tunnel at MSG for the first time as a Ranger. And I was so happy. During the renovation, the Garden added this glass tunnel that players walk through before getting to the ice. Fans can push right up against the glass and watch you going out for battle. I remember hearing some of the fans shouting my name, and I turned and saw some little kids in Rangers jerseys banging on the glass. I was so pumped up.
That was when I first realized that, for New Yorkers, Rangers hockey is more than just a fun evening. When kids are born into Rangers families, their first outfit is usually a Blueshirt onesie. I’ve never seen anything like the generational Rangers fandom, and that’s saying a lot coming from a guy who grew up in Boston.
I have to say, it took me awhile to acclimate to the city lifestyle, though. During my first week or two in NYC, some of my teammates would tell me things like:
Oh, just take the 1 train and then transfer over to the 2 to grab the express.
Dude, it’s simple, hop on the crosstown shuttle and then get off at 34th.
Yands, whatever you do, do not go into the station through the emergency exits.
I always had to cut them off to ask more questions.
Whoa, whoa. O.K., slow down. Tell me again — I take the 1 …
There are times when I’m out and I’ll run into Rangers fans on the streets or in a Starbucks. They’ll come up to me with that New York confidence and say things like, Hey, you killed it yesterday, man! Or, Good luck tonight, Yands!
It usually happens when I’m walking my two daughters to school. When a fan says something, my girls will ask, “How do you know those people, daddy?” I’ll tell them that they’re just fans, but then they’ll want to know, “Fans of what, daddy?” I’ll tell them that they’re fans of the Rangers, but that I don’t know them personally. Then we just keep walking to school as if nothing’s happened.
I know I wouldn’t have made it in New York without my girls and my wife. I love being able to come home and watch cartoons or play dress-up with them to unwind. (I’ve perfected my impersonation of Prince Hans from Frozen, by the way.)
One thing my working-class parents taught me was to never bring your emotions home from work. Given the highs and lows of an NHL season, we talk about anything but hockey, just because there’s so much more to life than my profession. These days at the Yandle dinner table, Paw Patrol is a huge topic of conversation. I’m talking huge.
Then when I get on the ice, my whole mindset changes. How could it not at a place like Madison Square Garden? At MSG, it seems as though the fans are right there on top of you. When you’re on the bench, it really feels like the crowd is sitting right there next to you. I’ve never experienced that anywhere else. And when we score, it’s like the fans are jumping into the pile with us. It definitely felt that way last year when Derek Stepan did this:
I thought the Garden’s roof was going to collapse. An overtime Game 7 winner? New Yorkers live for those moments. Listening to Doc Emrick call the goal is insane and still gives me chills. (I hope you have your headphones in at work.) But on the ice, all you could hear was the roar. I remember seeing the expression on Step’s face when he scored. It was just absolute joy. I can’t describe it any other way. The stands were a blur of blue and red and white. And when Step turned around and jumped into the boards, I remember he flashed those seven letters to his teammates — all coming to jump on him.
In that moment, there was only one thing my teammates and I could hear: you, the fans.
The arena was mayhem. I’m talking absolute pandemonium. The roar, to this day, gives me chills. That’s what New York playoff hockey is about. It’s about you.
Last season, the team was so close to going back to the finals. After we lost to Tampa Bay, we were absolutely gutted. It was pure shock in the locker room. Like many of you, even a few days after Game 7 I couldn’t get out of bed without thinking about the game. And, like many of you, I couldn’t even watch to see who would raise the Cup in the finals.
I think that’s what makes you guys the best fans in hockey — your main goal isn’t to get to the playoffs or the conference finals. It’s to win the Stanley Cup. In the locker room, we feel the same way. When I arrived in New York, that’s one thing I noticed — the winning mentality. New Yorkers love to win. It doesn’t matter who’s scoring goals or making saves. It’s all about winning. And we’re fighting so hard to bring Lord Stanley’s cup back to this amazing city.
There’s this photograph — strategically hung up, I think — in our trainer’s room to give us extra motivation when we’re battling injuries. It shows the Canyon of Heroes, where the champs of 1994 traveled down Broadway and the financial district in front of 1.5 million people. In the photo, people are literally hanging out of skyscraper windows just to catch a glimpse of their team.
I get goosebumps thinking about the excitement that the ’94 team brought to the city. And then I think of what could happen if we’re able to win this year…. What would a ticker tape parade even look like in 2016? It would be insane. And it’d all be so worth it.
I know one person my teammates and I would have to thank if we ever brought the Stanley Cup back to New York. His name is Mario, and he’s the elevator attendant at Madison Square Garden. You may have already heard of him. Mario gets every Rangers player and coach amped for every single game, no matter if it’s the first of the season or a Game 7.
Before each game I go into the elevator with Kevin Hayes and we do a little dance with Mario and sing the “Hey … Hey-Hey-Hey!” goal song. You know, just to get pumped up.
The elevator ride to floor 5 with Mario feels like when a Roman gladiator enters the Coliseum for battle. Once the doors open, I know it’s go-time. As I walk to the locker room, I catch a little glimpse of the Madison Square Garden ice. That’s the best view in America, in my opinion.
New York, pull on your sweaters. It’s time to go to work.