I know you think you’ve heard every “only in New York” story. I know….
But give me a chance here.
Sometimes after a game at the Garden, a couple of the boys and I will head over to one of our favorite spots in the area to grab some dinner. So the night after we traded for Keith Yandle in March 2015, I took him out for a bite. Yands and I have been lifelong friends — we grew up just a few minutes away from one another in the suburbs of Boston. So when I found out that he was coming to New York, it was like one of those things you dream about as a kid. I wanted to make his introduction to the city special, you know?
I brought him to one of my favorite places in the Meatpacking District where we talked about how my rookie year was going and what we both hoped to accomplish with the team. We had just received the bill when I got a feeling that someone was staring at me from four or five tables over. I kind of let my eyes wander to where this person was sitting. In an instant, I locked eyes with the guy. He looked so familiar, but I couldn’t really place him. I felt like I had seen him before — a bunch of times, too.
A couple of seconds later, it hit me.
I looked back at Yands, leaned a little closer and interrupted him.
“Dude, dude,” I said. “Don’t look over just yet, but there’s a guy sitting over at that table….”
I tried to signal in his direction with my eyes.
“… and I think it’s Bradley Cooper.”
Yands looked over.
“Oh, my God,” he said. “That’s Bradley Cooper!”
Almost immediately after Yands said that, the restaurant manager approached our table.
“Mr. Cooper and his friends,” he said, “would like to know if you would like to join them for a bit.”
Yands and I looked at each other. We both nodded. There was a lot going on in those nods … like, Yes, we would like to hang with Bradley Cooper, and, What the hell is happening right now.
When we stood up, I looked over at Bradley’s table. There were a couple of other people sitting with him … and another dude that I recognized.
Wait a minute … is that … is that Avicii?
Yands and I shook hands with everyone and even had the chance to sneak in a few texts to our friends. That’s sort of when it really hit me … how absolutely insane it was that I was living in New York City and playing for the Rangers. I’m a kid from Dorchester, Massachusetts. Boston.
For the rest of the night, I thought about how I had come to find myself in the city I had rooted against so hard as a kid.
Before I go any further, I have to make a quick confession. If you’ve seen me on Instagram or Twitter, you know that I rep the Sox, Pats and Celtics at an almost unhealthy level. I was born and raised a die-hard Boston sports fan. But when it comes to the Bruins … well, the truth is, I didn’t really follow the Bruins growing up. But I think I had a pretty good reason. Keith Tkachuk was my favorite player. He’s also my cousin. So growing up, I rooted for whatever team he was playing for.
All that changed when I got drafted by the Blackhawks in 2010, after my senior year of high school. At the time, I was planning on spending my entire career with Chicago, which had just won the Cup. (The Blackhawks won it again when I was a junior at Boston College.)
But because I never signed with Chicago while in college, my draft rights expired on August 14, 2014. I had put up decent enough numbers my senior year that I felt like I could test the free agency market.
On August 15 at 5:30 p.m. — when teams and players were allowed to get in contact with me — I received calls from a bunch of different players, coaches and front offices. Two players in particular stuck out: Chris Kreider and Brian Boyle. Both played for the Rangers.
Now, I’ve known Kreids for a while — he’s also from outside Boston and went to BC — so he was pretty straight up with me about the city, the fans and the media. But it was all good stuff. And Brian Boyle … this guy was leaving the Rangers and he still had so many positive things to say about the organization. He explained how Alain Vigneault was a fair and honest players’ coach and liked offensive players who commit to defense.
The whole thing just felt right. After hanging up with those two guys, my heart was pretty much set: I was a Boston kid going to New York.
I never thought I would like Manhattan as much as I do. I could talk about the culture and food and people all day long. But, for me, the thing that I’ll never get over — and the thing that Kreids and Brian tried to describe to me — is the thrill of playing in front of the greatest fans in the world at the greatest arena in the world.
Madison Square Garden is a beauty.
When I stepped onto the ice for warmups before my first game … I mean, I’d like to tell you I had everything under control, but I had never felt my heart beating so fast in my life. I looked up at the fans filing into the stands and … I don’t know, something just came over me. It was like I felt this obligation to do everything in my power to get them on their feet, you know? They expected a show.
Lucky for me, it took me only 11 days from the start of my rookie season to find out what it felt like to get the fans out of their seats.
October 19, 2014 … I’ll always remember that day. It was about midway through the third period against the Sharks. We were up 3–0 when I picked Brent Burns in the corner. I went around the net, knocked the puck right into their goalie, got my own rebound and put it in.
There was this crescendo of sound unlike anything I had ever heard before. The Garden went nuts. And before I knew it, the place was jumping, just like I had dreamt about when I decided to come to the Rangers.
(By the way, this wouldn’t be a Kevin Hayes piece if I didn’t take a jab at the boys. I was playing with Nasher and Kreids, but my first goal was still unassisted. Won’t let those guys live that one down.)
Another date I’ll never forget? December 30, 2015 — the day AV gave me my first healthy scratch. I had wanted to build on the success of my rookie year, but I didn’t realize until the beginning of my second season that I hadn’t done nearly enough over the summer to get ready. Not nearly enough to meet my own expectations to become the player I know I can be. Getting scratched after struggling for nearly three months was sort of when things got real. No lie, it was embarrassing.
In the first round of the playoffs last year, we dropped two out of our first three games to the Pens. Before Game 4, I found out that I was going to be a healthy scratch. And not just for that game, but for Game 5, too.
When we got back from Pittsburgh after losing the series, I kept to myself for a few days. I had never felt so ashamed, really. And the thing is, I was in a contract year. The same brutal thought consumed me for the next couple of weeks:
This is how I’m going to be remembered here — as the kid who went out on two healthy scratches.
And that’s sort of when I vowed to myself, to the boys, to Alain, to the organization and to this city that I would never let them down again.
When the puck drops this week against the Habs, I think a lot of us will have something to prove. I put in the work last summer so that I could have an opportunity to show why I had come to New York in the first place. Talking with the boys, I know how focused we are heading into the playoffs.
We played in the best division in hockey this year and we’re proud of what we accomplished. A lot of guys have stepped up this season, even J.T. Miller. I mean, I hate to give my guy Millsy credit, but he’s having a lights out year. He plays a game not a lot of guys in the league play … you know, a heavy game. Really skilled on offense and committed defensively.
So, before we get going on this journey, I want to let Rangers fans know something: I’ll fight for every puck and every goal this playoffs. All of us will.
And as for you guys, I know you’ll bring the electricity. We’ll need your help to make the Garden jump.
Yes, a Boston kid is actually asking New York fans for help. (But I still hate the Yankees, for the record.)
And when we score, maybe I’ll look through the glass and see Bradley Cooper and Avicii celebrating in the crowd. We need you guys, too.
Players’ Tribune staff … cue “Levels,” please
Let’s get this thing going.