There’s no place like home.
I’ve played nearly 200 games in my NHL career — not a veteran by any stretch, but not a rookie either — and yet I still have to pinch myself sometimes when I think about it.
I’m playing for the New York Rangers, my hometown team, in Madison Square Garden. I’m living my dream.
Every game day, when I get to pull the sweater over my shoulder pads, I take a moment to remember the excitement — the passion — I felt when I was a kid and my dad and I would drive into the city on our way to a game. He had season tickets for 30-something years, and I was lucky enough to go to quite a few games as a kid. I remember being stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway, thinking about what the lines would be like that night, what jerseys the Rangers would be wearing, if we’d make it in time to catch warmup — all that stuff.
And my dad … let’s just say that he’s a passionate fan. I mean ... he’s a New Yorker, you know?? He cares a lot about this team. He used to give a few guys a hard time when things weren’t going our way, just like every fan does.
Those nights at the Garden … I don’t know if in my wildest dreams I ever could have really pictured myself out there. Something about that place, that team, it just felt special. And I was just a kid from Jericho, Long Island, who liked to play hockey. When I was there, on those big nights, there was nothing like it.
Every time I walk into the Garden, there’s just this energy. And for me? Everything always comes back to the Garden.
Messier, Leetch and Richter.
I had a big poster of those three on my bedroom wall. And my sheets had every NHL team’s logo stitched into them. Jericho isn’t the biggest hockey town. Lacrosse is a bit more popular. But, like I said, my dad was a big hockey fan. So when he put tiles on our basement floor, it became our little rink. I have an older brother, and when my cousins would come over we’d play two-on-two down there. That was where I’d mimic one of my favorite players ever: Nick Lidstrom.
I know I’m not alone in that. He’s one of the best of all-time. He wasn’t a Ranger, but it didn’t matter. My dad really knew a lot about the game and how it was supposed to be played, and he’d always point out the great things Lidstrom was doing. Little stuff like his stick positioning, the way he’d break out of his own zone. I’d replay his moves over and over in my head, hoping I might remember them the next time I was on the ice. I think, watching him, I learned that there was beauty in defense. Yeah, I loved going to the Garden when Sid or Ovi were in town, and getting to see all their skill up close — but my mind always went back to the art of defense.
It helped that I had a buddy who was pretty good on defense, too. Charlie McAvoy and I played for the Long Island Gulls growing up, and he’s turned into a pretty alright player. He and I spent a lot of time together on and off the ice. And it really pushed me to become a better player.
It’s funny, people always ask me, “You guys must have talked about playing in the NHL one day?? What teams did you guys think you would play for?”
But it was never like that with us. We were just normal kids. We went to hockey, came home, played NHL against each other and talked about all sorts of sports. We both never thought too far ahead.
I kept that mentality with me through my time with the USA Hockey program in Michigan. In 2016, I knew the draft was coming up, but I didn’t try to worry about where I was going or anything like that. I had heard from friends and ex-players that the draft was just the beginning — it didn’t have to be the most important day of your life. It was an honor to be selected by Calgary in the third round, but getting an education was important to me and I knew my game needed time to develop at a great program like Harvard.
I give our coach there, Ted Donato, a lot of credit for helping me become the player I am today. He saw me — an “undersized” defenseman — and didn’t try to turn me into something I wasn’t. He let me be the player I wanted to be, that I knew I could be. And I think that’s a big reason why the program has been so successful.
But like I said, everything comes back to the Garden.
And when I stepped on the ice at the Garden for opening night in 2019? That whole day, even though it was my first NHL game, I didn’t feel nervous. I felt fine. Almost like it was any other day.
But when I got into the building, and I put the sweater on … I started to feel the butterflies. I looked around the locker room and saw Henrik Lundqvist, who I’d watched on TV and at the Garden countless times as a kid. It hit me in that moment that we were now teammates.
And when they announced my name, I took a few strides out onto the fresh sheet of ice … and then I heard the Garden cheer….
And I felt like I was home.
That’s one of the many things that made the pandemic so tough on me. The Garden is home. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. But as special as the building is — it is the World’s Most Famous Arena — the fans and people of the city are the ones who make it what it is.
The last two seasons have been surreal — with everything we’ve gone through in the world, to the changes in schedule around the league, to playing in empty buildings. As a young player, I feel I’ve had to grow up pretty quickly. These are different times … we’re fortunate to be playing hockey at all and I want to take advantage of that. That motivated me a lot heading into last season.
And it was an honor to win the Norris last year. I’m so thankful to my family and my teammates for putting me in a spot to succeed — though it still hasn’t stopped my dad from critiquing my game. Some things never change.
When it comes to our team, I’ve seen us mature these past couple of years. We’ve got a young roster, but we’re striving to improve each day, both individually as players and collectively as a team. That’s what Coach Gallant has brought into our room.
We’ve got a really great energy, too. Everybody is focused on how we can contribute to the team’s success, and that mindset has spread through the whole group. It’s fun coming to the rink every day.
And, we’re feeding off our fans. I enjoy looking up into the stands from the Garden ice and feeling the excitement. And every once in a while, I’ll still have to pinch myself that this is really happening.
There’s no place like home.