By Michael Battista
I got an early gift on March 13, one day before my birthday: I was brought to the ice at Madison Square Garden for a few photos after that night’s Rangers game
The visit was a thank-you gift from the Rangers organization to my father for being a season ticket holder since 1978. He also received a custom jersey with the name “Battista” on it and the number 78, a few weeks back during another special ceremony. His season ticket holder representative allowed him, my brother Joseph and I to come for a game during spring break and get a few minutes on the ice.
There’s few places I hold in higher regard than Madison Square Garden in New York City. It’s called “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” and I think it’s earned that mantra over the years. I can honestly say it’s my favorite place to watch a hockey or basketball game.
When you step into the building, you feel the history all around you. You see moments and memorabilia thanks to tributes and plaques scattered around the arena. When I was younger, I took places like Madison Square Garden, the original Yankees Stadium and Giants Stadium for granted.
It wasn’t until after I was older, after the latter two places were replaced by bigger and newer stadiums, that I realized how much these details mattered.
I have been lucky enough to stand on the grass at Metlife Stadium during the Non-Public Schools Group 4 Championship game between St. Peter’s Prep, my alma mater, and Paramus Catholic in 2013. The same turf on which Super Bowl XLVIII would be played, wide receiver Victor Cruz came to his own and former Giants head coach Tom Coughlin would coach his last game — the operative word in most of those moments being “would,” as I still hadn’t really adopted the stadium as my own at that point.
I hadn’t made my memories with it, but it was still an incredible night. Up until this point, I didn’t think I’d reach that same sort of experience until I found a job as a sports journalist. I couldn’t help but remember stories my 98-year-old grandfather had told me about being able to leave the original Yankee Stadium after games by walking across the outfield when he was younger. He and my late grandmother were able to walk across the same grass some of the most iconic baseball players in the history of the game, like catcher Yogi Berra or center fielder Joe DiMaggio, had just played on before their eyes.
In today’s world, where security guards keep a close eye on fans and professionally trained crews make meticulous changes to a field or rink so it meets established standards, it’s nearly impossible to imagine this sort of event even happening for any sport. I’ve grown up watching hockey players come and go. I’ve sat in the upper seats in Madison Square Garden for most of my life, section 423 and now section 211, post renovations, and I’ve seen these men glide along the ice back and forth. It’s was only once I got right next to the glass toward the end of the game that I truly realized I’d been watching giants my whole life from above.
The clock struck zero and the Rangers 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning was final. The players exited the ice, leaving my family and other groups waiting to head onto it. It wasn’t as slippery as I thought it would be, which was a relief after the MSG legal team had me sign a waiver that kept me from suing in case of injury. I stepped onto the same ice that I’d watched so many times from high above.
The memories came back at me, some good and some bad.
This is where I saw former Ranger greats like centerman Mark Messier, defenseman Harry Howell and right-wing Andy Bathgate get their numbers raised to the rafter.
This is where I watched left-wing Chris Kreider score and tie the Montreal Canadiens at 2 with 30 seconds left in regulation during Game 3 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Final, resulting in me nearly choking my brother from the force in which I wrapped my arms around his neck. This was the ice where I saw the Rangers collapse during the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals and fall 2-0 to the Lighting in Game 7.
This was the ice that had brought me countless memories, both tears of joy and sorrow as well as expletives of why the Rangers couldn’t take advantage of power play situations and so much more. It may have only been for a minute or two for the photo, but it’s one of the best experiences of my life thus far.
I’ve stepped on the same ground as the giants who shoot down the ice and whose names I’ve worn across my back for years. I didn’t have to do it as a sports journalist, where emotions and favorites are suppose to be checked at the door. I got to do it as a fan and really enjoy the moment. After we finished the photos, I saw my brother kneel down and run his hand across the ice as he walked toward the exit. I was standing near one of the faceoff circles and for a moment, I stood where centers Derek Stepan or Kevin Hayes would before challenging the other team for a faceoff.
I kneeled down and put my hand on the dot for a few seconds. I couldn’t help but look up at section 211, seat 9 and pretend to see a screaming fan hoping to win the draw. I smiled and walked off, taking with me the memories and the ice on my hand, knowing I had walked where the giants had.