2008-02-01 / Sports

Leetch Honored By Rangers Faithful In Retirement Ceremony

By Brian Bohl

NEW YORK- Adored Rangers from different eras stood on the red carpet. The cheers emanating from a sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd reached a crescendo when the guest of honor was introduced.

As Brian Leetch took the podium near center-ice, he looked to his left. There, four men stood wearing the distinctive home blue uniforms. Rod Gilbert and Ed Giacomin were part of that group, along with Leetch's former teammates Mark Messier and Mike Richter. All those men belonged to an elite class that can claim something special: Rangers whose numbers remain in the rafters for all time.

Get another blue jersey ready. Leetch joined the immortal ranks in a special ceremony on January 24 by becoming the fifth member in franchise history to be honored.

During his 17-years with Blueshirts, Leetch always took pride in setting up his teammates. Even on a night dedicated to his career accomplishments, the future Hall of Famer still managed to make the perfect team play.

Before Leetch's No. 2 jersey ascended to the Garden's rafters, he demonstrated his ability to read a situation perfectly. Just like he did countless times on the ice, the American-born defenseman set-up Adam Graves, making the surprise announcement that Graves' No. 9 will be retired next season.

"That kind of made me calmer up there because I knew I had that trump card and everyone was going to be excited," Leetch said. "I knew Adam was going to be really blown away by that. It was exciting from me to be able to do that."

The move came as a shock to Graves, who credited his former teammate for incorporating others into his celebration. The two played together for 690 games, developing a comradery on and off the ice.

"A night like tonight allows everyone to get to know Brian as a person, more because he played with so much humility and always avoided the spotlight and went about his business," Graves said. "This is such a privilege to have this opportunity."

Leetch's distinguished career included 11 All-Star selections and 1,205 career games. To commemorate his accomplishments, the league transported four of the most precious awards. The Norris Trophy for the NHL's top defenseman (won in 1992 and 1997) and Calder Trophy (rookie of the year in 1989) were on display.

But the crowd saved its biggest gasps for the two shiny reminders of the 1994 championship run when the Stanley Cup was trotted out along with the Conn Smythe trophy that Leetch captured as that season's playoff MVP.

Other signs also jogged memories of that nearly 14-year-old championship run. Leetch's number now rests between Messier and Richter, with Graves' banner coming soon. In the photo collections presented on the team's website, there exists a picture taken of the four before representing the Eastern Conference in an All-Star game. Over a decade later, the foursome will be forever linked as the cornerstones of a magical era in Rangers history.

"It's kind of similar to the parade in 1994," Leetch said about the festivities. "This will be another one of those moments that is separate from a big victory and sharing stuff with your teams. It's the extra reward for winning a championship in New York City."

Scott Gomez helped capped the night with a victory as the Rangers beat the Atlanta Thrashers, 2-1, in a shootout. While the win generated momentum heading into the All-Star break, Gomez said it was also special to take in the pregame activities.

"It was special," Gomez said. "We needed the points, but it was a perfect ending. We knew ahead of time what was going to happen. Guys were pretty focused."

Brendan Shanahan, who will also be going to the Hall of Fame one day, moved his locker so Leetch's jersey could hang in his old stall. Leetch visited the dressing room before he was introduced to the crowd and saw the Blue No. 2 that he first wore as a 19- year-old call-up.

Brad Park, another Ranger defenseman who wore No. 2, was in attendance along with Leetch's former defense partner Jeff Beukeboom. Though it was too cold to ride through Manhattan's streets that night, Leetch was given a custom Harley Davidson with an embroidered seat that contained the city's skyline and the phrase "Always a Ranger."

"In the next 100 years," said Messier, who had tears in his eyes during the introduction, "people will say, 'That's a New York Ranger ... a soldier in red, white and blue. The greatest Ranger ever.'"

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