'Blueshirts' ceremony provides huge thrills
Contest winners see their dreams realized by making it onto MSG ice
• PHOTO GALLERY: 'Blueshirts Off Our Backs'
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
Some of the most die-hard Rangers fans you will ever meet are the displaced New Yorkers now living in other parts of the world who still manage to watch every single Blueshirts game during the hockey season.
Mike Sforza of Surprise, Ariz., is one of those True Blue loyalists.
Sforza grew up in New York in a family consumed by its love of the Rangers. After his parents passed away some years ago, he followed his sister out to Arizona, where he met his wife, a fellow transplant from Brooklyn. Now living in a Phoenix suburb, he is proud the father of a baby girl, and he is making sure that his love of the Blueshirts will be shared with a member of his family who never called New York home.
|Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky poses with Amanda Henry, the recipient of his game-worn jersey at the 2011 "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" ceremony. Amanda's father, Reggie, was selected to participate in the ceremony and arranged to have his daughter receive the jersey from Dubinsky.|
Sforza's passion for the Rangers is so deep that he makes a point of being at every Blueshirts road game played in either Phoenix or Anaheim. A Blueshirts United member, he even went on the craigslist website to recruit other Rangers fans in his area. That group now joins him to watch games via the NHL's Center Ice package. Sforza is proud to say that he never misses a game and feels just as connected to the team as he did when he lived in New York.
So imagine Mike Sforza's shock and excitement when he received a call four days before the Blueshirts' regular-season finale at MSG and was invited to take part in the annual "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" ceremony in which Rangers players turn their jerseys over to lucky fans at the conclusion of the game.
Sforza listened as a member of the Rangers organization explained to him that he would be flown to New York on a Delta flight, given accomodations at a hotel, tickets to the Rangers-Devils game, and a spot on the ice in the ceremony. He could hardly believe his ears.
"I hung up the phone and I immediately called back," Sforza recalled. "And I said 'This isn't a joke, is it?' And they said 'No, it's not.' And then I told my wife I was not going to believe it until I was looking at plane tickets or something. And then the airline tickets arrived right away."
Within days, Sforza was back at MSG for the first time in seven years since he moved to Arizona. He was also watching Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist play at The Garden for the first time. It was a great game to attend -- as Sforza saw the Rangers beat the Devils to stay alive in the playoff race. By the end of the afternoon -- he was being handed a signed, game-worn jersey by fan favorite Brandon Prust, the 2010-11 Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award winner.
Since the 1999-00 season, Rangers fans in attendance at MSG for the home finale have looked forward to a chance to be part of the unforgettable ceremony. Once again, this year's event includedopportunity for fans to write essays in which they explained why they should be considered to participate in the ceremony. Sforza was among the lucky group of "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" participants who wrote such and essay and was chosen for the honor.
"Every year, I watched it (Blueshirts Off Our Backs), and I always think to myself: "Man, those are some lucky people," said Sforza, a short time before going out on the ice to meet Prust.
Lifelong Rangers fan Reggie Henry, was another one of the lucky few whose essays earned them spots in the ceremony. However, in Henry's case, he deferred to his daughter, Amanda, who had helped him write the contest essay. As passionate a fan as her dad, Amanda had the opportunity to take the ice with the other jersey recipients and received the No. 17 off the back of Blueshirts scoring leader Brandon Dubinsky, who finished first on the team in goals, assists and points.
"This is exciting for me, and I'm sure for her it's even more exciting," said Reggie Henry, a Season Subscriber since 1990 and a member of Blueshirts United, the team's official fan community, as he prepared to watch his daughter join the ceremoney. "I'm probably more excited than her, I think."
Like Sforza, Henry had watched all of the previous 10 "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" ceremonies and "always wanted to be part of it." When he learned that he had been selected, he immediately decided that the jersey would go to Amanda.
"I went and picked her up from school that day, and I told her she was going to be in the ceremony," said Henry, hardly able to contain a smile at the memory. "It was a very exciting day."
Both Reggie and Amanda Henry had stood or skated on the MSG ice at events related to their Season Subscriber status and Blueshirts United Legends Club membership, but the April 9 experience is one neither will ever forget.
"Being in Blueshirts United has far exceeded my expectations, and the experiences I have had in it have been tremendous," said Sforza. "So we have been on the ice before, but to get a jersey from a player there is a once in a lifetime thing."