A few weeks ago, I attended a New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden to see my hometown team, the Philadelphia Flyers, play.
Madison Square Garden has always been my favorite sports venue in the entire world to attend. The tradition that lies within the walls (the newly renovated walls as well) just seems to bleed out. Whether you are at Long Island Native Billy Joel’s concert or a Rangers game, the arena always houses a good time.
Tradition is big with almost every sports franchise there is. For the Flyers, Kate Smith and Lauren Hart sing a duet of God Bless America. For the Islanders, the crowd chants “Yes! Yes Yes!” after a goal.
The Rangers like to be a little bit different.
Attending a game at the Garden is a different experience. The presentation is reminiscent of a Hollywood blockbuster, the arena is on the 8th floor, and the souvenir cups are refillable. That last point is fantastic. The greatest part of the presentation, however, is when the fantastic organist at MSG, Ray Castoldi, urges on the team during the intermission.
While many teams would hear their fans chant “Let’s go [Insert Team Name Here],” that’s not the case with the Rangers.
Something sucked, apparently. And something sucked after someone was whistling.
I couldn’t quite make out what the chant went like at the time, but it went something similar to this: “….. sucks!”
Oh. Well, I am used to this. Being a Flyers fan has tradition in the fact that we will yell “Sucks!” after every away team’s player has been introduced. Hell, with the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer, the Union’s supporter section, the Sons of Ben, will turn their backs to the field and yell “Sucks!” while sticking up their middle fingers. Philly is ruthless.
To be quite honest, I thought they were chanting “Flyers suck!” I wouldn’t be surprised, and I wouldn’t blame them for chanting that.
I didn’t really think much of it at that point. It was not until I was researching the WHA that I connected the dots.
Ulf, a Crevice!
Sometimes, journalists have a writing block. That is when you are having issues thinking of topics to write about. So, to combat this, I started researching the World Hockey Association, otherwise known as the WHA.
Looking down the list of top all-time point scorers in WHA history, I noticed the name at number 10 was Ulf Nilsson. He spent 4 seasons in the WHA and scored 484 points. His points per game ratio, as you could probably get to, was fantastic.
Nilsson got on the scoring sheet a lot. When he moved to the NHL in 1978, he signed with the New York Rangers. He was scoring over a point per game.
However, in 1979, he suffered his first major setback of his injury-prone career. Getting his skate caught in a crevice, Denis Potvin, a Hall-of-Famer for the New York Islanders, finished his check on Nilsson. The resulting hit left him down on the ice with a broken leg.
Continuing to read about the incident, I found out that the chant “Potvin sucks!” was the end-result in the fan’s chants.
Oh. That’s what they were chanting.
The Rangers fans definitely know how to hold a grudge, albeit a fun one.
The injury to Nilsson was an extremely nasty one. While a player might take offense to that, Nilsson would not let the freak play shape how he thought of Potvin. In a 2009 interview with the New York Times, Nilsson said, “He was always fair, but the ice was never great in the Garden because they had basketball and other events. My foot got caught. It was a freak thing. The Ranger fans were so frustrated.”
Times Were a’Changin’ in NYC
There was a shifting of the times in the New York hockey scene. The Islanders were beginning to become a contender, and the Rangers were starting to fall behind in the city. Although the Rangers made the Stanley Cup Final that year, they lost to the Montreal Canadiens. After that, the Islanders made their historic run of 4 straight Cups to form their dynasty.
Rangers fans were losing faith in their team. Their last Stanley Cup win came in 1940 at that point. The young team in Long Island had more Stanley Cups in their first ten years than the Rangers had in their entire franchise history.
That frustration started to brew up. While the “Potvin sucks!” chants might have stemmed from that fateful night in the Garden, the meaning behind it grew over time. It became a sort of rallying cry for the Rangers fans.
Nilsson never recovered from that injury. In fact, he missed the entire 1981-82 NHL season due to another injury. That frustration and rivalry stayed in the minds of fans but not between Nilsson and Potvin, according to Nilsson.
Over the years, as generations changed, the chant became something of a fun cause. Not many today who chant it were major fans at that time. As the years and decades go by, the number of people who find actual meaning in those 2 words lessen.
It has become a fun part of attending any Rangers game. Why do they still do it? Tradition, obviously. While Islanders fans will laugh at Rangers fans for doing it, it stemmed from some irrational anger from a fanbase.
So, the next time I go to a Rangers game at the Garden, I might not join in with Rangers fans in the chant, but I will absolutely enjoy hearing it.
Dylan Coyle is a “The Wraparound” columnist and the founder of Good Night, Good Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanRCoyle.