November 28 2011
If you have been to New York City in the run-up to Christmas – and there are few better times to visit – you may have enjoyed a spin on the ice rink in front of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center on 5th Avenue. The rink, which launched on Christmas Day in 1936, stays open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays (and every day until January 6) and is hugely popular over the yuletide season.
But then, all ice sports or “icecapades” are popular in the US and Canada and, if you are thinking of making a festive trip to the Big Apple, you should try to catch a professional ice hockey game at Madison Square Garden, home of the New York Rangers.
Ice hockey is a colourful, noisy and fast-moving spectacle. There’s no shortage of physical contact, either, though there is a growing feeling that some teams have gone too far in their deployment of “enforcers” to try to prevent their opponents from scoring.
The holy grail for all North American teams is the Stanley Cup, which was first awarded in 1893. The Rangers have won the trophy four times and they made it through to last season’s playoffs, where they attempted to invoke a local tradition to assist them.
It’s customary for superstitious New York players to grow a beard if their team reaches the post-season and not to shave it off until they either win the Cup or are knocked out. Most professionals – be they Slavs, French Canadians, Italian Americans or whatever – tend to be mean and muscular dudes, though they look surprisingly graceful as they swoop over the ice. You’d think that sprouting a good covering of facial hair would be the least of their problems.
But embarrassingly for the Rangers’ 24-year-old centre Brandon Dubinsky and his 6ft 7in teammate Brian Boyle, they couldn’t manage it. All they could muster were rather-comical-looking black moustaches and, as they took to the ice this year for a best-of-seven series against the Washington Capitals, they looked as if they were about to launch into a chorus of YMCA.
Dubinsky did manage to wipe the smiles off the faces of the opposition by scoring the winning goal in the third game, but the supposed magic properties of his ’tache ran out in the next, and Washington went on to scoop the series with two games left to play.
The Rangers, clean-shaven or otherwise, will be in action several times over the Christmas period, and not the least enjoyable aspect of watching them on a bitterly cold night in Manhattan is the chance it offers to savour the rousing atmosphere inside the “Garden”.
There has been a stadium on or near the site on 8th Avenue and 33rd Street since 1879. The present incarnation, which opened in 1968, has played host to legendary sporting events, including the Ali-Frazier heavyweight title fight in 1971, as well as concerts and political conventions – and it was also the setting for Marilyn Monroe’s unforgettable rendition of Happy Birthday, Mr President, sung to JFK at his 45th birthday party in May 1962.
The one thing you cannot do legally at an American ice hockey match is bet on the outcome. But you can wager on every game with the bookmakers in Britain, and the Rangers are trading at a dismissive 40-1 for the 2012 Stanley Cup with Ladbrokes. The smart money has all been for the Vancouver Canucks, narrow losers of last season’s shoot-out and fancied to go one better next year at 8-1 with William Hill.