John Amirante never heard his most memorable anthem

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Rangers fans at Madison Square Garden for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals against Vancouver on June 14, 1994.

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept.

Even after 20 years, even via a not-exactly-hi-def YouTube video, it remains a reliable chills-inducer. So imagine what it was like to be the guy in the middle of it.

"I was on cloud nine, excited and thrilled to be there," John Amirante said, recalling his rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on June 14, 1994, the night the Rangers hosted the Canucks in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

It was and remains the most memorable anthem on the career list of a guy who estimates he has belted it out more than 1,000 times in public -- more, as far as he knows, than anyone else alive.

What's ironic is that night's performance was all but inaudible, a guy performing his signature song in a crisp 90 seconds while Rangers fans almost entirely drowned out his words with anticipatory cheers.

"I couldn't even hear myself when I was out on the ice," he said. "It was so loud."

Was he offended? Hardly.

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"No, I wasn't," he said. "No, no, no."

Three days later, he was parading down Broadway, basking in the glow along with the players.

Since then, the ride has continued for Amirante, who on Thursday begins what he hopes will be another playoff run with a team for which he first sang the anthem on Nov. 2, 1980, before all but three current Rangers were born.

Nothing in New York sports is quite like Rangers fans emoting before a postseason game, as no one knows better than Amirante, who has lived in Plainview since 1968. "It's a fantastic feeling." he said.

Amirante's Rangers fandom dates to the post-World War II years -- his favorite player, Edgar Laprade, was a center for them from 1945-55 -- but his anthem resume extends far beyond that, touching an array of New York teams and sports.

It all started when he got a gig singing with the dance band at Cardinal Hayes High School in his native Bronx, which led to jobs in the clubs along Central Avenue in Yonkers.

Amirante kept singing, entertaining at parties and other events, and moved into sports via a connection from his day job as a design engineer for John McMullen's naval architecture firm.

McMullen happened to own the Houston Astros and got Amirante an audition to sing at Shea Stadium before an Astros-Mets game. He landed the job in the summer of 1980.

That job emboldened him to seek out Madison Square Garden officials. They gave him three Rangers and two Knicks games in 1980-81, and within a couple of years, he was doing every game for both teams.

That was cool, but equally cool for a former sandlot pitcher from the Bronx was sharing anthem duties at Yankee Stadium for a time with Robert Merrill. He had sung at a birthday party for owner George Steinbrenner, who later recognized him at a Rangers game.

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"He said, 'You did a good job out there on the ice,' " Amirante recalled. "I said, 'Well, I can sing just as easily on the grass.' I got him to laugh."

Amirante stopped doing Knicks games in the mid-1990s and now does most but not all Rangers games, including the entire playoffs.

Not that he is short on energy or vocal strength deep into his late 70s. (He declined to say what age he turned on his birthday Wednesday: "I'm not going to go into that. I'm 39.")

Amirante said he doesn't feel any different from the way he did decades ago and plans to keep singing "until I can't stand." He also does not consider the anthem a particularly difficult song, unlike most who attempt it.

"The problem is most people think too much about it," he said. "I sing it like I'm saying my prayers at night. It just comes out."

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The ultimate Rangers prayer was answered 20 years ago, and still echoes.

"My first concern was: Am I going to hear the organ?" Amirante said.

He didn't, and no one minded.

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