If anything, Madison Square Garden knows how to respect its family: from hanging the retired jerseys of legends from the rafters, to in-game videos honoring former players who have moved on, to funding charities for children and veterans.
And then there was a short but moving ceremony Friday night.
Steven McDonald, who died Tuesday at age 59 and was buried Friday, wasn’t a player or a coach or a rival star. But the former New York detective was as courageous and inspirational and tough as any athlete who ever played under the hallowed roof at this locale or the previous Gardens.
McDonald, confined to a wheelchair after being shot and paralyzed in Central Park in 1986 when he was a 29-year-old plainclothes officer, pressed ahead with his passion for hockey and helped strengthen the bond that the Rangers have with the beat cops and firefighters from the Bronx to Staten Island and beyond.
Since 1988, when the annual Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award was created for fans to vote for the player who had gone “above and beyond,” McDonald’s on-ice remarks at the end of the season had moved everyone, including a Quebec-born coach in his first season in New York.
“He talked to players and fans and me about going ‘above and beyond,’ and that sort of became our slogan in the playoffs,” Alain Vigneault recalled as the team battled to the Stanley Cup Final. “I have fond memories of him, and his being there when we walk out to the ice [before games]. I met him a couple times prior, not grasping the whole New York and Rangers implications, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that he was a very important person.”
Blue is generally the preferred color in the stands for Rangers games, with current jerseys to those from past decades proudly worn. You could read them Friday night: Gilbert, Messier, Bathgate, Giacomin in a sea of blue as a tribute not to the team on this January night, but to McDonald and his colleagues.
The crowd first responded in warmups, when the Rangers wore dark blue jerseys with McDonald’s name across the shoulder and his badge number — 104 — on the back.
With a red carpet rolled to center ice, McDonald’s widow, Patti Ann, and son, Conor, were escorted by Adam Graves and Mark Messier for a ceremonial puck drop after the crowd was asked not for a moment of silence but for cheers for a man “who will live in our hearts and minds.” Mother and son hugged during the standing ovation as McDonald’s golden badge was superimposed on the ice and police officer Lauren Leggio sang the national anthem.
During a timeout at the 6:05 mark of the first period, a video tribute from seven Rangers was shown, including Mats Zuccarello, who won the Extra Effort Award twice and said, “We’re never going to forget him.” The crowd agreed, applauding again and chanting McDonald’s name after the video.
Earlier, as the Rangers trickled back into the locker room at the Garden after their Friday morning skate, every nearby television was tuned to McDonald’s funeral service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.
Dan Girardi, now in his 10th season with the team, was watching one of the screens in silence while taping his stick.
“Obviously, he meant a lot to the Rangers, the city and the NYPD, and he was an inspiration for everyone around here, and I think every day we live by his ‘above and beyond the call of duty,’ and I think he’s going to be greatly missed,” Girardi said. “We’d always look forward to his season-ending words of wisdom and speech when he hands out the award and this year I think Conor and Patti Ann will do a great job, and I hope we’ll use that as inspiration going forward, for sure.”