Even though the birthplace of ice hockey was in Kingston, Ontario, Canada in 1886, the growth of the sport in the United States has been made over the course of the 20th and now 21st centuries. As one of the Original Six teams in the National Hockey League, a man that played a major role in establishing the New York Rangers as one of the most prominent franchises in professional hockey was Lester Patrick.
For those of you who aren't familar with the legacy of Lester Patrick, I'd catch up up to speed before I get to this year's award recipients.
Just two years after the Rangers' inception into the NHL, Patrick suited up six years removed from his retirement as a professional hockey player and played as the team's goaltender during the 1928 Stanley Cup Finals due to an eye injury suffered by starting goalie Lorne Chabot. At the time this took place, there were no backup goaltenders dressed to play. He was the Rangers' coach and general manager at the time and his heroics at age 44 helped defeat the Montreal Maroons for the first of their four championships in franchise history.
Even though Patrick's playing career was in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA), he would end up in New York to begin running the Rangers in their inaugural NHL season in 1926. Before he did, he and his brother Frank had founded the PCHA in 1911 to rival the NHL and other major hockey leagues. As their coach, Patrick led the Rangers to their second title in 1933 and as just their general manager in 1940. He left the organization in 1946 to run the Victoria Cougars of the PCHA before retiring in 1954 and died on June 1, 1960 at the age of 76.
Because of his contributions to the game of ice hockey in western Canada as well as his accomplishments with the New York Rangers, Patrick was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1947. The National Hockey League then established the Lester Patrick Trophy in 1966 to honor individuals for their outstanding contributions to hockey in the United States.
On to the 2007 award recipients now...
All four to receive the Lester Patrick Trophy this year should be familar to NHL fans, especially to those in the Big Apple. Mike "Doc" Emrick as the event emcee at the Sheraton New York presented the award to:
*former New York Rangers and United States men's Olympic team defenseman Brian Leetch
*hockey journalist, author and broadcaster Stan Fischler
*former New York Rangers publicist and historian John Halligan
*former United States women's Olympic team captain Cammi Granato
While I was not even born yet when Halligan had become a part of the Rangers organization, he helped bring them back into the forefront of many hockey fans' and the media's attention with his roles in business management and communications. Halligan became known as the man who was with former Rangers president and Hall of Famer William M. Jennings at a New York City restaurant when the idea of establishing the Lester Patrick Award was hatched. The bottom line here is that Halligan was a major contributor to the cementing the New York Rangers as a very high-profile franchise in the NHL and in professional sports. This is despite their lack of Stanley Cup championships for over a half century.
I admit I knew about Cammi Granato only after I began watching her older brother play in the NHL. Tony Granato entered the league as a rookie in 1989 with the Rangers to when he overcame a career-threatening brain injury in 1995 and returned to score 25 goals as an All-Star in the 1996-1997 season for the San Jose Sharks. As for Cammi, I must admit I didn't know much about her until she was mentioned during Rangers broadcasts when Tony was with the team and interviewed. Then I later was able to see her in a few international games on television and of course the major Olympic tournaments. What really won me over was her amazing leadership and determination to led the United States women's national team to the 1998 Gold Medal with their victory over Canada in Nagano, Japan. It was the inaugural women's hockey tournament in Olympic competition and to this very day, I have a VHS copy of the CBS broadcast. By the time Cammi had played in the 1992 Gold Medal Game in which the Canadian women got revenge, I had already bought an authentic Team USA jersey from that year with her name, number and captain C on it. Of course I'd later see her doing rinkside reporting of NHL games on NBC following the lockout. This is before she retired as a player and broadcaster to concentrate on her married life to former Ranger and current Rogers Sportsnet color analyst Ray Ferraro and raising their 10-month-old son Riley.
I have seen and learned so many things about Stan Fischler and how much he is so widely respected in hockey, it really is impressive. I actually met the man when I worked at SportsChannel before it became FSN New York and had to learn to understand his sense of humor. Today I still get to get to enjoy watching "The Hockey Maven" on local broadcasts for all three metropolitan area teams in the Rangers, Islanders and Devils. While I haven't read his books to date, I know he has written one on the history of NHL hockey in the largest market in North America, another on the New York City subway system and others about the NHL. His analysis of the local teams on a regular basis is as entertaining as the games themselves sometimes, especially when he debates with the studio hosts such as Al Trautwig or Matt Loughlin.
And last but not least, Brian Leetch. He has had the biggest impression on me of them all. Given I've closely followed the Rangers for a long time, I cannot forget when he first burst onto the international stage when he played for the 1988 United States men's Olympic team along side another Rangers great in goaltender Mike Richter. Even though the team finished 7th in the tournament in Calgary, this was just the beginning to what is expected to be a Hall of Fame career. I recall watching Leetch grow from a rookie into an NHL star very quickly and possessed the skills so few defensemen in hockey history had. He was so skilled with the puck, had the ability to score at any time (seriously, always a scoring threat) and be a quarterback on the power play. After he refined all those skills, he became a complete player and helped the Rangers end their 54-year Stanley Cup drought with a Conn Smythe Trophy playoff campaign. Even though he hardly saw much playoff time after that, Leetch was still a champion to many adoring New York fans. Everyone in the Big Apple will get to salute him very soon as a matter of fact when his #2 will be raised to the rafters on January 24th when the Atlanta Thrashers are in town. Besides his playing the high majority of his NHL career in New York City, I along with many others will also remember his role on the United States' 1996 World Cup of Hockey championship team and the 1992 Silver Medal Olympic team.
All four of these individuals have made a outstanding contributions to hockey in this country in some capacity that his completely worthy and deserving of this honor. No doubt about it, they will never be forgotten for all of their accomplishments.