NEW YORK – It was strange to see bright eyes and wide smiles nearly a full hour after the New York Rangers lost to their longtime rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, in front of a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
The high spirits had nothing to do with what transpired over the course of the matinee game earlier in the day. Instead, they had everything to do with the successful launch of the inaugural Junior Rangers Cup, an 8U tournament that wrapped up after the Rangers game with a 12-team, three-division, final round at Madison Square Garden.
“The idea was just to have something fun for the kids,” said Rick Nadeau, the vice president of social impact and fan engagement with the Rangers. “Especially at the 8-and-Under level to have to look forward to at the end of the year. Something exciting that would keep them excited about being hockey players and coming back year after year.”
Each team was comprised of 10 children ages 8-and-Under. Using a 3-on-3 format, the games were played from the red line to the end boards, with boards placed at center ice so two games could be played simultaneously. The tournament began Saturday with 48 teams, with the four best in each division getting the opportunity to play on the same ice surface as Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba, Tony DeAngelo and the rest of the Rangers team.
“It’s been awesome,” said Matt Angst, the coach of the Long Beach Lightning, which won the Division 3 title. The New Jersey Bandits were the Division 2 champions, and the Brooklyn Aviators won the Division 1 championship.
“We started a Learn-to-Skate program with the Rangers, and about 90 percent of these kids started in that Learn-to-Skate program,” Angst said. “[They] got to learn to play and are now playing travel hockey. Now they get to come out here at Madison Square Garden, the best arena in the world, and win a championship. It was awesome for the kids.”
The fun wasn’t just limited to the kids. Parents savored the moment of their children skating on hallowed ice.
“It’s so much fun,” said Adam Graves, a Rangers legend whose No. 9 was retired by the team on Feb. 3, 2009, and who now serves in the team’s hockey and business operations department, as well as assisting in the organization’s efforts to work with local communities.
The mid-afternoon tournament was the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of work.
“This is an event that we’ve been planning since the spring of last year,” Nadeau said. “The idea of a season-ending celebration for a number of teams across [the New York Tri-State] area.”
Along with celebrating the individual teams’ seasons, the program helps introduce the game to future generations, with the hope that once children are invested in hockey they will stay involved in the sport.
Introducing the game to even a small percentage of children at a young age at an affordable cost — the Rangers have a Try Hockey For Free program, as well as the Learn-to-Play curriculum, which runs for 10 weeks in which players receive free equipment as part of the program — theoretically should provide a boost to the game.
“To bring these kids out and their families — and you see that because it’s their brother and sister, or cousin or mom and dad and grandma and grandpa; it becomes a family thing,” said Graves. “It’s a great way to, I think, meet people.”
Those tasked with creating and operating the program were adamant that the Junior Rangers Cup was not a one-off event. Rather they are envisioning its growth.
“We think this can become certainly an event teams from across the country look forward to participating in every year, and beyond if we think international teams — just like Quebec and the Brick [Invitational] tournament, this obviously being more recreational in nature,” Nadeau said. “We think that the teams [with] the opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden and playing a tournament like this will attract teams from all over.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.