Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Howie Balaban: That Memorable Gift Experience

This week is Christmas and Hanukkah. In my family, we celebrate both.
And ever since I was three years old, I’ve been fortunate to be part of both holidays. Growing up, my parents would pack up my brother and I and we’d all drive up from Virginia Beach or east from Olean – never less than 7 hours in a car – and we’d spend a couple nights at my grandparents in Yonkers and then at my aunt and uncle’s house on Long Island.

In Yonkers, we’d enjoy Christmas with my mom’s whole side of the family, and if the holidays overlapped, we’d light Hanukkah candles near a Christmas tree. On the island with my dad’s side, it was simply candles. At both places, there was always good food. LOTS of good food.

With all of us looking forward to unwrapping stuff this week, I thought I’d share a story about one of the coolest Decembers of my childhood. The best part is that what I unwrapped wasn’t even an item, per se. It was a trio of experiences.

Heading into the school break that year, my brother and I already knew we were going to two games in the NY Metro area. The first, on Dec. 23, would feature Toronto at New Jersey. The second, on Dec. 28, would feature the expansion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim at the NY Islanders.
We’d been told that getting tickets for the NY Rangers hosting the NJ Devils at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 26 was impossible. We were 13 and 8 years old, respectively, and the videos of people being surprised on the Internet didn’t exist yet. So we started our annual trip already a bit annoyed, but not that we weren’t going to get to the game at MSG. I mean, we were annoyed, but we were more upset that the Rangers were playing so well that season and we’d be unable to see them at their home rink.
Our family got down to Yonkers on Dec. 22 and my dad, brother, and I went to the Meadowlands on Dec. 23 to see the Maple Leafs play the Devils. I had to look up this score to confirm my memory of Toronto winning 3-2 against Martin Brodeur as a rookie. I got the score right, but the victor wrong. The Devils won. A check of the box score as of this writing made me chuckle at the talent on the ice that night. Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk scored for Toronto, while Scott Niedermeyer, Bill Guerin, Scott Stevens, and Claude Lemieux all found their names on the score sheet for New Jersey against Felix Potvin. Those are some great players!
On Dec. 24, as was tradition, we made our way from my grandparents’ apartment to my mom’s step-sister’s house where my two cousins and I put my brother, the youngest of us, in goalie pads and just pelted him with shot after shot (using a tennis ball) outside while we had daylight before moving the game to the basement later on. During our downtime, the four of us took turns playing the latest NHL game on Sega Genesis. 
And for this whole time, my cousins kept telling me and my brother how sorry they were that we couldn’t go to the Ranger game with them the day after Christmas.
Once we all had worn ourselves out playing hockey and video games, and once everyone had had dessert, we all gathered in the big family room to open presents. By this time, I was a more than a little upset. To make matters worse, the first present I opened was a white NY Rangers jersey (no name on the back). I was excited to see it, but immediately annoyed when one of my cousins pointed out how unfortunate it was that I couldn’t wear it to MSG two nights later.
I took that comment about as well as you could imagine – and by that I mean I didn’t take it well at all – but I held my tongue.
The next gift was a Rangers hat. And at that point I started to get a visibly upset. I might have teared up. I don’t remember, exactly. But what you have to remember is that the videos of this kind of thing weren’t commonplace at that point in time. So in my 13-year-old mind, I was wondering why on earth these people were torturing me (and my brother, for that matter, for he was opening the same things I was, and in the same order) and laughing about it?
Gift no. 3 was a wrapped box about the size of a shoebox. Getting past the paper I realized it was a shoebox, and I was so emotional I still hadn’t connected the dots regarding what was happening. 
I lifted the shoebox lid and found a bunch of shredded paper. I dug through it and then I saw it.
A ticket.
Somewhere, if he hasn’t yet thrown it away or lost it over the years, one of my cousins – he was 12 during this whole ordeal – has a great Polaroid photo of my reaction. Pure joy. Elation. Euphoria. Those are the words that would best describe my face in that instant.
I couldn’t tell you what happened for the next 44 hours. I’m sure that I ate well on Christmas Day, and that my cousins and brother and I played hockey and video games. However, going to Madison Square Garden on the night of Dec. 26 was simply amazing.
Plus, to make things even more interesting, a player for the Rangers – Mike Gartner – was sitting at 599 career goals. Not only was I going to my first Ranger game, but I could also witness history? And against the hated Devils? 
When the puck dropped, all I can remember thinking was how happy I felt to be at the game. By the end of the first period, I felt like the rest of the arena: annoyed. A zero-to-zero score will do that sometimes.
During the second period, though, I think I went hoarse from cheering so much. Inside of the first nine minutes of that frame, New York scored four times. The Rangers added a fifth before the Devils finally counterpunched with three of their own.
That score – 5 to 3 – is what the third period started at, and all of us fans knew there were just 20 more minutes for Gartner to get his 600th at home. After all, the team had a road trip coming up, so it was imperative to get it soon.
Just over 5 minutes into the third, the Rangers added a goal from Alexei Kovalev to make it 6-3. But despite the cheers, we all were restless. We wanted the Gartner goal.
Sure enough, a minute later, he received a pass from Kovalev and got the tally, driving the fans into a frenzy. However, since there was a question about whether he kicked the puck, the goal was reviewed and we were even louder. When the goal was confirmed, we resumed our cheering.
And a minute later when Gartner scored again, we somehow made ourselves even louder. 
The final score – 8 to 3 – and the milestone markers are something I will always remember. I will admit, however, to looking up the box score to this game and realizing that Mark Messier didn’t play in it was a bit shocking. He must have been nursing a nagging injury. But there were other great players that night, such as Brian Leetch, Tony Amonte, Adam Graves, Sergei Zubov, Esa Tikkanen, Sergei Nemchimov, and Steve Larmer.
Two nights later, when the Ducks shut out the Islanders (like the Devils, a team I loathe), the whirlwind trip was complete. The experience was over.
All this is to say that I really do not remember what I got for the holidays that year, save for the jersey and hat that preceded the game ticket. I quite vividly remember the experience of going to the games, even if my memory of who played and who scored and so on may not be as sharp. The point is I was there.
Later that season, in June of 1994, Rangers play-by-play voice Sam Rosen exuberantly proclaimed upon the Rangers winning the Stanley Cup, “And this one will last a lifetime!”
On that note, I sincerely hope that whenever you are reading this, you’re reminded to cherish the memories you make this week and next because if you’re lucky, they’ll be some of the best of your life.
Howie Balaban wishes all of you a memorable holiday season!