The NHL on 9/11: How hockey reacted to tragedy

Puck Daddy

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the major concerns for the National Hockey League and its fans were as follows:

The start of the preseason that Saturday; how the Canadiens would react to the recent cancer diagnosis of captain Saku Koivu; how the trades that brought Jaromir Jagr to the Washington Capitals and Eric Lindros to the New York Rangers would shake out; and that the NHL avoided the necessity for replacement officials by striking a deal with their refs and linesmen over the previous weekend.

After 9:03 a.m. in New York, the concerns became immaterial.

The World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, as hijacked airliners slammed into them, producing massive casualties. A fourth plane was brought down in Shanksville, Pa. through acts of heroism by its passengers, avoiding further calamity.

[Photos: Sports landscape following 9/11 | Photos: 9/11 tributes in sports]

Members of the hockey community died in the tragedy — players, fans, family. The attacks affected every generation, demographic and cultural background. Ten years later, one can debate how they changed the world, but there can be no question that they changed it. And in the days following the massacre in Sept. 2001, every individual, government and business had to adapt, react and respect the magnitude of the tragedy.

The National Hockey League was no exception.

The Victims

Aboard Flight 175, that hit the South Tower of the Trade Center: Garnet "Ace" Bailey, who played professional hockey from 1968-1980 and won four Stanley Cups, two each with the Boston Bruins and Edmonton Oilers. (Famously, he was also Wayne Gretzky's roomie during the legend's first NHL season.)

Bailey was the head scout for the Los Angeles Kings; he hired Mark Bavis, a college hockey standout at Boston University, as an assistant scout in 2000. Bavis also perished on Flight 175.

(Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau was originally going to be on that flight as well, and discussed that fateful day in his recent book.)

Mike Pelletier and Richie Stewart shared the rookie-of-the-year award in 1988 with St. Lawrence University, which lost the Frozen Four national championship in overtime that season. On Sept. 11, 2001, they shared an office at Cantor Fitzgerald, whose headquarters were located within six floors of the plane's impact at One World Trade Center.

All who worked in the office that morning died, Pelletier and Stewart among them.

There were many, many others who died with ties to hockey. Lenny Taylor, a standout high school player, who perished in the Pentagon plane crash. Welles Crowther, a member of the FDNY, who captained his high school hockey team and died at the Trade Center. Countless others who had ties to college and rec hockey; and countless fans of the pro game.

The Survivors

Stuart Fraser, who was vice chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald and majority owner of the CHL Fort Worth Brahmas, survived that day because he was working from home. He told the Dallas Morning News in 2004:

"In the past 20 years, nobody [at the firm] spent as much time in the World Trade Center as me. So half of me wishes I had been there so I could have helped. The other half knows I would have died. There's nothing I could have done."

Today, his efforts continue for the families. From the Star-Telegram:

Fraser, still vice chairman, has been director of the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund, which has raised more than $250 million to assist the families. He also leads the annual memorial service for families and friends of the 658.

He has noticed a change in the victims' families through the years.

"There was a lot of anger and confusion in the beginning," he said. "I think that's given way to more of an upbeat view, of they've taken their loved one's memory and made something even better out of it."

Fraser called the memorial services of the past few years "incredibly positive."

"That sends you on the way for the next year," he said. "I leave feeling inspired by all the people who have handled it so well."

Robert Cimetta was a first-round draft choice of the Boston Bruins in 1988 and played for the Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs. He joined Morgan Stanley after injuries cut his career short, and attended a training seminar on the 61st floor of the South Tower on Sept. 11.

As he evacuated the building because of a fire alarm, the second plane hit his tower.

As he told the Globe & Mail:

"At that very moment, the second plane smashed into our building. I can't describe the force we felt. But the building was really rocked. It knocked some people down. You could feel it sway. The floor was moving underneath your feet."

Panic set in among the people who had been making their way down the stairs in orderly fashion.

"At this point, we have no idea that an airplane has crashed," he said. "I thought it was a bomb. There were people with us who went through the 1993 bombing [at the World Trade Center] and they said this was a lot worse."

As Cimetta raced down the stairs, he wondered whether he was heading into the fire. "It felt like we were animals inside a burning barn," he said. "My heart was racing. My knees were shaking. Women were screaming. I thought I was going to die."

Cimetta reached into his pocket for his cellphone and dialed home to his wife, Susan, in Bradenton, Fla. "My thought was to call her and tell her how much I love her and our [18-month-old] daughter [Vienna]," Cimetta said. "But I couldn't get any reception inside that stairwell."

In total, it took Cimetta 23 minutes to get from the 61st floor to the ground level through the stairwell, unaware of what had happened to the building: "It wasn't until I emerged from the subway exit and there right in front of me was this jet engine lying on the street, cordoned off by police tape," he told the Globe & Mail.

Cimetta, who now has a real estate company in Toronto, helped raised money for the victims of 9/11 in the years that followed the tragedy.

The NHL's Careful Path

On Sept. 11, 2001, the NHL headquarters on Avenue of the Americas in New York City was evacuated at around 2 p.m., after Gary Meagher, the league's vice president of public relations, was able to confirm the safety of League officials from the NHL's other headquarters in Toronto. Commissioner Gary Bettman was at the officials' training camp in Ontario, having closed on their new contract over the weekend.

The New York Rangers were scheduled to undergo physicals at Madison Square Garden that day. On his way to MSG, winger Theo Fleury saw one of the towers collapse, telling the Globe & Mail:

"I'm in shock. … You know how the energy level in Manhattan is usually pretty high? There's none today. It's amazing. People are walking right down the middle of the busiest streets in town. There's not a car out. There's not a cab out. Nothing."

There was an eerie coda to the Rangers' 9/11 experience. According to the Toronto Star, the Rangers were scheduled to stay at the New York Marriott World Trade Center beginning on Sept. 10, taking their physicals in the shadow of the Towers. For logistical reasons, that plan was scuttled a week earlier.

The Marriott suffered what a spokesperson called "irreparable" damage when the Towers fell.

The majority of NHL players were with their team on 9/11, ready for medical testing and the start of the preseason that weekend. The NHL didn't give the teams any guidance immediately following the attacks; like every other form of entertainment business, the question became, 'How do we move on in a respectful, and safe, manner?'

Ultimately, the NHL took its lead from other sports — the NFL, Major League Baseball — that were postponing regular-season games in the wake of the attacks. The NHL cancelled 11 exhibition games on Saturday, Sept. 15. Among them was a game in Washington, D.C. between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Washington Capitals. From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

"I don't think anyone was going to watch or anyone wanted to play the game," [the Flyers Mark Recchi] said. "Let everything get settled down here. Hopefully, at some point, we can entertain people for a couple of hours and let them forget about things. But now is not the right time."

Of course, that raised the question of when the appropriate time was for hockey, pro football or any sport to resume. "I don't think there is ever a right time," Recchi said. "But you can't put everything on hold [permanently]. The President said it best. The country has got to show up. But there has to be a period of grieving. I don't think there is any question about that."

You couldn't find a player who disagreed.

The NHL Community Reacts

Charitable efforts began to spread throughout the NHL to support the victims of 9/11 and their families.

The National Hockey League Players' Association donated $500,000 (U.S.) to aid families of fallen New York firefighters and police officers in the terrorist attacks on the United States. The NHL told the New York Times that the League had raised $1.2 million in a relief fund for families.

The Rangers were volunteering to visit local firehouses. The Detroit Red Wings — including Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Nicklas Lidstrom — donated blood during their Traverse City training camp to aid the medical efforts in New York and Washington.

The Los Angeles Kings donated proceeds from their Sept. 18 exhibition game against Anaheim to a fund that aided relief workers — created and named in honor of Bailey and Bavis.

The games began again a week after 9/11, but the atmosphere was anything but typical. Security measures changed all over North America after the attacks, and the NHL wasn't immune to them.

Arenas beefed up their searches of bags, banning some types of them from the buildings. Metal detectors were put in use for certain games, and pat-downs of fans were more frequent. The notion that an NHL game could be a target for some type of attack, previously a nightmare scenario, was suddenly treated as very possible.

Air travel was different, too, even in the minute details. From the Dallas Morning News on Sept. 20, 2001:

Dave Smith, the Stars head equipment manager, said his job will be more difficult. While teams in the past backed a truck out onto the tarmac to unload their charter aircraft, their luggage and equipment now must go through the airport be taken off baggage carousels.

Increased security at the borders also affected travel for teams going to and from Canada.

The Tributes

On the ice, the Toronto Maple Leafs returned to Air Canada Centre on Sept. 22, following a moment of silence, a bagpipes rendition of "Amazing Grace" and an ovation — yes, an ovation — for the U.S. national anthem.

The Rangers' first game back at MSG following the attacks was played on Sept. 20, against the New Jersey Devils. It was the first major sporting event held in the city since 9/11 and around 5,000 fans attended to see Lindros's debut.

According to the Daily News, "United We Stand" was painted on the ice near the blue lines and advertising around the boards was taken down in favor of a message: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of all injured and lost, New York's Finest and Bravest, all volunteers and rescue workers."

But it was another Rangers exhibition game that became the most memorable moment for the NHL following the attacks.

The Fans Choose Bush Over Hockey

The Rangers and the Flyers were playing on Sept. 21 at the First Union Center when President George W. Bush addressed the nation. His speech began after the second period of the game; players and fans urged arena officials to keep the speech and the audio on inside the building.

From the Daily News:

The men who run the Flyers obliged, continuing to show President Bush address Congress on the center video board rather than play the third period, which was canceled.

Equally stunning was Flyers fans raucously cheering not only the sight of the Mayor of New York and the words "We will rebuild New York City," but then again when the third period of a rollicking game with the hated Rangers was called off and replaced by a handshake line at center ice.

After briefly loosening up to begin the third period, players from both teams headed to the bench when the sizable crowd booed when President Bush's speech was cut off, forcing the return of the address. They then sat, either on their benches or propped on the dasher boards, in rapt attention, for 35 minutes, moving only to tap sticks on the boards in applause.

It was a time for unity of purpose for the nation. Dissent about policy and politics would steadily grow. But Rangers goalie Mike Richter was a ahead of the curve, calling out the President for his declaration that Osama bin Laden was wanted "Dead or Alive."

From Newsday:

"I think that (Bush's remark) was entirely inappropriate," Richter told Newsday. "I think it was sickening, actually."

… Bush's comments have made Richter cringe. "This is no cowboy movie," said Richter, who grew up in the Philadelphia region. "This is not something to be glib about. It scares me."

Perhaps there are solutions that don't involve bombing other innocent people, he added. "It's easy to dismiss bin Laden as evil and a madman. But killing him doesn't end the situation."

Richter considered running for Congress since his retirement in 2003.

Opening Night Honors

The honors and tributes continued on into the regular season, as every NHL team had a tribute of some kind. The Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers honored victims with commemorative patches, and with opening night tributes.

On Oct. 4, the Kings gave a team jersey to Todd Bailey, son of Ace Bailey. Wayne Gretzky, then managing general partner of the Coyotes, was at center ice to honor his late roommate's memory.

The Rangers, meanwhile, opened their home season against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 7 with a 30-minute ceremony to honor the victims and their friends and families. Specifically, it was a moment to honor the FDNY and NYPD members who lost their lives, with members of those teams skating out to form a human tunnel through which the Rangers appeared in the ice.

Also making an appearance at the ceremony: The helmet of Ray Downey, the FDNY's Chief of Special Operations who perished at Ground Zero. From the Rangers website:

Noticing that Mark Messier was bareheaded, FDNY hockey co-captain Larry McGee of Engine 66 in the Bronx had a spontaneous idea. "I said to the other captain on our team, 'Gimme that hat. He'll wear it,'" McGee told a reporter after the ceremony. "Everyone laughed and thought I was out of my mind, but I skated over and gave it to Messier."

A bold move, indeed, even for a firefighter.

"It was all done on a whim and I didn't want to embarrass (Messier)," said McGee. "I introduced myself and told him who Ray Downey was and that it would be an honor if he would wear the helmet. He was a perfect gentleman. He said, 'Sure, whatever you need.' If there was one man worthy of wearing that helmet and paying tribute to Ray, it was Mark Messier."

A visibly touched Messier donned the helmet. He flashed his famous smile as the Garden erupted in cheers.

Messier later took the mic and said: "We dedicate this entire season, from the top of the organization on down, to you."

The 9/11 Perspective

Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta grew up in Rochester, N.Y. and played for the New Jersey Devils from 2001-2009. Driving the New Jersey Turnpike, one could see the Twin Towers as a vivid part of that New York skyline — until they fell on 9/11.

"Even now, you look over at the skyline and it's tough to get used to the skyline without the towers. It still is tough to get used to for me. I grew up with the towers," Gionta told this week, 10 years after the attacks.

"It felt weird that you're playing a game there when all that was going on not far from us. … What you draw on is you can take people's minds off of it for a bit and hopefully that worked."

The term "perspective" was used a lot after 9/11 with regard to professional sports. In some cases, that led to overreaction — that hyperbolic terms like "warrior" could no longer be applied to athletes, or when Rocky Mountain News columnist Bernie Lincicome suggested the New York Jets change their name because planes were used in the attacks (seriously).

Yes, hockey players and fans gained perspective on 9/11, about the ultimate frivolity of their place in the entertainment industry — a perspective that unfortunately some never had about professional sports, and still don't.

But here's another perspective we all gained: The power of sports to numb pain, honor the fallen, provide solace and, in many cases, mobilize a community to help those in need.

We're seeing it again 10 years later after three NHL players lost their lives this summer, and nearly an entire KHL team was killed in a plane crash this week.

We adapt. We respect. We endure. Even during the darkest days.

(Ed. Note: Information compiled through newspaper research from 2001; many of the stories are not available online.)

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