13 Years Later: How the NHL responded to 9/11

Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers players shake hands at center ice, after cancelling the third period of their Sept. 20, 2001 preseason game. (YouTube screenshot)

Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers players shake hands at center ice, after cancelling the third period of their Sept. 20, 2001 preseason game. (YouTube screenshot)

The early-morning hours of Sept. 11, 2001 seemed like another day of the offseason was set to happen in the NHL community. Preseason pucks were set to be dropped the following weekend, and the start of the regular season was just over three weeks away.

But beginning at 8:46 a.m., the narrative shifted in a direction no one thought was imaginable. Terrorist group al-Qaeda hijacked planes and flew three of them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., with a fourth plane brought down in a Shanksville, Pa. field. Nearly 3,000 lives were lost, and the seemingly-invincible United States of America were left to mourn.

The iconic photo of 3 fireman raising a flag at ground zero.

The iconic photo of 3 fireman raising a flag at ground zero.

Ace Bailey and Mark Bavis
Garnet ‘Ace’ Bailey, a four-time Stanley Cup champion working as the Los Angeles Kings’ director of pro scouting, and Mark Bavis, a former college and American League player who worked as a Kings scout, were set to fly to Los Angeles from Boston for organizational meetings. They boarded United Airlines Flight 175, which struck the WTC’s South Tower at 9:03 a.m.

The Kings were one team that honored victims with jersey patches in the 2001-02 campaign. Following a Sept. 18 home preseason tilt with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, the team donated the game’s proceeds to a relief fund, appropriately named in Bailey and Bavis’ honor. In a ceremony prior to their season opener on Oct. 4, the team presented Bailey’s son, Todd, with a jersey. They also named their lion mascot, Bailey, in his memory.

The organization was nearly dealt a third loss, as Bruce Boudreau, coaching the team’s upstart AHL affiliate in Manchester, N.H., was supposed to join Bailey and Bavis on Flight 175. In his 2009 autobiography, “Gabby: Confessions of a Hockey Lifer,” Boudreau says he was to fly to Los Angeles with the two scouts for the start of training camp, but instead flew a day earlier for a pre-camp dinner with other coaches in the Kings organization.

On June 14, 2012, when the Kings celebrated their first-ever Stanley Cup championship parade, Dave Krasne, a Kings fan, visited the September 11 Memorial and placed a Stanley Cup Champions hat between Bailey and Bavis’ names.

On Oct. 14 of the same year, the Stanley Cup was brought to the Memorial and placed between their names as well. GM Dean Lombardi was present, and the families of both men were able to celebrate the annual Day-with-the-Cup activities.

Kathy Bavis Sylvester, sister of Mark Bavis, and Kathy Bailey, wife of Ace Bailey, pose with Kings GM Dean Lombardi and the Stanley Cup at the 9/11 Memorial in 2012. (Kings.NHL.com)

Kathy Bavis Sylvester, sister of Mark Bavis, and Kathy Bailey, widow to Garnet ‘Ace’ Bailey, pose with Kings GM Dean Lombardi and the Stanley Cup at the 9/11 Memorial in 2012. (Kings.NHL.com)

Preseason games
The NHL preseason was scheduled to begin the following weekend, with 11 games scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 15. Each game — including a Capitals/Flyers tilt at the MCI Center in Washington — was cancelled, similar to decisions made by MLB and the NFL to suspend their regular-season games for a week.

Teams were preparing to report to training camp, with the New York Rangers originally expected to report to the New York Marriott World Trade Center on Sept. 10. However, the location of physicals was changed to Madison Square Garden a week earlier, and the Marriott was damaged beyond repair when the Twin Towers fell.

On Sept. 19, the Rangers took the ice against New Jersey at MSG in the city’s first sporting event since the tragedy. “United We Stand” was painted on the ice near the bluelines, and advertising was removed from the boards. The Rangers went on to win 6-1.

The very next night, the Rangers visited the First Union Center to play the Flyers. President George W. Bush was to address Congress the same evening.

The President’s speech was broadcasted on the ArenaVision scoreboard as the second intermission was wrapping up. Fans were informed that the speech was to be broadcast on concourse televisions when the third period started.

When the speech was turned off, fans began to boo. Arena officials then proceeded to put the speech, with audio, back on. Players, officials, coaches and fans all watched the President speak, and even responded with applause and stick-taps during seminal moments.

Following the conclusion of the speech, the two teams mutually decided to cancel the third period and end with a 2-2 tie. They lined up at center ice and shook hands, bringing in one of hockey’s great traditions. FTHN’s Anthony Scultore has a recap of the game here.

On Sept. 21, the Toronto Maple Leafs hosted Pittsburgh at the Air Canada Centre. A moment of silence was observed, and “Amazing Grace” was performed on bagpipes. When the Star-Spangled Banner was played, fans responded with a standing ovation.

Regular season
When the regular season began on Oct. 3, each club honored victims and families. Behind both nets at all 30 rinks, red, white and blue ribbons were painted on the ice.

Prior to their home opener against Buffalo on Oct. 7, the Rangers held a 30-minute ceremony, featuring the hockey teams from the Fire Department of New York and the New York Police Department. The teams brought with them the helmet of Deputy Chief Ray Downey, who died at Ground Zero.

Captain Mark Messier, who took part in the ceremony without his own helmet, received Downey’s helmet, and dedicated the Rangers’ campaign to both departments. Dan Breeman of Fulltilt Rangers has a thorough summary of the evening here.

Messier wears a fallen hero's helmet (NYR)

Messier wears a fallen hero’s helmet (NYR)

Moving forward
The 85th season of NHL play came and went as scheduled, with the Detroit Red Wings ultimately winning the Stanley Cup.

Throughout the season, the NHL raised $1.2 million for relief efforts. The Players’ Association also donated $500,000 to families of first responders. Individual players chipped in to help as well, through blood and monetary donations, in addition to various other means of support.

Over the course of time, sports have always provided a temporary outlet for people to escape the harsh realities of everyday life. Whether or not its a tough day at school or work, illness, personal problems or anything else, sports constantly provide a short block to temporarily take one’s mind off of whatever situations they face, and present a minute distraction of sorts.

But while sports can provide that outlet, what happens in a sporting event rarely, if ever, transcends the everyday realities that people face. We often tend to think of professional athletes as larger-than-life figures, and NHL players are no exception. However, the moments where sports and reality intertwine with each other are moments that prove to be truly seminal.

The events of 13 years ago today struck a devastating blow across Americans of all ages, all sorts and all walks of life. Like the rest of us, the NHL was, by no means, in a position to un-do those events or cure the pain felt in their aftermath.

However, it proved to be one of many outlets that helped people cope and provided relief, and became one of the numerous pegs that helped America stand strong in the wake of tragedy.

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