John Amirante died on Tuesday. I’ve been thinking about it almost nonstop, and the feeling of grief still hasn’t left me. I’d only met him twice, briefly, and aside from that I’d only ever heard him do one thing: sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Rangers games. Still, John Amirante was more than just the guy who sang the national anthem before Rangers games. He was a part of the Rangers family, what the Rangers meant.
I choose those words carefully, because right now, there’s no guarantee he’ll still be a part of what it means to bleed blue in this ever-changing era. Our team, the sport of hockey, and the world we live in are rapidly shifting, all given to us by our forebearers, many of whom are still with us but many of whom, like John, have either moved on or will be moving on as the pages turn. As this passage of time occurs we must commit ourselves to remembering and retelling their stories, over and over again, to keep them with us and one day pass them on to those who come next.
I was given the gift of hockey and Rangers fandom, like many of us young and old I’d imagine, by my dad (who’s also probably reading this – hi, dad). Hockey, as a result has always had a strong connotation of family to me, which again, I’d imagine I’m not alone in. It’s an easy way to bond with others, a way to structure our lives, and something that brings meaning and joy in both good times and bad. I don’t think I really need to explain this to any of you, as we’re all here as a result of that common bond, but this part is important to say.
Hockey was born in the 20th century, and grew up along with it. The pains and promises of that era were reflected in hockey, but even with the advancements of each passing decade hockey remained relatively unchanged. Certain rules were modified, the equipment became markedly safer, but for the most part hockey remained what it was from the start, a sport played by people for a common purpose, from a common place, all with a common passion.
As those 100 years give way to the next, hockey has not only survived but grown beyond its originators’ wildest dreams, but the road ahead is a bumpy one. The world changed rapidly in the waning days of the 1900s and continues to morph into a form bordering on the unrecognizable to those who remember times past, and the challenge for those of us who will carry this game and this team into the future is daunting.
It goes without saying that this team is at an inflection point, and it may not be too early to say that the past decade or so has represented something of a golden age for the Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist is arguably a top-5 all time goaltender, and while the Rangers have not yet won a Stanley Cup with him that in no way diminishes the accomplishments of the teams he’s backstopped. Glen Sather and Jeff Gorton made clear however with their letter to the fan base and with their subsequent maneuvering that the Rangers will look towards the future. This has meant moving on from familiar faces and in some ways moving on from the fond memories we made with them.
While it may not quite be over yet, I know that I look forward to one day telling my kids about the Henrik Lundqvist days, the Ryan Callahan Rangers, the Cup Final team, Mats Zuccarello, and on and on. I want to tell them so much more than that though. I want to tell them about Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield, and Rod Gilbert. I want to tell them about triple overtimes and Pete Stemkowski, about the Blue Seats, about Eddie! Eddie! Eddie! and all of the heroes not only of my Rangers lifetime but my dad’s as well. I want to tell them about John Amirante.
Although I’m willing to bet that I’m a lot younger than most of you, I came of age at an interesting time. I’m young enough to be intimately familiar with the heavily technological language in which our world now speaks and understand in a nuanced way how and why our world exists as it does, but I’m old enough to know that it wasn’t always this way. In fact, that understanding is largely due to my fixation on the past and the ways in which our socio-political milieu has developed over time, on both a global and local level. This is not to say that I know everything, in fact I would say that I know much closer to nothing than everything, but rather that I was born almost too neatly at a fork in the road. As the great Yogi Berra would have me do, I took it.
My first memories were of the dwindling Cup-winning team, and my adolescence and young adulthood coincided with the rise and dominance of Henrik Lundqvist. My early days at the Garden were when it had that bizarre but oddly reassuring purple and green color scheme (so the Blue Seats weren’t exactly blue), but today the arena has two bridges. Coaches came and went, as did multiple captains and many, many free agents, but through all of this only one man sang the national anthem to kick off the start of each hockey game, and his name was John Amirante.
A common expression when describing someone charismatic is that they make you feel like you’re the only one in the room, but with John it was the exact opposite. When he sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” it felt like you were connected not only to him, not only to every Ranger fan in the Garden, but every Ranger fan who had ever sat in the Garden. His legendary voice was made full not only by his technical singing ability, but by the passion and joy he poured into the song night after night, through good times and bad. He was a gracious man, and since his passing fans from all across our community have shared heart-warming stories of the times he entered their lives, however briefly.
To say that John Amirante was a part of the very fiber that holds our fan base together is underselling it. He is a bridge that will traverse generations of Rangers fans, joining us together in such a way that we can never be torn apart. Remembering him is an absolute imperative, an act of maintaining and strengthening our community in a way that honors the past that brought us to this point, galvanizing the present that will bring us into the future.
Because as I mentioned earlier, while things are changing in many ways, hockey remains, above all, about common bonds. Our society today places profit above all however, commodifying any semblance of organic feeling and turning it into something that can be marketed, bought, and sold. While in many ways commerce is a simple fact of life, I know that’s not the sport I was brought up to love or the community I was born into. I know that you all know it too – that we are fans first, and not just customers. It’s natural to worry that the latter will overtake the former in our contemporary day and age, but there is something we can do to resist it, not just for John but for all of those who cheered along with him in days past, as well as those who’ll cheer along with him for years to come.
Such an act of resistance is not just a matter of respecting John and the legacy he leaves behind, but a matter of respecting both those who came before and those who will come next. Hockey, like any other sport, is at a crossroads where institutional memory has been placed on the backburner, because passing down your cherished moments to those you love can’t be monetized, only shared. Things haven’t always been this way, and it’s incumbent upon my generation, as one of the last who saw the sun before the storm came rolling in, to remind ourselves and our future of that. They deserve to know the sense of family we were raised knowing, the community so graciously given to us by the people who helped make it into what it is today. We can’t let these memories die, not the memories of players past, of games watched with family and friends, or of the man himself, John Amirante.
So in order to honor John’s legacy let’s all make sure the next time we’re watching a game that we’re doing so in the company of those special to us. Let’s tell stories, among old friends and new, of our favorite games and players. Let’s extend the sort of kindness and passion John gave to us to all those we meet as we travel down this road with our beloved Blueshirts. Let’s open our family to all those who would choose it with the same warmth and grace he brought to the microphone each night. It’s what he deserves, it’s what my dad deserves, what my kids deserve. It’s not just for him, or for you or me, but for all of us, together."Remembering John Amirante",