It was a spontaneous moment, Messier said, the Rangers captain captivating the Garden during a stirring and emotional pregame ceremony on opening night against the Buffalo Sabres less than a month after terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.
“Nothing was planned at all,” Messier said Thursday. “The firefighter who brought it over did it on impulse just to honor Chief Downey, who from everything I’ve heard from his family and through the stories was an amazing guy, huge Rangers fan. It was done on his behalf for his legacy as a family man, a firefighter and a Rangers fan.”
Messier wearing the helmet of the highest ranking FDNY member to die on 9/11 created an instant impact in New York and left an indelible image that 20 years later carries the emotion of the time in every pixel.
“What’s come out of it is not only honoring Chief Downey and his family and his legacy, but it really represents every first responder that lost his or her life and everybody else who was down there, the spirit behind it,” Messier said. “We’re reminded every year at this time of year of those tragic events, which is hard, obviously, for a lot of people who lost people, but also what comes out of it is just the goodness and the human spirit. I guess the hope is that we remember all those people who ran into the fire to try to help and save people, and we also remember the people who lost their lives, innocent lives, who were just at the wrong place at the wrong time, unfortunately.”
Messier was at his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when the planes struck the twin towers. Many of his teammates were going through physical fitness testing at Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers were holding training camp for the first time.
Messier wasn’t scheduled to be at the Garden until 10:30 a.m. He never got there.
“Everybody would say the one thing they remember most is just the confusion of what was happening,” Messier said. “Everybody that was downtown was trying to get uptown, get away from there. It got pretty quiet in the city. Other than the authorities flying over the skies, you could hear a pin drop in the Upper West Side that night. It was eerily quiet.”
Eric Lindros was living at Messier’s apartment at the time, the future Hall of Famer getting ready for his first season with the Rangers, buying time before finding a place of his own.
He was scheduled to be on “Live! with Regis and Kelly” at ABC Studios on 67th Street and Columbus Avenue that morning. The first plane hit before he left. The second hit as he was being picked up to go to the studio by John Rosasco and Darren Blake of the Rangers’ media relations staff.
They still weren’t sure of the magnitude of what was happening, not until they were at the studio and learned from a teary-eyed Kelly Ripa what really had happened.
The show was canceled. ABC went directly to breaking news.
Together, they all watched the news after American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.
Lindros went back to Messier’s apartment, the towers falling shortly after he arrived. Rosasco and Blake returned to the confusion at the Garden to help figure out what to do with everyone that was still there.
Assistant general manager Don Maloney’s brother-in-law died in the towers. Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch lost one of his closest friends.
“I remember trying to call my parents and the phones couldn’t get through at all,” Lindros said Thursday. “Then I went out and went for a walk and the dust that mid-afternoon, it was crazy, all the way up there. By this point it was clear what had happened. The scope of it, I think people had a better grasp of by that time later in that afternoon. I just remember standing there and watching people walk uptown by the hundreds, thousands. It was just packed. People were just walking as far north as they possibly could just to get out of the way.”
Messier said the confusion in the aftermath of the terror attacks lasted for days while he and the Rangers tried to figure out their role in trying to help the city heal.
“The overriding thing was nobody really knew what to do, when to do it, how to do it,” Messier said. “Everybody was so sensitive to the people who had lost loved ones. Nobody wanted to be viewed upon as doing something too soon. It was all very raw for a long time.”
Messier and Lindros joined goalie Mike Richter, then-general manager Glen Sather, Rosasco and Blake on a visit to ground zero five days after the towers fell.
It was harrowing for them to see what looked like a war zone. They met families in the basement of police headquarters who were there waiting, hoping, praying that their loved ones could be found.
A woman thanked Richter for coming and told him he should come back for the parade when they get everyone out. It was a fleeting and unrealistic hope.
“It was horrible, just horrible,” Lindros said.
Three nights later, the Rangers played the New Jersey Devils in a preseason game at the Garden in the first professional sporting event in the city following the attacks.
The next night, Sept. 20, they were getting ready to start the third period against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wachovia Center (now Wells Fargo Center) when President George W. Bush’s speech addressing the nation was being shown on the Jumbotron, gripping the attention of everyone in the building.
“I remember getting out there, stretching, scraping my crease, and I think Mark Recchi came down and we were like, ‘Are we going to play? What’s going on?'” former Flyers goalie Brian Boucher said Thursday. “It almost felt like it was impossible to even get your head wrapped around playing a third period. There were just way too many more important things in life at that point than to play a meaningless 20 minutes of hockey.”
The game never resumed. The players watched the rest of the speech from their respective benches, with Rangers forward Jamie Lundmark in the penalty box, having skated there when he got back on the ice. When it ended, the players shook hands at center ice and left.
“It turned from being a visiting rink against one of your rivals with 95 percent of the people there rooting against you to immediately feeling that we were all on the same team,” Leetch said prior to the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. “I knew the person sitting in the top row or the first row was listening and watching the speech the same way I was. We were all in this and we were all looking at that together.”
Mike Piazza’s game-winning home run for the New York Mets against the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium the next night served as arguably the biggest sign of sports helping to heal and galvanize New York City in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks.
The Rangers followed suit a few weeks later at the Garden. Messier wore Downey’s helmet. Leetch scored the overtime goal in a 5-4 season-opening win against the Sabres. A season dedicated to the first responders, the fans, the city was off and running.
“The focus turned to us just saying, ‘You know what, everyone needs an out for entertainment, and the better we play the more we can help,'” Lindros said. “We needed to readjust how we were perceiving ourselves and the situation so that we can give an out, even for just two and a half hours on a given night. We needed to put on a show. We needed to be a distraction.”