It’s often said that New York sports fans won’t stand for rebuilding. Owners and executives who feared our alleged impatience gave us the awful Omar Minaya Era in Flushing and the wretched Age of Isiah in midtown. But in recent years, one of the city’s flagship franchises has shown that a long rebuilding process can work here: After a season in which they sold 99.95 percent of available seats, the New York Rangers entered the playoffs last week as the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time since the Stanley Cup year of 1994.
Rangers general manager Glen Sather—who after a rough start on the job has become the anti-Omar, the un-Isiah—is the man responsible. Sather took over for the 2000-1 season; after missing the playoffs his first four years with squads highlighted by big-name, late-career players, he took the plunge and started shedding expensive vets in favor of young prospects. The approach has yielded team pillars like goalie Henrik Lundqvist and captain Ryan Callahan, smart draft picks who were given enough time and support to develop into stars. But the best example of Sather’s commitment to prudence came at the trade deadline this year, when five-time All-Star Rick Nash became available. Nash’s team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, reportedly wanted three young players, a top prospect, and a first-round pick in return. If Isiah Thomas ran a hockey team, he’d make that trade seven days a week and a hundred billion times on Sunday. Sather passed—and his team still finished first, without losing any assets.
Patience, in combination with savvy personnel decisions, more often than not leads to wins, which no fan is going to complain about. But for loyal followers of a team, internally developed players tend to be just more fun to root for than similarly skilled athletes acquired mid-career. Macho sports junkies might not admit it, but they like a sympathetic protagonist as much as any fan of network dramas about handsome doctors. The appeal of the Yankees’ “Core Four” goes beyond the World Series rings that Jeter, Pettitte, Posada, and Rivera won: There’s pleasure in watching players grow from rookies and prospects into leaders. Consider Knicks’ fans feelings for the Starks-Mason-Ewing teams, still beloved even though they never won a title. (Starks and Mason didn’t begin their careers here, but played so little for their first teams that they might as well have.) The Rangers send a similarly stalwart group out on the ice every night with players like Callahan, Lundqvist, and Dan Girardi, who was signed by the team as an undrafted free agent when he was 22 and this year became an All-Star. The crowds at the Garden, presented with a team that was imperfect but full of potential, kept the faith—attendance has actually been near capacity for years. And now, both players and fans are ready for the reward that’s been a long time coming.