On December 12, 2010, the Denver Nuggets and their star Carmelo Anthony visited Madison Square Garden for a matinee against the Knicks. The Carmelo Watch was well under way at this point, and when the lineups were introduced, Anthony received a loud ovation from Knicks fans. Their message was pretty clear: It’d be swell if you became a Knick, Carmelo.
Last night, with Rick Nash’s future on the minds of many in the hockey world, the Columbus Blue Jackets visited the Garden for a game against the Rangers. The Rangers would win the game in overtime, but before that, Nash scored a goal late in regulation to tie the game at 2. When the goal was announced, Rangers fans serenaded Nash with a chant: “We don’t want you.” The message there is pretty self-explanatory.
Rangers fans —or at least the ones who spoke up last night — appear to like the team the way it is, or, perhaps more accurately, they like the way it’s been constructed. They seem appreciate the commitment to (and the benefits of) building the team, as much as possible, from within the organization, and understand that Nash’s contract would give them less flexibility going forward. And, not least of all, they like Brandon Dubinsky, a homegrown member of the team’s nucleus who could be shipped off if the Rangers pull the trigger on trade for Nash.
The Garden crowd last night — just like the crowd on that December afternoon when Carmelo was in town — was exercising its right to play amateur GM. The difference, of course, is that the Rangers right now don’t need to be looking to acquire a major puzzle piece, the way the Knicks were last season. Last night was proof that Rangers fans are totally onboard with the rebuilding process that’s gotten the team to where it is now. Nash is a great player, but last night’s response would indicate fans don’t want big names at any cost.
After the game, Nash laughed off the chant, saying he’d expect that kind of response in any building after scoring a late goal to tie the game. And there’s probably some truth to that: Rangers fans were bound to have some reaction to a goal that could have helped cost their team a point. But it’s telling that the reaction wasn’t simply boos or screams of “You suck.” This was specific. This was a message to Glen Sather as much as it was a message to Nash.
Of course, there remains the very real possibility that the Rangers will pull off a trade for Nash. There would already be a tremendous amount of pressure on Nash to perform in New York, and to prove what he could do if surrounded by quality linemates. We’re not so much worried about whether last night’s “We don’t want you” chants would make things awkward if Nash became a Ranger by this time next week. But we do think he really would have a tougher time than most acquisitions winning over fans — or at least, the fans who prefer the Rangers pass on the chance to acquire him. Now that the Rangers appear to legitimate contenders — they’re nine points ahead of Boston and New Jersey in the Eastern Conference — the stakes seem much higher. Sather needs to play this right. And last night, the Garden crowd let it be known that they believe that means sitting this one out altogether.