The home-ice disadvantage for the New York Rangers

It wasn’t long ago that Madison Square Garden was the “extra attacker” for the Broadway Blueshirts. But lately, the polished arena, with its wide hallways, over-the-top bridges and innumerable suites, has hardly been an ally.

These days, when the Rangers play at home, it’s as if they’re skating inside a glass box. The players and the fans seem to occupy a different space, seem to breathe different air, the two sides physically close but emotionally distant. To attend a Rangers game is to view an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. Stand back. Do not touch. Please observe quietly.

The Garden isn’t lacking visitors. The arena is as busy as it has always been, the patrons pouring through the doors on game nights and filling the shiny black seats. Though it often feels empty, MSG is always full. (The Rangers are one of only five American-based NHL teams averaging over 100 percent capacity at home games this season.)

But watch the Rangers on T.V. Listen to them on the radio. The only sounds emanating from the game occur on the ice – the sparring of sticks, the smashing of bodies, the blasting of pucks. Otherwise, the activity is mute. 10 players make more noise in MSG, nowadays, than some 18,000 fans. It’s…uncomfortable.

This is a starkly new development. Through the first decade of this century, and especially after the 2004-05 lockout, The Garden defended its reputation as a charged-up arena, a building with a pulse. After a particularly rousing playoff win over the Sabres in 2007, Henrik Lundqvist couldn’t finish an on-ice interview because the reporter was inaudible above the roar of the crowd. He literally could not hear him.

My how things have changed.

In the summer following the 2010-11 season, MSG began a three-year renovation, it’s purpose basically to sterilize the building while filling it with props. Wider hallways. Brighter concourses. Glossier seats. Sky bridges!! More luxury boxes!!! Sushi made to order!!!!! A BMW dealership outside section 104!!!!!!!

That last one is obviously in jest, but the implication remains the same: the changes were made to attract the wealthy. And to pay for his $1-billion renovation, Garden CEO James Dolan chose to jack up ticket prices. In the 2005-06 season, the average ticket price for a home Rangers game was $45.83. Eight years later, it has risen to $74.89, the highest of any American-based team. (And no one even comes close to that premium ticket cost.)

Yes, Rangers’ tickets have always been expensive. It’s a natural byproduct of their location, their heritage and their massive following. Fans will pay more than they should have to see an Original-Six team playing in New York City, and so Garden executives could (and still can) afford to live above that average price line.

But with each year, the Rangers’ deviation from the mean has grown wider. In 2006-07, an average Rangers’ ticket was only $7 above the league average; in 2013-14 that difference is up to $13. While average ticket prices across the NHL have grown modestly since the 2004-05 lockout, at MSG they have more or less shot through the roof.

MSG isn’t the purple and teal-seated madhouse it used to be.

The effect is one we know well: the long-time fan is priced-out of the arena, replaced by someone who wants to check out the scene – someone who will buy the sushi. Mulling over his California Roll, this person has better things to do than cheer. I am not going to talk with my mouth full!

It isn’t just ticket prices keeping the diehard fans out of The Garden, though. Along with $110 nosebleed seats (what I paid to watch the Rangers play in January…January!!!!), it’s a reduction of normal-person seating.

MSG was once a three-tiered arena, with luxury boxes hanging over the upper level. It was a design for the common man, the layout intending to squeeze in as many fans as possible. But the renovation gutted the 300-level section, replacing it with a ring of suites instead. The Garden now consists of an upper bowl and a lower bowl, making the crowd smaller than it used to be – but much more lucrative.

Money, unfortunately, doesn’t buy passion. (If it did, The Garden would have it for sale in the Team Store, available by the decibel.) That much has been evident this season as crowd after crowd has filed into MSG and sat in silence for minutes on end. The fans don’t cheer unless they’re given something to cheer about – and their prices are high. Before the third period, hardly a peep can be heard if the Rangers don’t score.

Not long ago, the MSG crowd was spontaneous. Rather than taking cues from the game, programmed only to react to certain events, the fans cued the game itself. They cheered not to applaud a goal, but to produce a goal, not to praise a good shift, but to inspire one. Adrenaline released in the crowd was absorbed on the ice.

But the adrenaline is gone. Taking its place is a sense of lethargy, an unshakeable feeling of torpor. At home, it has seeped into the Rangers’ play, where far too often this season the team has looked flat, especially at the drop of the puck. The result is a 17-16-4 record at MSG, good for a .459 winning percentage that is by far the lowest among playoff-destined teams.

The players, you can bet, have felt the lack of energy since November. Lately, they’ve acknowledged it. After Monday night’s win against Phoenix, Brad Richards noted the challenge of playing in front of a subdued crowd.

“I guess maybe the fans had been focused on the ceremony [for Henrik Lundqvist], and that with the way [Phoenix] jumped on us, it was really quiet,” he said. “When the building is like that, it’s on us to create our own momentum and get the crowd back into it.”

To be objective, to be fair, Richards is absolutely right. The Rangers are a team of professional athletes, paid to perform at the highest standard. It isn’t the fans’ responsibility to spur them into action. Most players, after all, have a couple million reasons to take care of it themselves.

But what’s home-ice advantage for if not motivation? What are fans supposed to do if not energize the team? Diplomatically, Rangers’ players might say that they haven’t given the Garden crowd much to cheer about this season. Fair enough. But what has the Garden crowd given the Rangers to play for? Motivation may follow action in some life pursuits, but in sports, it’s the other way around.

Sadly, gone are the days of the “sixth man” at MSG. Dolan ended that era by trimming the hotdog-eating, Bud Light-drinking fat of the Rangers’ fanbase. In doing so, he has sterilized the average garden-goer, purified him, made him a more urbane creature. And though that’s absolutely his prerogative – it his money invested in this conglomerate, after all, not ours – there is something ethically wrong about it nevertheless.

What should concern Rangers fans is how far this downturn extends. If the home crowd is no longer propelling this team, no longer kicking them into gear, are they slowing them down? Are they stifling their fire? The numbers suggest it’s certainly possible. For what was once an asset for the Rangers, a true palpable force, is now a non-factor.

Players in this organization have long talked about what a privilege it is to play in front of “the greatest fans in the world.” Until recently, it wasn’t lip service. The fans that came to The Garden were loud, passionate and deeply involved, their impact on the game undeniable. But those fans aren’t the ones that come anymore – not in the same numbers, at least.

Maybe the playoffs will turn back the clock. (Anyone who saw the Rangers play one of two home games against the Bruins last spring in the ECSF – myself included – will have a hard time believing this.) Maybe the diehard fans will reach deep into their pockets, willing to break the bank for playoff hockey. It’s certainly worth the expense.

But they can’t restructure the arena and get back the seats they lost. They can’t kick out the socialites and give their tickets to the fans outside. All they can do is yell with leather lungs from section 400, and hope the boys hear it on the ice.

For though the Rangers still play for the greatest fans in the world, the fans they play in front of are merely the richest.