New York may not appear to be much of a hockey town. The Rangers rank about sixth in importance in the local sports media behind the city’s other teams, and the nearby Devils and Islanders rank lower still. There are a limited number of rinks around the city, and most players and fans are found in the suburbs. Compared to Minneapolis, Boston, Detroit, or any Canadian city, New York has weak puckhead credentials.
Nevertheless, New York is so big, with so much to offer, that it doubtless will have whatever it is you are looking for, and hockey is no exception. The city has a storied hockey history. Four Stanley Cups have been raised at the fabled Madison Square Garden, and along with Montreal, New York is the only city to host two NHL teams simultaneously, when the New York Americans shared the Garden with the Rangers from 1925 to 1942 (during their last season, they were renamed the Brooklyn Americans, as they had intended to move to the borough the following year, but they folded before they could move). The Amerks have been replaced by clubs in the suburbs, but the Islanders also have four Cups, while the Devils have won three of their own. With three NHL teams in the local area, there is no shortage of places around the city to watch, play and enjoy the game of hockey, and we offer this guide to help you find them.
The metropolitan area is blessed with three teams in the National Hockey League, the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and New Jersey Devils. Tickets to NHL games are never cheap, but here are a few tips on getting tickets and getting to the respective arenas.
The New York Rangers, with their home arena at Madison Square Garden, are conveniently located in Midtown Manhattan; unfortunately, tickets are not always so easy to secure. The Rangers average near sell-out crowds, though these numbers are somewhat misleading – due to the high number of season tickets the Rangers sell, many of them held by corporate sponsors who don’t always fill their seats, tickets can usually be had from third-party ticket resellers (like StubHub) for a reasonable price, depending on the opponent. After winning the Stanley Cup in 1994, the Rangers went through a long period of lackluster performance. Though they missed the playoffs last year (by one point), they have finally embraced drafting and developing young players over signing overpriced, aging free agents, and it's paying dividends with a more balanced squad that boasts young studs like Mark Stall and Brandon Dubinsky, sniper Marian Gaborik, and perennial team MVP, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
Where once the Rangers wasted big money on losing clubs and the New Jersey Devils deftly built Stanley Cup winners with limited budgets, those roles seem to have reversed. The Devils signed star forward Ilya Kovalchuk to a $100-million contract this off-season, yet they currently sit near the bottom of the standings. This season aside, despite routinely outperforming the Rangers on the ice, the Devils have never been able to match the draw of the Broadway Blueshirts. Now that they are mired in a dreadful campaign, tickets at the Prudential Center in Newark are even easier to come by. Despite the team’s poor showing thus far, their two-year old arena is beautiful, and it is easily accessed from Manhattan by the PATH train to Newark-Penn Station; when you get off the train, it’s a just a short walk through the mall to the rink. No matter where they sit in the standings, it is still worth the trip to watch the all-time winningest goalie in league history, Martin Brodeur, ply his trade in the Devils crease.
The NHL may offer the best hockey in the world, but the less polished levels of the game have their virtues as well. In many cities and towns across America, minor league hockey is a local institution, a place to take the family on Friday night to watch some on-ice mayhem at a price much more affordable than the pros. I was raised on the New Haven Nighthawks and Coliseum hot dogs, and that’s where my love for the game really blossomed. My hometown team and arena may be gone, but those memories remain.
Speaking of bygone teams, the beloved Hartford Whalers skipped town more than a decade ago, but the Whale is back. The American Hockey League’s Hartford Wolf Pack – the affiliate of the Rangers – has occupied the Hartford Civic Center since the Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997, but now as a nod to the city’s NHL past, the team will be renamed the Connecticut Whale on November 27th. Hartford is a long way to travel for a hockey game from New York, but the Islanders’ AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, play about 90 minutes from Grand Central by train, and their arena is just a short walk from the Bridgeport train station.
But you don’t have to travel to Connecticut for minor league action. New York is home to a fourth professional team as well, the New York Aviators, who play at Floyd Bennett Field in south Brooklyn. The Aviators play in the Federal Hockey League, a low minor league composed of teams from New York, Connecticut and Ontario. As a further sign that Whaler fever is sweeping the state, the Danbury Whalers also play in the Federal League.
The minor leagues still have a reputation for being out of control – earned from movies like Slap Shot – but back in the brutal days of the 1970's, the Garden saw its fair share of lawless violence as well, as seen below:
For fans of the less violent, more cerebral college game, none of the city’s universities have Division I or III teams, but there are a few schools that do within a couple hours of New York. In Connecticut, Sacred Heart, Yale and Quinnipiac all ice D-I men’s teams, and all are located within two hours of the city. Yale is also accessible by MetroNorth train from Grand Central Terminal – the school’s hockey rink is a short bus or cab ride from the train station. Princeton also plays D-I, and the campus can be reached by NJ Transit from Penn Station. In New York state, the Black Knights of West Point are just 60 miles away, but the closest college hockey can be found in Rye, where D-III Manhattanville plays its home games (click on team links for schedules and directions to arenas).
With three NHL teams in the local area, not to mention national broadcasts on Versus and NBC, you can find a game on TV almost every night of the week in New York. But if you can’t find your hometown team on the dial, or you just prefer to watch the game in the company of fellow fans and draught beer, here are a few options around the city.
It is a rare thing to find a bar in New York where people genuinely care about hockey. Many places show games, but in most, hockey is a sideshow to baseball, basketball, or football depending on the season, and you are usually relegated to watching your chosen match on a single TV with no sound. What makes Kelly’s Sports Bar, located on Avenue A and 1st Street in Manhattan, different is that people genuinely care about the game, and one team in particular – the Buffalo Sabres. When their team is on, every TV is tuned to the game, and every patron is glued to it. I’m not a Sabres fan myself, but no matter who you support, the atmosphere on game night is hard to beat.
My team is the Boston Bruins, and when I want to catch their tilts, I head over to Professor Thoms' on 2nd Avenue and 13th Street in the East Village. A Boston bar through and through, this place frequently offers lobster dinner specials and has a good selection of beers from Boston’s Harpoon Brewery. Unfortunately, the B’s still play second fiddle when the Red Sox or Celtics are on, but it’s still the best place that I have found to watch the Black and Gold.
Russian-style bath houses – known as banyas – can be found across the city, especially in Brooklyn. One such place, known simply as “Russian Bath House,” located in Gravesend, is not only one of the best banyas in New York, it is a great place to watch a hockey game. The banya’s cafe (which serves excellent Russian food) is decorated with hockey memorabilia, including autographed photos and jerseys from Russian stars from the NHL. The place boasts three saunas (plus one for men only in the locker room) of varying temperatures and humidity and a large pool, and flat screen TVs surround the place, so you can enjoy a hockey game while swimming, lounging in a poolside chair, or enjoying a beer at the bar. A long steam in the banya, a cold beer, a plate of pickled herring, and a hockey game – that sounds like pure heaven to me.
Lacing up your skates.
For hockey players, New York does offer a few options for playing pick-up games, joining a league, or just going skating.
Lugging your equipment around the city on public transportation is a real pain, but if you are able to manage it, there are rinks within close distance of the subway. The City Ice Pavilion is a short walk from the 7 train in Long Island City, and they offer open hockey for adults on weekday afternoons (except Wednesday) and nighttime sessions on Friday and Saturday. They charge $20 per skater, but goalies can play for free. The Chelsea Piers Sky Rink is also somewhat accessible from the train, located on 11th Avenue and 20th Street in Manhattan, but they charge a much heftier fee of $36 for 90 minutes of open hockey playing time, though goalies are also free. Their open hockey is also on weekday afternoons, and there are no weekend sessions. My rink of choice has been the Aviator Sports Complex at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. It’s only accessible by car, but they offer pick-up games throughout the week, and it costs only $20. The complex has two rinks, and in addition to hockey, they offer a wide range of other activities for all ages. All these rinks also offer leagues for kids and adults – check their websites for more details.
Finding places to buy equipment and sharpen your skates is a challenge in New York. Most rinks offer skate sharpening, as will many sporting goods stores, but there are few full-service hockey shops around with knowledgeable staff (and skilled sharpeners). I get most of my equipment at Wonderland Sporting Goods in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, and they do a good job with my skates. If you are just looking for an overpriced NHL sweater, the league has two stores in Manhattan.
If you are interested in just ice skating, all these rinks offer regular public skating hours, but there are other venues throughout the city as well to lace ‘em up for a bit of relaxed gliding in a circle in a crowd of people. The Bryant Park Pond offers free skating throughout the day, though it does get extremely crowded in the evenings. Free is also a relative term – access to the ice may be free, but renting skates is a whopping $13, and even if you have your own pair, they will hit you with a $9 charge to rent a lock for a locker to store your shoes, or you can pay $7 to check a bag. To avoid all of these charges, bring along your own skates and a padlock.
Finally, if all this isn't enough to satisfy your hunger for all things hockey, check out the world's greatest hockey-themed rock band, The Zambonis, who regularly play gigs in and around New York. Here they are performing "Hockey Monkey" with artist and rocker James Kochalka: