Chief and the Captain: Hero Still in Ranger Hearts

from: Sports|Hockey, The Columbus Dispatch, 4/25/2002

Ray Downey was the biggest hockey fan in town, until the north tower crumpled unmercifully on the FDNY battalion chief. He was a charter member and captain of the Fire Department team, fighting tooth and blade out on the rink. Back in his living room, he would flip between three NHL games on the television set. "What could I do?" said Rosalie, his widow. "I had no choice. I usually just went into another room."

Downey may have died with Ranger tickets in his pocket, for all anybody knows. He had those passes somewhere. John McGinty, a firefighter and Downey's aide, gave the chief four passes for himself and his three grandchildren, to a scrimmage at the Garden scheduled for Sept. 12. McGinty was supposed to work that night, and he knew the one guy who would never let those tickets go to waste.

That Ranger game never took place. McGinty drove Downey to the World Trade Center, dropped him off on West St., on the morning of Sept. 11, just before the second airliner crashed. When Downey got there, witnesses say, everybody came to ask his advice. The cops. The firemen. The mayor himself. "He was a magnet," said Ray Phillips, from Special Operations.

Friends say Downey survived the first tower collapse and was in the passageway between the buildings when the unimaginable happened. That's exactly where rescue workers were finding new bodies yesterday, working into the evening. So Joe and Chuck Downey, his sons, weren't at the Rangers' final home game last night, when Mark Messier handed his jersey afterward to Rosalie, the widow standing graciously at the blue line. Instead, the sons were at Ground Zero, where firemen were digging in the very spot where Downey was thought to have perished.

As much as this evening at the Garden was going to be something special, an extraordinary tribute to a fallen fan, the two sons needed to be somewhere else. They had to be downtown, in case Downey's body was found. "They just found three people where my dad was," Downey's daughter, Marie Tortorici, explained.

Downey was one of 343 firemen killed during rescue operations on Sept. 11. Even though he was still missing last night, it was hard not to feel his presence in the building, through his family and the firemen who idolized their Chief of Special Operations.

Phillips, one of his best friends from Rescue 3, said Downey was a surrogate father to all of his men. And lord, how he'd loved hockey. He still played in the 40-and-over league, at age 60. He rooted for Messier, and for the Rangers. Like all of the city, Downey kept a special place in his heart for 1994. "He was all hockey," Phillips said, remembering discussions the two had at their Roosevelt Island command. "He'd put his feet up and talk hockey." Hockey can't cure this sort of heartache, of course, and it can't even pretend to offer a happy ending. Back in October, Messier was presented with Downey's fire helmet before the first home game and the Rangers dedicated their season to all the rescue workers.

Then, they skated around in circles for six months and didn't make the playoffs. That isn't the point. The players can only do so much. Last night, as part of the Shirts Off Our Backs promotion, the Rangers helped a family find yet another way to mourn its patriarch.

Marie and Kathy, Ray's daughters, led Rosalie through the maze of the Garden. The three grandkids ran around with abandon, wearing Downey's old No. 9 FDNY hockey jersey. The firefighters from Downey's unit chatted with Rod Gilbert. When they spotted Glen Sather, they talked about how the Rangers needed to get some decent muscle for next season. Rosalie, clearly, was a stranger in this strange land. When her husband used to talk hockey, when he used to recite those lyrical names, she would tune him out, like so many patient wives. Now, the names and the spectacle were all around her, flooding the place.

The widow said she wouldn't have known, honestly, if Messier was her husband's favorite player. He liked a lot of them. Did it really matter? On her dress, Rosalie wore an angel pin with a fire helmet, the one that Ray once gave her. The pin had helped her get through all these months of mourning. The hockey evening was another remembrance, another honor for her fallen hero. She would try to smile at the blue line, to recognize this player named Messier as he honored her husband with the shirt off his back.