Sports

James Dolan bloodbath a harsh reminder for Rangers, Knicks

This was the running joke around town for, what, 15 years? Twenty? And it went something like this:

“Why can’t the Knicks have an owner like the Rangers?”

The punch line, of course, is that the same man — James L. Dolan — owned both of Madison Square Garden’s chief tenants. Yet while the Knicks foundered under Dolan’s stewardship — and, worse, became an unwatchable mess, a series of missteps and miscalculations mismanaged by a series of Dolan deputies — the Rangers not only found success (reaching the ’14 Stanley Cup final) but identified when it was time to cut bait and rebuild.

And Rangers fans loved it.

Maybe they always knew enough to keep one eye open for the kind of out-of-the-sky bloodbath that splattered on top of Penn Plaza Wednesday afternoon, because logically they knew the same impetuous man running the Knicks was also manning the Rangers’ Bat Phone. Maybe they kept waiting for the other Bauer to drop.

But Dolan has shown a rare brand of patience with his hockey team. He left Glen Sather alone through four straight playoff-free seasons in his first four years on the job. It took 12 years before the Rangers made it as far as a conference finals appearance. You just don’t see that kind of tolerance in pro sports much, certainly not in New York, absolutely not with the Garden’s other team.

James Dolan
James Dolan
Getty Images

And it seemed Dolan was fully committed to this second rebuild, which also, as of this weekend, resulted in four straight years out of the playoffs. It was three years ago when Sather and Jeff Gorton issued The Letter, an unprecedented document of transparency in which the franchise admitted to its fans what almost no organization ever does: that it was entering a full-blown rebuild.

“This may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect,” The Letter read in part. “While this is part of the game, it’s never easy.”

And here’s the thing:

Rangers fans bought in. They went against a century of preconceived notions about New York sports fans, that the demands and costs of caring about a team here precluded smart, informed and sometimes deliberate choices in recrafting and recalibrating your roster. It wasn’t easy; the demise of the Rangers has coincided with the rise of their hated blood foe on Long Island, and the Islanders not only came within two games of the Cup final last summer but thoroughly outclassed the Rangers across this season.

Didn’t matter. Rangers fans believed in both the process, lower “p,” and the Process, capital “P.” They believed in Gorton, and 12 days shy of two years ago, John Davidson arrived as team president. Davidson is only one of the most popular men to ever wear the blue sweater. It seemed a master stroke.

Better: it actually seemed to inspire Knicks fans. After two decades of absurdist fantasies, they saw what the Rangers were doing and said, “We want some of that.” Leon Rose was hired to run things. William Wesley was added to consult. Tom Thibodeau, the best available coach, was targeted and hired. The Knicks were going to follow the Rangers model.

And that’s the most delicious irony today, isn’t it?

Because it is plainly clear that what the Knicks have done this year — a stunning 37-28 record heading into Wednesday night’s game at Denver — changed the Garden landscape. A rebuilding year became a nonstop feel-good parade of progress. Timetables were smashed with billy clubs. Thibodeau’s skill and a willing roster were a perfect marriage, more than anyone could have predicted.

It seemed too good to be true.

And now, in its way, it is. Now there is clearly some doubt at the Garden’s highest level that the Rangers are progressing as they should, even though if this were a regular year with normal division alignments it’s a good bet the Rangers might’ve squeezed into the postseason.

At the very least the famous patience with which Dolan viewed his hockey team had begun to wear thin. And Wednesday it officially wore out. So Gorton goes. Davidson goes. Davidson’s popularity alone wasn’t a good enough reason to keep him around if Dolan truly believed he needed a change. But it sure raises the stakes for the owner. And it is again time to note that there is only one voice that matters at the Garden and it is a throat that can be cleared at any time.

Rangers fans were reminded of that Wednesday. And don’t for a second think Knicks fans didn’t notice, too. In this case, with this team, he’d better be right. Especially because he’s so often been wrong through the years about his other team.

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