By Sean Hartnett
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As captain of the Rangers, Ryan McDonagh wears a stitched “C” just above his heart. Long before he was named team captain in October 2014, McDonagh showed just how big his heart is by playing a hands-on role in the mentorship of Gino Mangiafridda, a former Pelham High School hockey player who was left wheelchair-bound following a 2012 motorcycle accident.

While returning home from his father’s Upper East Side restaurant on June 19, 2012, Mangiafridda was involved in a three-car accident that sent him 100 feet from his bike. Mangiafridda was left paralyzed and was living on a ventilator after shattering his C-5, C-6 and C-7 vertebrae. His coma lasted three months. Doctors had advised the family to pull the plug as brain activity did not resume initially.

Wisely, the family refused to pull the plug. Mangiafridda, a passionate Rangers fan, has made remarkable progress in the years that have followed. McDonagh has been by his side, offering encouragement every step of the way. Mangiafridda is now able to stand with the help of equipment.

His progress has improved to the point that he’s been sending McDonagh texts after games, even adding a bit of on-ice advice.

“It’s incredible,” McDonagh said. “The second time I saw him after a game, he was in a new chair, utilizing his arm to control his movements in the chair. I think it was a couple weeks later, he was able to text me. It opened up a whole new world for us in communication. He’s giving me tips on stuff he’s seeing.”

McDonagh spoke while being honored on Tuesday night at Burke Rehabilitation Center’s centennial dinner, held at the luxurious Pierre hotel on 61st street.

“It’s a great honor to be recognized by Burke,” McDonagh said. “It’s very unexpected. Really, it’s about the relationship between Gino and I, his doctor helping us set that up. Just trying to provide some inspiration, lift some spirits, and keep some motivation for a kid that’s my age going through a very tough rehab after a tough injury.

“It’s been a great experience to continue to get to know him and his family, and see the progress as Burke is helping him along the way. There’s tremendous things going on as I’ve learned more about the organization. (I plan to) continue to be a part of it, and help Gino and more patients to come.”

Mangiafridda and McDonagh’s friendship started when Dr. Mark Herceg asked McDonagh to sign a photo for Gino at an autograph signing. Upon learning Mangiafridda’s story, McDonagh threw himself wholeheartedly into a mentorship role to help give Gino that extra push. That’s the thing with McDonagh. He puts his full heart into everything, both on the ice and off. Whether it be serving as an all-situation defenseman and inspirational captain for the Rangers or making a difference in the lives of rehab patients, he’s going to give his all.

McDonagh has brought Gino to multiple games and opened the Madison Square Garden dressing room to Gino and his family.

“I brought them back to the locker room to try to see a little inside, look at what it’s like to be a part of the Rangers – a team that he’s a big fan of,” McDonagh said. “I wanted to continue to develop a relationship away from the rink as well.”

Having seen the interactions firsthand, McDonagh, his teammates and the Rangers’ organization as a whole have gone out of their way to make the Mangiafridda family feel welcome. McDonagh said that the Rangers always seem to win when Gino is in the building.

Not all athletes take full advantage of the difference they can make away from the arena. It’s genuinely heartwarming to see McDonagh form a close bond with Gino and his family. It could have ended with an autograph, but McDonagh’s dedicated involvement in Gino’s life speaks volumes about the kind of selfless character he is.

MCDONAGH AVOIDS SURGERY; CONFERENCE FINAL EXIT STILL HURTS

Having labored through a broken right foot during the final four games of the Eastern Conference Final, McDonagh’s reputation as an all-for-the-cause defenseman has been enhanced.

His progress in recovery from the injury has been positive, especially as he will not require surgery. After visiting doctors on Monday, a follow-up X-ray showed that the broken bones will heal on their own. He will remain in a walking boot for a further one-to-two weeks.

“The bone is healing fine,” McDonagh said. “I’m going to continue being in the boot for another week or two, then it should be good from there. We contemplated it. The bones were lined up enough for what they said was an acceptable alignment where they didn’t need surgery.”

McDonagh is fully expected to be ready for Rangers training camp in September. He said he’s already been cleared to swim.

“You have to be careful with the lower body,” McDonagh said. “I can start doing some upper-body (workouts). They said I can start swimming, so I’m looking forward to jumping in the lake here and there. I can doggie paddle around.”

The sting of being sent out in the Eastern Conference Final still cuts McDonagh deeply. He said he couldn’t bring himself to watch the Stanley Cup Final until Game 5. The first game he watched in full was Game 6.

“You wish that was you,” McDonagh said. “It’s tough to see. It’s tough to watch. You play all season, 10 months to try to get yourself in that opportunity. We were pretty close obviously, being in a Game 7 away from that final opportunity. It puts a hunger in your belly right away – that you want to get back to training and getting back with your group in the locker room, working towards making the playoffs and another deep run, hopefully.”

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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