By Sean Hartnett
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Derick Brassard’s four-year stint with the Rangers will be long etched into the memories of anyone who saw him compete on the playoff stage in a blue, red and white sweater.
Some players wilt under pressure of playing in New York and others thrive off it. Brassard was undoubtedly the latter.
The 6-foot-1 center took to this team and this city like a duck to water. Brassard was enlivened when the Rangers completed a six-player deal to lure him from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2013 trade deadline. He instantly impressed his new fans with fire and skill, recording 11 points in his first 13 regular season games as a Ranger and accumulated 12 points in 12 games in his first postseason.
Brassard made a winning return to Madison Square Garden on Sunday night as his Ottawa Senators earned a 2-0 victory. When the Gardenvision screen honored him with a lengthy highlight package and the message of “Once A Ranger, Always A Ranger,” fans responded with a booming ovation. Brassard stood up on the visiting bench and gave a wave to the adoring crowd.
“I love the fans here,” Brassard said. “I just miss those times when I was playing here with the great atmosphere in the playoffs. There’s good people here. I love everyone. The Cup runs we had was pretty special. We came really close. Living here in New York, playing in this building, playing for this organization is pretty special. Honestly, I wish that to any hockey player at any level. The fans in New York are awesome. They’re passionate about their team, they’re good people and they’re behind their team. For players, it’s obviously important.”
There was a symbiotic relationship between Brassard and the diehards in the blue seats, as both fed off each other’s desire. The Hull, Quebec native earned the nickname of “Big Game Brass” by registering 44 points in 59 playoff games as a Ranger. His 0.74 playoff points per game ranks 17th all-time in franchise history. Only Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Chris Kreider, Adam Graves and Rod Gilbert have bettered Brassard’s four playoff game-winning goals in a Rangers uniform.
“I’m not comparing myself to Mark Messier, Adam Graves and those guys,” Brassard said. “They’re legends. The history of the team is pretty special. I was just trying to do my best here. I felt like the atmosphere and the team we had helped me be a better player. I’m always going to be thankful for that. The coaches that I had and the players, they made me a better player and a better person. I was playing with a lot of confidence. The coaches gave me opportunities to succeed and I stuck with it.”
Brassard admittedly wasn’t quite a franchise legend, but he was more than a cult hero. He defended the Ranger crest with fervor and was a beloved teammate inside the dressing room. Though he shared a close bond with Mats Zuccarello and former Ranger Carl Hagelin, he took it upon himself to be a mentor to younger teammates and was renowned for his obsessive film room habits.
He did admit that he plans on spending time with Zuccarello soon.
“To see the guys that I played with for four years was pretty surreal,” Brassard said. “I didn’t have the time to have a nice dinner with the guys. I’m planning on coming here for Christmas and spending it with Zucc on the 26th because we’re playing on the 27th. I’m going to catch up and get under his skin a little bit.”
One teammate who benefited from Brassard’s influence was Kevin Hayes. When Hayes joined the Blueshirts in the summer of 2014, Brassard took it upon himself to be a mentor to the young forward.
“I want to take every young guy under my wing and make sure they’re feeling comfortable,” Brassard said in 2015. “I just try to work hard, enjoy my time on the ice, have fun in practices, and bring some passion. That’s the only thing I can control.”
“Brass has been unbelievable to me. It just shows the type of guy he is,” Hayes said during his rookie season. “I’ve been hanging with him since training camp. I pick his brain a little bit whenever we go out to dinner. I’ve gone out to dinner with him pretty much every other night here in the city. He’s the kind of guy any team would want.”
But hockey is a results-oriented business and general managers are forced to make difficult decisions. A five-game, opening-round elimination to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in last spring’s playoffs made it abundantly clear that the Blueshirts needed to get younger and quicker on both ends of the rink.
Though Brassard was a valuable commodity, his weakness matching up against Pittsburgh’s stars in the defensive zone became apparent. Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton parted with Brassard in July in a deal for 23-year-old Mika Zibanejad, a center with higher upside and better equipped to handle tough defensive zone matchups.
Brassard will be remembered fondly, but the swap made sense for the Rangers both financially and for the future. Fans will remember Brassard for being part of a group that brought the Rangers close to their first Stanley Cup title since 1994, but his peak years may have been left in the Big Apple. Zibanejad is nearly doubling Brassard’s points per game, 0.79 to 0.41.
Prior to breaking his left fibula, Zibanejad demonstrated his three-zone excellence and tremendous one-timer, which, by the way, the Rangers sure missed as they went 0-for-4 on the power play on Sunday.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey