It will be a celebration Sunday at Madison Square Garden, yet another celebration of the remarkable life of a remarkable hero, when the Rangers present the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award prior to their final regular-season game, against Pittsburgh.
This one will be more special than the others, more meaningful, more emotional, because for the first time, McDonald, the NYPD detective paralyzed in 1986 by bullets fired by a teenage bicycle thief in Central Park at age 29, won’t be there.
McDonald passed away Jan. 10 of this year at age 59.
“It’s going to be, for me, really tough,” McDonald’s son, Conor, said. “The best memories I’ve had with my dad are at The Garden and to go there without him, especially since he passed – I’ve gone to a couple of games and it’s just not the same. It’s a tough pill to swallow. Especially this award, this is his award, and it’s just going to be very emotional to go out there without him, you know?
“He loved The Garden and he loved the Rangers and it’s going to be a tough time.”
Deep in that sorrow will be joy, though, for Steven McDonald, who famously forgave the shooter who put him in a wheelchair, dependent on a ventilator, while his wife, Patti Ann, was pregnant with Conor, was as brave and admired as anyone could possibly be. Conor, who followed in his dad’s footsteps and is now an NYPD sergeant, called his father “the real Superman” during his eulogy at a packed St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
“When we had his wake, it was a celebration of his life,” Conor McDonald, now 30, said.
“When he was shot, I wasn’t supposed to know my dad. The doctors, they didn’t give him pretty much any chance on the initial day. Then when he did survive, they didn’t give him any chance afterwards. For me to live with him for 30 years was a great blessing. And for all of us to bear witness to his message and his life, we’re very lucky. So, yeah, it is going to be a celebration of how lucky we were to know a man like that.”
Conor has been there for all of the “Extra Effort” award ceremonies named for his dad, along with Patti Ann, from the time he was an infant through adulthood, during which he, like his father, had worn the full police dress uniform since joining the force in 2010.
Though cut from that same police cloth, the bottom line was that they were father and son. And they were Rangers fans. Serious Rangers fans.
In the 1986-87 season, The Garden and the Rangers inaugurated the award, which goes to the player voted to have gone above and beyond with his effort that season.
Jan Erixon won the first award, just a few months past Conor’s first birthday (the generational irony being that Erixon’s son, Tim, briefly played for the Rangers too, and was involved in the trade that brought Rick Nash to New York).
The following year it was Tony Granato. Then John Vanbiesbrouck and Kelly Kisio shared the award in 1990, and Erixon won it again in ’91. After that, Adam Graves most fittingly won it for the first of five times.
The award is a who’s who of Rangers greats since its inception, including Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Wayne Gretzky, Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Callahan, Mats Zuccarello (two of the last three years) and the most appropriate selection of backup goalie Cam Talbot, who carried the Rangers to the Presidents’ Trophy after Lundqvist was injured in 2014-15.
Conor doesn’t remember much about the first two awards.
But, he said, “Vanbiesbrouck, and Adam Graves, those are very vivid. Growing up and being part of that night, it meant a lot to me. I was a lucky kid.
“Over the years we’ve formed a very close relationship with Adam Graves and I think that one of the special things that came out of my dad’s award, was our friendship with Adam and also (Vice President of Marketing Strategy) Jeanie Baumgartner. My family and I love Jeanie. She’s just a remarkable lady. They’re amazing. I can’t begin to tell you how lucky I am to call them friends.”
He should know that they feel the same way.
Steven McDonald’s attachment with the award and the organization became a source of great buoyancy for his life.
“It meant a lot,” Conor said. “When he was out in the streets or at events or at the beach or he’d be anywhere – New York City, Long Island, overseas (where he served as an NYPD goodwill ambassador) – people would come up to him and tell him how much they love the award, how much they love the Rangers.
“My dad had great love for this award. He thought about it all day, every day, and I can’t begin to tell you how much he loved the Rangers. He grew up watching Eddie Giacomin, Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle. For him to have such a connection with the Rangers meant a great deal to my dad, and for them to have an award in his name, it kept him going. I can’t begin to tell you how much the Rangers gave my dad.
“He had tough times – he had a lot of tough times – but the Rangers organization gave my dad so much hope, especially with that award, to keep going. They gave him motivation every day. It meant the world to him.”
Steven McDonald would begin, weeks before the ceremony, to write his speech, in which, during the final week of the season, he would try to motivate his “heroes” to a Stanley Cup and rile up a full house at The Garden for that night’s game. Conor would smile as his father worked on his message, understanding how important it was to him. Every game was important to him.
“He loved the Rangers,” Conor said. “He was so animated. It was one of those things in his life where he could be himself, you know? Every day, just to wake up and get up, he had to deal with a lot of ugliness because of being in the wheelchair. He had a lot of obstacles. When he got to The Garden, when he got to sit near the ice, it was kind of like he wasn’t in a wheelchair anymore. He was just a regular human being and he was able to enjoy his life. That’s what The Garden and the Rangers meant to him. He felt like he could walk again and be himself.”
In January, his passing rocked a family, but it also rocked the law enforcement world. An estimated 15,000 police officers attended his funeral.
Conor wanted to set the record straight, that his dad didn’t die from a heart attack as reported, but from complications from his 30 years of being on a ventilator and from the respiratory failure with which he lived. He said at St. Patrick’s that “God broke the mold” when he made Steven McDonald, Conor’s hero.
“My dad was my best friend,” he said through tears. “My dad was my biggest supporter. For a guy like him, he went through so much after 1986, and for him to keep going, I mean, I saw him every day struggling with a lot of things and a lot of things people don’t really understand – being in that wheelchair, being dependent on that ventilator – my dad dealt with so much.
“And we had a normal father-son relationship where he was on me all the time. There’s no one who will ever, ever compare to my dad. I’ll hopefully have a long life to live, but anyone who I will ever come across, they will never be able to compare to my dad because my dad went through so much pain and hardship. He went through it without complaining of hardship or seeking revenge.
“No one will ever compare to him.”