Rangers, Flyers will never forget 9/11 address that halted NHL preseason game

Richard Morin
USA TODAY Sports Plus

Most professional athletes probably can't recall a preseason game from 20 years ago in vivid detail, if at all.

But those who laced up their skates Sept. 20, 2001 at First Union Center in Philadelphia — just nine days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 innocent men, women and children — will never forget that not-so-routine matchup between the Flyers and Rangers.

President George W. Bush delivered an address to Congress during the second intermission of the game, and fans in Philadelphia watched from their seats as the address played on the video board at center ice.

Fans booed when the screen turned off to prepare for the game resuming in the third period, so operations staff turned the address back.

Players and coaches watched the address, too, while standing on the ice or at the benches. After President Bush closed his speech by proclaiming Sept. 21 National POW/MIA Recognition Day, both teams decided not to play the third period and instead leave the ice with a handshake line typically reserved for the end of a playoff series.

“It was an important moment for our country,” former Flyers goalie and current ESPN hockey analyst Brian Boucher told USA TODAY Sports+. “It really was one of those moments. To be honest with you, as a hockey player, you’re just trying to get through those preseason games to begin with. 

“When you have a moment where President Bush was addressing the nation and Congress, it was very easy to say, ‘I don’t want to play hockey anymore tonight.’ 

‘What could I do?’

Fans headed to the game Sept. 20 likely looking forward to a distraction from the fallout of the previous week — and for the first two periods, that is exactly what they got.

The first period included five fights and the game was tied 2-2 by the second intermission. Mike Mottau, then a 23-year-old defenseman out of Boston College trying to crack the Rangers’ NHL roster, remembers seeing the carnage and thinking he might get some playing time to impress head coach Ron Low.

“It was one of the best fights I’ve ever seen and it was right in front of the bench,” Mottau told USA TODAY Sports+. “(Rangers forward) P.J. Stock was out there and it was just a punch-in-the-face contest. There were a few other fights, and I was going to get a chance to get some more ice time because we had two defensemen in the box for an extended time. I selfishly wanted a chance to go out there and skate.”

Mottau never got that chance, and he's fine with that. The Boston native knew two people killed in the 9/11 attacks: Jennifer Kane, a prep school classmate of his at Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass., and Welles Crowther, a decorated athlete at Boston College and volunteer firefighter credited with saving as many as 18 lives from the World Trade Center.

Mottau tightly clutched their memories as he watched the address. Standing in the bench next to Rangers alternate captain Brian Leetch, whose father and brother both served in the U.S. armed forces, Mottau was no longer thinking about hockey. He was contemplating what he could do for his country.

“It was a pretty powerful moment to see everyone in that building on the same page,” Mottau said. “The preseason game was secondary. There was so much emotion and (President Bush) was giving us some clarity on what happened and how we were going to approach it as a country. Sports are a very emotional game when you get into it, but this was much bigger. There were cheers as he was talking, and there was a sense of unity in that building.

“As athletes, you’re motivated to accomplish goals and the president was setting goals for our nation at the time. I just remember thinking about what I could do during that moment.”

A week after the game, Mottau was demoted to the Rangers’ minor-league affiliate in Hartford, Connecticut. Upon arrival, Mottau recalls sitting in front of the local Army recruiting station for hours contemplating a life-changing decision.

“My dad was in the National Guard and went through basic training,” said Mottau, who went on to play nine seasons in the NHL before retiring in 2014. “I personally wanted to try and make a difference because of how emotional I was about it. We were harmed as a country and you want to help try to correct it. Being sent down is disappointing, but the bigger picture is I could have had an impact in (the Army). I don’t know where I would have ended up or how it would have looked, but I think about it a lot. 

“On some level, there is some regret, but I have four beautiful kids now and a beautiful wife. Things could have worked out differently had I walked through those doors.”

‘Just an accident, right?’

Flyers alternate captain Mark Recchi, who scored earlier in the game, stood next to Boucher in front of the Philadelphia goal, staring up at the video board.

A Canadian by birth like many NHL players, Recchi also considered himself an American and said he was close to obtaining U.S. citizenship at the start of the 2001-02 season, his 13th in the NHL. Recchi told USA TODAY Sports+ that President Bush’s “powerful” words brought many to the conclusion that completing the game was not important.

“I ask you to live your lives and hug your children,” Bush told Americans watching that night. “I know many citizens have fear tonight, and I ask you to be calm and resolute even in the face of a continuing threat. I ask you to uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here. We are in a fight for our principles and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.”

This was actually the second preseason game following 9/11. The Flyers and Rangers met one day prior at Madison Square Garden where all advertisements were stripped from the boards and “United We Stand” was emblazoned on the ice.

Boucher, who was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, remembers 9/11 as the first day of training camp for the Flyers. 

“It was a beautiful day,” Boucher told USA TODAY Sports+. “It was crisp, fall-ish, not a cloud in the sky, and you’re excited to get to training camp to get on the ice. Now, the TVs are on in the locker room when we get there, and you see the first plane hit the building. … Just an accident, right? Certainly newsworthy but you’re not thinking about anything like a terrorist attack.”

The Flyers learned a second plane struck the southern tower while they were stretching in the weight room. On the ice, they learned the tower collapsed.

“It was hard to focus on hockey at that moment,” Boucher said. “It was hard to focus on what we were there to do. “We’re in Philadelphia, only 90 miles down the road. Even though it was New York City, it felt like it was in our backyard. It was a scary time.”

Former Flyers forward Rick Tocchet remembers an uneasiness in the crowd after President Bush’s address was removed from the video board. Tocchet, who is also a Canadian but had lived and played hockey in the United States since 1984, told USA TODAY Sports+ it was difficult to find motivation to play during that time.

Tocchet said the crowd became “antsy” as players re-entered the ice.

“Nobody really wanted to play,” Tocchet said. “The fans … I don’t even think they wanted to watch. It was more important to listen to the President’s address. Nobody really wanted to continue. Whether it was the preseason, playoffs, or anything. The magnitude of the game — I don’t really think anyone cared. We all just wanted to hear the president.”

After the game was called, the two sides — which had literally just fought several times over the previous 40 minutes — decided to embrace one another before hitting the showers.

“I think the team captains just went out there to shake hands for a little solidarity,” Tocchet said. “Everybody just did it. It was a sign that we’re not going to let this thing beat us spiritually, mentally, the whole thing. You just felt solidarity with each guy.”

Some players considered the chance to play hockey that season a nice distraction from the world around them, especially for those like Mottau who experienced personal loss.

Looking back 20 years, however, revealed a more profound perspective.

“It was definitely a new chapter in my life,” Mottau said. “You always think about these different spaces in your (life). I was just out of college, trying to get a footing as a professional hockey player. I’ll always have vivid memories of some of the personal experiences I had during that time, and 20 years seems like yesterday when you start to think about it. 

“Those memories will always stay with me and I always try to reach out to people who have had personal loss so they know I’m thinking of them.”