The New York Rangers have had some great stories, in their last few decades of history, of New York City natives, guys like Nick Fotiu and Brian Mullen, who watched Blueshirt action at Madison Square Garden growing up, actually going on to play in Ranger colors, in front of the Garden faithful of which they once were members.
Wolf Pack winger Michael Kantor is hoping to be the next embodiment of that dream-come-true scenario.
Kantor, a rookie who signed as a free agent with the Rangers April 18, is listed as being from Lake Forest, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago, but in truth, he is a native New Yorker.
“I was actually born in New York City, my whole family’s pretty much been in the New York area since the early 1900s, and the whole family is pretty much still there,” Kantor said after the Wolf Pack’s practice Wednesday. “My parents ended up moving back two summers ago and they live in New York City now, and so do my cousins, uncles, grandparents, pretty much everybody.
“I lived in Plainview, Long Island, and my cousins still live there, and my grandparents live in Syosset, and I used to skate at Iceworks (the Islanders’ Syosset practice facility) all the time. That was where I learned how to skate, and when I was two there was an outdoor rink in Syosset. That was the first place I started skating.”
And, though the family lived in the Islanders’ back yard until Michael was nine years old, the Kantors were big Ranger fans.
“They’ve been Ranger fans forever,” he said. “We’ve had season tickets since 1966 or 1964, I’m pretty sure, and my family still goes to games all the time. I try to get to a game here and there, but it’s a little different now that I’m playing in the organization.
“When I was younger our seats were on the Rangers’ side of the ice, behind the net, up like 25, 30 rows, and then we ended up moving them, and now we’re like ten rows behind the benches.
“All the time, we went to games, as many home games as I could possibly go to, I went.”
The Kantor family then moved to the Chicago area when Michael was in fourth grade, leaving New York August 11, 2001, exactly one month before the September 11 attacks. Michael continued excelling in hockey, working his way up through the Midget ranks to the Ontario Hockey League, and finally to an NHL contract and his first chance to wear the Ranger jersey in a game, which came in a preseason contest in Philadelphia September 17.
“To one day play for the Rangers was always my dream, and that day that I signed that contract was kind of a surreal day,” Kantor said. “And it didn’t hit me for a few months, until I actually played that preseason game in Philly, it kind of hit me, that I was putting on the Ranger uniform for the first time, it was surreal.”
Between being a grade school-aged Ranger fanatic and later a Ranger signee, Kantor spent his middle and high-school years in Lake Forest, after his father Jay, who trades securities, stocks and bonds, underwent some career upheaval in that difficult business.
“My dad lost his job, and he found a job in Chicago, so he was traveling back and forth for a year, and then we decided to move there,” Kantor said. “And Lake Forest was a great area, my parents just wanted me to go to a good school and there was great schooling there. Then five or six years later my dad started traveling back and forth between New York and Chicago again because he lost his job and started working back in New York. So he was traveling back and forth for, like, years and years. And then my mom decided to move back to the City (New York) a couple of summers ago.”
By then, Kantor was on the Rangers’ radar, and following the conclusion of his OHL Junior career, he joined the Connecticut Whale on a tryout last spring, just as the free agent contract with the Rangers was being finalized. Wolf Pack/Whale assistant coach Jeff Beukeboom was extremely familiar with Kantor, having coached him with the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves the season before.
Beukeboom raved about Kantor’s toughness and grit, two qualities that are not often associated with Lake Forest, a well-heeled haven of Chicago’s affluent North Shore, and one of the most desirable locales to live in the entire Chicago metropolis. Definitely not a place with a lot of mean streets to toughen one up, but the experience of being a teenager playing sports there was a great one for Kantor.
“We have a really good golf team in high school, we win State pretty much every year, and our girls’ sports, like field hockey and stuff like that, are pretty popular,” he said. “Guys play hockey, but it’s not as competitive, not many guys go past high school. There’s a select few of us, one of my good buddies, Cody Murphy, from high school plays at Miami of Ohio, a select few made it places, and it’s a big deal back home. Going back home in the summers and having people come up to me and saying ‘congrats’ and ‘keep it going’, stuff like that, it kind of puts a smile on my face and makes me remember what I’m playing hockey for.”
So how did Kantor become the gritty, physical guy who earned such kudos from Beukeboom? According to Kantor, it’s always been the main part of his makeup.
“I played one year of Squirt, and I remember, I was like, OK, I moved up a level, Pee Wee, I can’t wait to hit,” Kantor said with a grin. “And since then, I just started hitting, I loved it. It was always kind of in my genes, I guess.”
When Kantor joined the Whale late last season, he was still showing some dings from a play that epitomized his approach to the game. In a game in early December against the Erie Otters, with the Wolves protecting a one-goal lead in the dying seconds, Kantor blocked an Erie shot with his face, an act which helped seal a win for his team, but put Kantor, the Sudbury captain, out of action for more than a month.
“There was about five seconds left and they had a power play, and they also pulled their goalie and we were up one (goal),” Kantor said. “And the puck came to the point and it was pretty much right in the slot. I got down on my knees and went to block the shot, and the puck kind of went to the side and it was just kind of a reaction. I took it right to the jaw, broke my jaw, pushed my teeth all the way back, had it wired shut. I got 55 stitches, and they had to take me right to the emergency room to get dental care. It was painful, but it was actually worth it.”
That is an awful lot of personal discomfort to endure for the sake of one early-season win, but Kantor has no regrets.
“I would do it again, a hundred percent,” he said. “I was a leader on that team and captain, and a captain’s role always is to lead by example, especially for the younger guys, so hopefully it kicked into their heads never to back down from anything and always block shots for teammates. Blocking a shot in a game is a huge thing, I think it really is.”
Clearly that team-oriented approach caught the attention of Kantor’s boyhood favorites the Rangers, and it has kept Kantor enmeshed in the Wolf Pack’s forward rotation, despite the fact that he was still looking for his first AHL point through his first 13 games-played. Kantor himself feels that his transition to the pro level has gone reasonably well, save for one frustration.
“I’ve hit a little rough patch, I’ve been kind of injured this year, which is pretty different,” he said. “I’m not used to being injured like this. I’m just trying to get back 100% healthy again, and throughout a year you’re never 100% healthy, so I’ve just got to battle through the bumps and bruises of it.”
Kantor’s battle level seems to have been his hockey calling card ever since Pee Wee, and what he hopes will be his ticket to completing his “circle of life” from young Ranger fan to dynamic Ranger player.