"TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING"
The vibrant blue carpet was, at most, 20 feet long, and stretched from the Zamboni entrance to the right faceoff circle, from backstage to a personal center stage. For John Amirante, the stroll to that stage was about 10 steps.
The National Anthem was his opera. And that singular spotlight at Madison Square Garden was his Teatro di Roma.
John’s presence on Rangers game nights lasted little more than two minutes; twice that long if the opponent was one of the NHL’s seven Canadian teams. But for nearly four decades, his distinctly, uniquely “New Yawk” rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” was as much a part of the Rangers fabric as blueshirts or blue seats, Gretzky or Graves, Maloney or Messier, Leetch or Lundqvist.
Want a picture before or after the game? No problem. Autograph a hat, shirt or ticket? Absolutely. John would shake hands like a politician, only with none of the pretense or insincerity. He would make public appearances to mingle with the faithful. He sang the anthem at Rangers viewing parties.
Heck, John Amirante rode a float down the Canyon of Heroes with the Stanley Cup champions in the summer of 1994.
“By the dahhhwn’s early light…”
“Whose broad stripes and bright stahhhhhs…”
“Awww the raaaampahts we watched…”
John Amirante was born 83 years ago in The Bronx. He attended Cardinal Hayes HS in The Bronx. He would periodically perform the Anthem at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx, sharing the assignment with the legendary opera singer Robert Merrill. He was a proud and pleasant native New Yorker and had the accent to show for it, which was easily detected in person, less so in song but to a finely tuned ear.
“The bombs BURRRSTing in AIHHH…”
“Gave proof through da night…”
“That are flahhhg was STILL THEAHHH.”
John’s first foray performing Francis Scott Key’s stirring words actually was at a Mets-Astros game. The connection was Astros owner John McMullen, who also owned an architecture company where John Amirante worked (McMullen later would become the New Jersey Devils owner and recruit Amirante to perform at the Meadowlands). Early in the 1980-81 season, John sent a tape, passed a recital and made his Garden debut.
He would prime the patrons for the emotions of the moment at virtually every game for the next 35 years. And always, with a passion and devotion that New Yorkers demanded. John also performed at Knicks games for more than a decade, but the Rangers were his first love.
And the feeling was mutual. His voice and especially his delivery were pitch-perfect for hockey.
John’s trademark rendition was accompanied by Garden music director Ray Castoldi on organ. From the first notes, you could detect the determination in the Amirante delivery. He would punch certain words for emphasis.
He would literally punch the air when declaring those “bombs BURSTING in Aihhh (air).” He would build the anthem to a stirring crescendo, first by gesturing to the Garden crowd with an arm-wave at the applicable word-match of “banner yet waaaaaaave,” and then figuratively punch his signature moment with an almost breath-defying elongation of the word “freeeeeeeeeee” when singing about the “laaaaaa-and of the free.”
In the playoffs, John would break out a rally towel and wave it in a circle, all while staying on cue and on point. That only served to send the masses into a greater frenzy. His singing of the word “free” sometimes would last 10 seconds. The longer, the more energizing.
Standing between the benches, I could see players on the visiting bench starting to rock back and forth. I could hear Rangers players behind me marching their feet back and forth as the adrenaline rose to game-readiness.
And always—always--John Amirante would offer a military salute to his adoring fans as a final punctuation on his performance.
Today, we all salute John Amirante, who passed away on Tuesday.
I last saw John at what would be his last MSG performance: Jean Ratelle Night on February 25. As always, he offered a smile, a handshake, a kind word, an inquiry about my Army infantry soldier son, and a sense of excitement about being back on his stage.
As always, his beloved wife, Ann, was right by his side, sharing in his basking.
And as always, the Garden crowd equally adored John’s presence. There was always an audible buzz whenever John Amirante returned. His appearances were less frequent the last three years, but no less favored.
Rangers fans will forever connect John Amirante to his most memorable performance: Tuesday, June 14, 1994. Game 7 of the Cup Final. Winner-take-all. A 54-year “curse” on the franchise.
John called it the best Anthem of the more than 1,000 he performed in his career. No one heard it. NOT ONE WORD. He might as well have been lip-synching. The building was so otherworldly deafening that none of us knew “Oh Canada” and the “Star Spangled Banner” were finished until John lowered the mic and walked off his carpet.
“It felt like I was 10 feet off the ice,” Amirante said of that moment. “I had chills going through my body.”
Chills of a different kind were produced at the Garden in the early fall of 2001. September 19, to be exact. It was an otherwise nondescript Rangers preseason game against the Devils, only nothing was ordinary on this day. Nothing has been ordinary since.
This was the first sporting event in New York since more than 3,000 people were killed in the terror attacks. Rangers fans were among those who perished. With players in a somber mood and hockey a distant afterthought, this was the city taking another step to “resume our lives.”
John strode to the microphone, took a deep breath, and brought players, guests, hockey fans – and himself – to tears with a rendition of “God Bless America.”
John Amirante put his heart and soul into every word that day. He did that every day.
May his kind soul now rest in peace.