XN Sports writer Sean Hartnett had an exclusive opportunity to sit down and chat with Rangers winger Lee Stempniak about his new life in New York City, the methods of unflappable head coach Alain Vigneault and the pride that comes with representing the Broadway Blueshirts.
In this exclusive one-on-one chat, Stempniak shared his experiences riding the subway to world-famous Madison Square Garden, the “special buzz” that comes with playing in front of the Garden faithful and fans recognizing him on subway cars and in the street.
The well-traveled winger has made a smooth transition to life with the Rangers and the bustling streets of New York. Since making his season debut on October 9, Stempniak has impressed Rangers fans with his competitiveness, positional smarts and ability to generate offense off turnovers in transition.
Vigneault has trusted Stempniak in all situations. Stempniak ranks sixth among Rangers forwards in time on ice per game, averaging 15:33. He averages 1:45 per game on the power play and averages 1:41 per game on the penalty kill.
The mutual trust between Vigneault and his players played a tremendous role in the Rangers reaching the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. This is something that a newcomer in Stempniak has noticed right away.
“It’s a pretty calm group,” Stempniak said. “I think a lot of that is from the success they had last year. They’re a mature team.”
The experience of playing under Vigneault is new to Stempniak. He believes that Vigneault’s calm nature has a trickle-down effect to his players.
“I think he tries to exude calmness and confidence that filters down to the rest of the team,” Stempniak said. “I think that’s his style. Even from playing against him, you see him on the bench and he’s very rarely yelling or screaming. I think he tries to sort of have that run through the team. If he’s calm, the players look back there and keep their composure a little bit more. That’s the sense that I get. It’s not that he doesn’t have that fire. He certainly does. You see it, but he tries to control it.
“He’s demanding. Most coaches are. He demands excellence every time we’re on the ice. That’s fair. I think as players, you want to be held to a high standard. That’s how you get better. It’s good for our team. He’s demanding, but he’s fair and holds guys accountable. Those are all good traits for a coach to have.”
Earlier this month, Vigneault admitted that Stempniak has surprised him based upon the feedback he received from the Rangers’ scouting department during the offseason.
“Everybody talked about his skill set, his shot, his knowledge of the game,” Vigneault said on October 16. “There were some concerns maybe that sometimes he wouldn’t hang on to (the puck) as long as he could. But he has. He’s taken checks to make plays, and done a good job for us so far.”
The 31-year-old native of upstate West Seneca, N.Y. signed a one-year, $900,000 contract with the Rangers this offseason. He’s proving to be quite the bargain for the Blueshirts given his ability to contribute positively in all situations. You could describe Stempniak a jack-of-all-trades kind of player.
Stempniak focuses on bringing consistency and competitive traits on a game-to-game basis. More than his four points through nine games can evidence, Stempniak is outstanding at anticipating the play and getting into the right positions in all areas of the ice.
“For me, I just try to play the same game no matter what,” Stempniak said. “I just try to be around the puck and make sure I’m playing hard. I try to be consistent every night.”
Unlike some teammates, Stempniak enjoys taking the subway to MSG. Stempniak feels the buzz when he arrives at the arena and feeds off the noise and energy of the passionate fans gathered inside “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
“I take the subway,” Stempniak said. “I find that it’s a really easy way to get around Manhattan. Sometimes when you’re walking into MSG, it’s hard to believe you’re playing hockey there. I’ve always liked playing at MSG as an opposing player. With the arena being at Penn Station, there are always tons of people and tons of activity. They’re great fans in New York. It’s great when we play well. They get behind us, and we definitely feed off the energy of the building.”
Sometimes Stempniak will get spotted by fans while taking the subway. He doesn’t mind casually chatting with them as the stops get closer to Penn Station.
“A few games ago, I got on the subway and there were three guys in Rangers jerseys who were from Calgary. They recognized me from my time there, and we talked for a few stops. It was fun to see them traveling to see the game.”
“I was at a street hockey event in Union Square on Tuesday with Kevin and Anthony,” Stempniak said. “It was fun to be there with the kids. There’s people walking by, asking for a picture, talking about hockey.”
New York is a fresh experience for Lee and wife Lindsay, parents of twin daughters Reese and Lucy.
“It’s fun exploring the city,” Stempniak said. “We have twin eighth-month old girls. We’re not doing as much as we would have done a few years ago. But it’s great to go out in the stroller with our girls, walk around and experience Manhattan.”
The Stempniaks live in downtown Manhattan. Two blocks away is the familiar face of teammate and former Dartmouth College buddy Tanner Glass and his family.
Overall, Stempniak is enjoying every aspect of living in New York – from exploring the city with his wife and twin daughters, to interacting with fans on the street and the subway, to the special buzz that comes with playing at MSG.
“It’s been really positive,” Stempniak said. “It’s a passionate fan base. They look for reason to get behind the team, especially at home. They’re great fans. MSG is a really special place to play when the crowd is into it.”