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Anthony Bitetto was 4 years old when the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994.
And as the clock ran out and his family of lifelong, diehard fans that bled Rangers blue realized the title was officially theirs, all of them sprinted outside to celebrate and shoot off fireworks into the Island Park sky.
His mom, Marie, and his dad, Brian, were among the first in line for the championship parade in New York City on June 17, leaving their three hockey-loving sons at home with their grandparents so that they could enjoy what was a monumental day in their fandom.
“I thought that was the best day of my life,” Marie told The Post over the phone Saturday. “But to see your son score a goal for the New York Rangers …”
Well, that instantly shot to the top of Marie’s list of her all-time favorite moments as a Rangers fan.
Bitetto, who signed a two-year, two-way contract with the Rangers on Oct. 9, 2020, was elevated from the taxi squad to the active roster at the beginning of the month. Three days later, he scored his first goal as a Ranger (and his first in three years) to help the team secure a statement win over the Capitals at the Garden.
“We come from a small town in Island Park and the whole town, I mean, yesterday our town priest flew the Rangers flag outside our church,” Marie said. “He’s a big Rangers fan, and he only flies the flag when the Rangers are in the playoffs.
“But they made an exception Friday for Anthony and flew the Rangers flag outside.”
Marie’s phone was blowing up minutes after her eldest son finessed a picture-perfect move to the net and finished with his backhand. One of the messages she got was from a middle school teacher of his.
“She was like, ‘I’ll never forget the day I told Anthony to do his work and he looked at me and said: Miss Hoffman, I don’t need to know this, I’m going to play for the New York Rangers one day,’ ” Marie said with a giggle.
After playing parts of seven seasons with three different NHL teams — the Predators, Wild and Jets — Bitetto fulfilled his childhood dream and made his way to the Garden. When he became a free agent after playing 51 games in Winnipeg, the 30-year-old gave his mom a call to give her an update on the teams that were interested in signing him.
He waited until the end of the conversation to casually mention that the Rangers were one of those teams. And when Marie asked him what he thought, he said: “Well, that’s my decision, I can never turn the Rangers down.”
Bitetto now finds himself with a major role in the Rangers’ defensive core after injuries to Jack Johnson and Brendan Smith, and the exile of Tony DeAngelo. The first thing head coach David Quinn had to say about the left-handed defenseman was that he brings life to the Rangers’ bench.
His vivacious personality and thick New York accent have been a part of his charm throughout his entire hockey career. It was the first thing Jeff Blashill, now head coach of the Red Wings, noticed when he traded for Bitetto during the 2008-09 season while he was coach and general manager of the United States Hockey League’s Indiana Ice.
“Right away, he was able to integrate himself with his teammates, because of who he was as a person,” Blashill said. “And then he played hard and he brought some physicality to our team. Jim Paliafito, who now works for the Toronto Maple Leafs, was our head scout and he had found Anthony. We needed to add a little bit of grit and toughness. We thought he was a good, young, raw player, who could develop and that’s what he’s done.
“Then he brought that great big personality and fun-loving — but competitive. He was a great addition to the team.”
The Indiana Ice won the Clark Cup during that 2008-09 season and Blashill said Bitetto was a key piece in the team’s success. He had an impact on the ice, but an even bigger influence in the locker room.
Bitetto has been a leader on nearly every team he’s played on. When Jim Madigan became the head coach of Northeastern in 2011 during Bitetto’s sophomore year, he recognized how much the team loved and respected him.
There was a passion that Bitetto brought to the game that his Huskies teammates and Madigan knew was worthy of the alternate captain title.
“It’s very seldom do I say someone is stamped for the NHL,” Madigan said. “But we knew that he was a very good prospect and if his game continued to develop, which it did, he’d have a chance to play in the NHL and he’s done that.
“The amount of years he’s played in the NHL shows you that he understands his role and he’s worked at it to stay sharp and to stay.”
It has been just a few short weeks, but Bitetto has brought to the Rangers the leadership, passion and joy that carried him to the NHL. It has come through even stronger this time around, for his childhood team.