Jets coach awestruck

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:17 AM ET

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan is at a loss for words.

Or, at least, as close to a loss for words as Rex Ryan can get.

It has been a trying week for the colourful, outspoken, some would say "over-the-top" coach of the New York Jets.

His team stumbled and bumbled its way to a 10-9 season-opening loss to the Baltimore Ravens in front of a national TV audience Monday night, committing 14 penalties for 125 yards, registering just six first downs and, in the process, making Ryan's pre-season prediction of a Super Bowl title seem, well, far-fetched.

Things don't get any easier, either. Coming to town Sunday are the rival New England Patriots, a team featuring offensive studs like Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

Ryan respects Bill Belichick's bunch. But he is not intimidated by them. In fact, when he tells a roomful of reporters on this midweek media day at the Jets training facility that "I do not fear the New England Patriots," you honestly believe him.

At the same time, judging by the weary look on the face of the normally upbeat Ryan, it is obvious he could use a boost.

On this particular day, he will get exactly that.

From, of all people, Hockey Hall of Famer Darryl Sittler, one of Ryan's boyhood idols.

Ryan spent much of his youth growing up in a townhouse complex at Bayview Ave., and York Mills in North York while his mother was working as a professor at the University of Toronto.

Like many of us in the city who were kids in the early to mid-1970s, his days were filled with playing road hockey and watching Sittler's Leafs.

More than three decades later, Ryan is about to have a flashback to his boyhood days in Canada, courtesy of Sittler.

Having finished addressing the media horde, Ryan slips into an adjoining room where an interview has been scheduled with a visiting Sun sports columnist.

He is running late, so there likely will not be much time to chat with his inquisitor from the Great White North.

What Ryan doesn't know is that yours truly has brought with him a personally autographed hockey stick from Sittler, complete with a penned message wishing the coach well and thanking him for being a fan all those many years ago.

The moment Ryan sees it, he is overcome with emotion. He is speechless. For a couple of seconds anyway.

"You've got to be kidding me!" he finally says. "Holy (bleep)!This is incredible! This is awesome!"

If you didn't know better, you'd think the guy standing in front of you was giddy eight-year-old kid meeting his sporting hero for the first time. Okay, so in this particular case, it's a 47-year-old kid.

Still cackling like a child who just received the perfect present on Christmas morning, Ryan scans his new keepsake. It is a special customized stick that, on the shaft, acknowledges Sittler's NHL-record 10-point night on Feb. 7, 1976.

"I can't remember the goalie but I do remember the team that he broke the record against--Boston," an excited Ryan says. "I remember the guy never played another game in his life. If there's one person that didn't like Darryl Sittler it was him, I'm sure."

The goalie in question, Ryan is told, was someone named Dave Reece. Other than that, the coach was right on the mark.

But the best is yet to come.

"Do you want to talk to Darryl," he is asked.

"Are you kidding me? Heck yeah!"

The number is quickly dialed. The phone is then handed to an overwhelmed Ryan.

"Is this Darryl? I can't believe I'm on the phone with Darryl Sittler. This is awesome."

They chat for several minutes. Sittler acknowledges the Jets' tough loss to the Ravens. Ryan asks what the former Leafs captain is doing now. He tells Sittler how great hockey was in the '70s, especially the fight-filled grudge matches between the Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers. The conversation ends with Ryan inviting Sittler and his family to come sit in a private box with Ryan's wife for any Jets game they want.

When the call has been completed, Ryan can't get over what just happened.

"It was awesome," Ryan says. "I mean, that's one of your heroes right there. One of my heroes growing up. I mean, we would pretend to be Leafs as kids -- the obvious one for me was Tiger Williams-- but Darryl Sittler was so good, I didn't even consider being Darryl Sittler.

"Darryl Sitter was awesome. He WAS the Leafs. They had some great players but he was the guy everybody respected and wanted to be. He was the captain. What a great player he was.

"This whole experience has been overwhelming. Are you kidding me? Right away, it took me back. Back when I was a kid and had a morning paper route and an afternoon paper route and would deliver all that stuff and make money. And then I'd go to the (Leafs) games.

"So many memories came back when you are talking to him. I'm sure it's the equivalent of some fans talking to Wayne Gretzky. But Darryl Sitter was the Wayne Gretzky of my era."

Ryan starts fiddling around with the stick, pretending to shoot a puck. He then starts posing "just like the guys used to on the hockey cards" while a photographer captures the images.

Suddenly a PR person interjects. Ryan is late for previous commitments.

"I've been so busy shooting around with this stick, I forgot I had other responsibilities," he laughs.

Responsibilities like containing Randy Moss Sunday. Hey, maybe he could slow Moss down by hooking him with Sittler's stick when the Patriots wideout runs past the Jets sideline.

On second thought, Ryan covets the stick too much to take the chance of snapping it.

A perch on the wall in his office is a much more likely resting place.

The interview is over. Upon further review, coach Ryan has used the word "awesome" nine times in seven minutes.

"Thanks so much," he says. "It's been a tough week. You've brightened it up so much."

Don't thank us. Thank Sittler.

As he leaves, he looks at the PR person.

"You just wouldn't understand," he tells the guy. "It's Darryl freakin' Sittler!"

He might not understand, coach.

But those of us north of the border do.


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