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Brian Leetch waves to fans at Thursday's retirement tribute. ((Frank Franklin II/Associated Press))

The New York Rangers retired Brian Leetch's sweater number Thursday night with a tribute as flashy as the defenceman himself.

Leetch, 39, had his No. 2 raised to the rafters of Madison Square Garden — the fifth member of the Rangers so honoured — in a stirring 51-minute ceremony prior to New York's 2-1 shootout victory over the Atlanta Thrashers.

The others — Rod Gilbert (7), Eddie Giacomin (1), Mike Richter (35) and Mark Messier (11) — were on hand to celebrate Leetch.

"I had a lot of advice from friends who said, 'If you start forgetting what you want to say, just start crying and just break down and everyone will feel bad and you can just cover up,'" said Leetch who, for the record, maintained his composure.

"I was not that nervous, not that scared of what I was going to say. I was just really enjoying it."

Leetch surprised the packed house by revealing that, next season, the Rangers will honour Adam Graves by retiring his No. 9.

"That made me calm because I knew I had that to come and it was going to be exciting," Leetch said. "I knew Adam was going to be blown away."

Graves played 690 games with Leetch, more than any other player.

"The only thought that came to my mind was how humble I felt," Graves said. "Wearing that jersey was gift enough; having this opportunity, I'm lucky."
 
Leetch played the first 17 of his 19 NHL seasons in New York, setting franchise records for defencemen in goals (240), points (981) and games played (1,129).

The native of Corpus Christi, Texas, was drafted ninth overall by the Rangers in 1986, and was named the Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year in 1989.

He twice won the Norris Trophy (1992, 1997) as top defenceman — the first American-born player to do so — and the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable playoff performer when New York captured the 1994 Stanley Cup to end the franchise's 54-year drought.

Leetch amassed 247 goals and 1,028 points in 1,205 NHL games for the Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins before he retired last May 24.

With files from the Associated Press