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100 Things Rangers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
By Adam Raider, Russ Cohen
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2014 Adam Raider and Russ Cohen
All rights reserved.
Now You Can Die in Peace
It was a season that began and ended with a championship.
Training camp for the Rangers' 1993–94 campaign opened early so the team could play a two-game exhibition series against the Toronto Maple Leafs in London, England. New York swept the mini-tournament, which had been sponsored by French's Mustard, and even won a trophy: the French's Mustard Cup.
Players had a good chuckle over that, but it was an important bonding experience for a team coming off a nightmarish 1992–93 season in which virtually everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
Mike Keenan, the Rangers' new coach, went to Madison Square Garden Network producer Joe Whelan and asked him to edit together a video of past ticker-tape parades along the Canyon of Heroes, that stretch of Broadway running from Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan up to City Hall. It featured footage from the championship parades of the 1969 Mets and the 1978 Yankees as well as astronauts back from missions in space. Keenan gathered the Rangers together and showed them the video because he wanted them to see what winning a Stanley Cup in New York would be like. If they couldn't visualize it, he reasoned, they would never win it.
Keenan wasn't alone in setting lofty goals for the Rangers. The Hockey News went out on a pretty big limb by predicting that New York City would host a Stanley Cup parade the following June.
"RANGERS WILL GO FROM CHUMPS TO CHAMPS IN '94," the magazine declared.
A parade was the last thing on anyone's mind after the Rangers lost five of their first nine games. A humiliating 4–1 loss to the lowly Tampa Bay Lightning on October 22 was their third in a row, but it would turn out to be a turning point in the Rangers' season. A 3–2 win over the Los Angeles Kings two days later kicked off an 18–1–3 run that catapulted the Rangers to the top of the NHL standings. There they would stay.
Winning bred optimism and optimism is contagious. Captain Mark Messier and his lieutenants, Adam Graves and Kevin Lowe, went out of their way to make sure that everyone felt like they were part of the team and had played a role in its success. Ed Olczyk was a perfect example. The former 40-goal scorer was good enough to be a regular on most other teams but rarely cracked the top six in New York. Relentlessly upbeat, Eddie O emerged as the leader of the Black Aces, a group of players who didn't get into the lineup very often. He started a ritual of leading the team in a group stretch at center ice after practices, shouting "Heave ho, heave ho, heave ho" as teammates joined in.
That all-for-one, one-for-all attitude carried the Rangers through a 52-win regular season; playoff series victories over the New York Islanders, Washington Capitals, and New Jersey Devils; and the first six games of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Vancouver Canucks.
Just hours before Game 7, on June 14, 1994, Keenan showed his players the same parade compilation video they had watched during training camp, as well as a collection of the season's highlights, set to music. Inspirational stuff.
And there was The Speech, the one Messier called the best he had ever heard. Keenan, channeling Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt (and a little Freddie Shero), told his players that if they won that night, they would walk together forever.
Meanwhile, instead of being thrilled that their team was one win away from the Stanley Cup, fans were beside themselves with worry. To them, history dictated that the curse would rear its ugly head sooner or later in the form of a broken ankle to Brian Leetch, a fluke goal through Mike Richter's legs from 50' out, Martians crashing through the roof to kidnap Messier, or some other unforeseeable calamity.
Backup goalie Glenn Healy cracked, "There are 23 million people in New York today who have already dialed the 9 and the 1 and they're waiting to see if they have to dial the last 1."
The Rangers went on the attack from the opening faceoff and took a 1–0 lead when Leetch, all alone on the left side of Kirk McLean's net, converted a pass from Sergei Zubov at 11:02 of the first period.
Three minutes later, with the Rangers on a power play, Zubov carried the puck into the Vancouver zone and dished it to Alexei Kovalev, who was skating down the left wing. Kovalev found Graves open in the slot, and Graves ripped a shot past McLean for his first goal in 11 games.
Canucks captain Trevor Linden cut New York's lead to one when he scored a shorthanded goal at 5:21 of the second period. The Rangers answered eight minutes later when Messier, Graves, and Brian Noonan all took swipes at a loose puck in front of the Vancouver net that bounced in off McLean's right pad. Messier got credit for the goal.
The Rangers carried a 3–1 lead into the third period, but when Linden scored a power play goal at 4:50 to make it 3–2, fans started getting anxious. With about five minutes left in the game, the Canucks' Nathan LaFayette beat Mike Richter with a shot that clanged off the goal post. In any other year, that puck goes in and the Rangers lose the game and the series. But this wasn't any other year.
With time winding down, the building was ready to erupt into a celebration unlike anything that anyone on the ice or in the stands had ever experienced. Then Steve Larmer was called for icing with just 1.1 seconds remaining. Officials tacked on five tenths of a second to the clock — enough time for one more faceoff deep in the Rangers' zone. One more chance for the curse to strike.
Craig MacTavish won the draw, the final buzzer sounded, and Messier jumped for joy. It's amazing how high a 205-lb. player in full gear can leap when the weight of 54 seasons of futility is removed from his shoulders.
"The waiting is over!" play-by-play man Sam Rosen screamed. "The New York Rangers are Stanley Cup champions! And this one will last a lifetime."
Fireworks exploded overhead. The curse was broken. The dragon was slain. Delirious Rangers fans mockingly chanted "1940!" one last time to celebrate the end of a half-century of disappointment, torment, and frustration. People hugged. People cried. There was ecstasy and elation, yes, but also a magical feeling that anything was possible. And relief. So much relief. Someone held up a banner that read, "NOW I CAN DIE IN PEACE."
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, in one of his last public appearances when he wasn't met with a chorus of boos, came onto the ice and congratulated both teams for a hard-fought final before announcing Leetch as the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' Most Valuable Player.
Then two men wearing white gloves carried the most beautiful object on earth to center ice. "New York," Bettman told the crowd, "your long wait is over. Captain Mark Messier, come get the Stanley Cup."
Mess had won the trophy five times before as an Edmonton Oiler, but this time was extra special. You could see it in his face. He wanted this badly. This was the reason Messier came to New York.
The Cup was passed to Lowe and Larmer, Leetch and Graves, Richter and Zubov. Every player got to hold it, even the ones who didn't dress for the game. Keenan and Smith got their turns, too.
Leetch's postgame press conference was interrupted by a congratulatory call from President Bill Clinton. "Congratulations, man," the President said. "I've been sitting here alone in the White House watching this, cheering for you, biting my fingernails, screaming and yelling."
They chatted for a minute before Clinton hung up. "Was that Dana Carvey?" Leetch asked, wondering if he'd just been pranked by the former Saturday Night Live star.
Much champagne (and beer) was guzzled from the Cup that night and for many nights to follow.
Three days later, an estimated 1.5 million people turned out for a victory parade up the Canyon of Heroes that looked and sounded bigger than anything players would have seen in Keenan's motivational video. It concluded with a ceremony at City Hall, where Mayor Rudy Giuliani gave every player a key to the city.
When Olczyk, everyone's favorite cheerleader, grabbed the microphone to lead the crowd in an impromptu chant of "Heave ho, two in a row!" it wasn't hard to envision the Rangers returning to this place in one year's time. We still believed anything was possible.
Coolest Job on Earth?
Prior to 1994, the Stanley Cup didn't have its own personal escort. But the Rangers and their fans partied so hard with the trophy that it was damaged and had to be taken back to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto for repairs. The following season, the Hall created a new position, the Keeper of the Cup, whose duty is to maintain a watchful eye on the Cup at photo-ops, pub crawls, and other events where Lord Stanley's chalice might get dinged up.
"I was in the Persian Gulf on a carrier when the Rangers won the Cup in 1994. I snuck down off the flight deck in between bomb loads to call and wake up my wife back in Virginia to turn on the TV and let me know who won the game."
Fred Parker, Leonardtown, Maryland Rangers fan since 1975CHAPTER 2
There is a pivotal scene in The Matrix in which the evil Agent Smith expounds his belief that human beings define their reality through misery and suffering.
For decades, Rangers fans existed in much the same way (in fact, a few still do). For many, it was never a question of, "Will this be the year they finally win the Stanley Cup?" but rather "How deep will they plunge the knife into my heart this time?"
From 1926 to 1940, the Rangers were the class of the NHL, appearing in six Stanley Cup Finals and winning three. They might've won more had they not been kicked out of their own arena every spring by the circus.
After 1940, well, that's a tale of doom and gloom you know all too well. But for those in need of a refresher:
From 1942 to 1967, the Rangers missed the playoffs 18 times. They made it to the Stanley Cup Finals once during that dark age, in 1950, only to lose in double-overtime of the seventh game.
They had the best record in the league in 1970 before their All-Star defenseman, Brad Park, tripped over the boards at the Olympia in Detroit and broke his ankle. With Park out, the team went into a tailspin and never fully recovered.
Two years later, leading scorer Jean Ratelle suffered a broken ankle in a game against the Golden Seals ... off a shot from one of his own teammates! He returned to the lineup in time to face the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals but was largely ineffective in a series the Rangers would lose in six games.
Another broken ankle, this one belonging to Ulf Nilsson, dashed the Rangers' Cup hopes in 1979.
And who can forget 1992 when Mike Richter surrendered a fluky, 65-footer to Pittsburgh's Ron Francis in the Patrick Division Finals, shifting momentum in the Penguins' favor. The Rangers, who had finished the regular season with the league's best record, went on to lose the game, the series, and most significantly, a very real chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
The Rangers found so many spectacularly epic ways to lose that to the superstitious, the team's plight took on an almost supernatural air. A curse became the easiest explanation/excuse for a phenomenon that, on the surface, defied logic. Folks who were willing to believe that mystical forces were conspiring to keep the Cup out of the Rangers' grasp went looking for the source of the jinx and usually traced it to one of two incidents.
The first stems from a desecration of the Stanley Cup that took place in February 1941 when Garden executives burned the arena's mortgage in the bowl of the Cup after making the final payment, as a sort of celebration. The legend goes that this symbolic gesture created all sorts of bad karma for the Rangers.
Another theory about the curse involves the first NHL team to play in New York, the Americans, who were also tenants of Madison Square Garden (read more about the Rangers-Americans rivalry in chapter 95). The Americans were run by coach and general manager Red Dutton, who was forced to suspend operations of the club during World War II. He had always intended to revive the Americans following the war, but when he attempted to do so in 1946, his plan was rebuffed by the NHL. Dutton believed the Rangers were behind the decision. Angered, he declared that the Rangers would never win the Stanley Cup again for as long as he lived.
But there never was a curse. There were, however, factors working against the Rangers — some well beyond their control, and others very much within their control.
Before the NHL expanded in 1967, every team had the rights to young players within its 50-mile territorial limits and could deny any other club from placing a minor league or amateur team on its turf. This meant that while the Canadiens and Maple Leafs had access to literally millions of potential hockey-playing kids, the Rangers had the rights to Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx, and Hoboken — great neighborhoods for discovering a new deli but not for discovering the next Maurice Richard.
The small number of teams and lack of free agency also severely limited player movement, making it even easier for the Canadiens, Red Wings, and Maple Leafs to perpetuate their dynasties. Between them, those three clubs accounted for 25 championships in 26 seasons.
After 1967, the playing field leveled a bit with the introduction of a universal amateur draft, but the Rangers still had to contend with a succession of corporate overlords who viewed the hockey club as just another revenue stream. Take Alan Cohen, the former chairman and CEO of Madison Square Garden who was once asked if it was more important to win a championship or earn profits for his shareholders. Cohen replied that his first priority was to shareholders, saying, "That's the bottom line." That earned him the nickname "Bottom Line" Cohen.
Phil Esposito received a harsh initiation into Garden politics after he became general manager in 1986. He claims to have negotiated a trade with the Edmonton Oilers for Mark Messier a full five seasons before Neil Smith. Esposito realized that Messier could be the knight in shining armor the Rangers had been searching decades for.
According to Espo, when Dick Evans, president and CEO of the Garden, and Jack Diller, president of the Rangers, found out that the deal would cost the team $5 million in cash, they nixed it.
And even when it would've made the most sense from a hockey standpoint to strip the club bare and rebuild through the draft, a succession of Ranger general managers instead pursued the low-lying fruit of aging veterans — "name" players who might put fannies in the seats but not banners in the rafters. That shortsighted strategy cost the Rangers a chance to draft the next Mario Lemieux, the next Steven Stamkos, or the next John Tavares. It's a vicious cycle that has repeated itself over and over and over again.
So there you have it. The most famous curse in hockey debunked, demystified, and thoroughly discredited.
In 2010, Rangers captain Chris Drury broke a finger during training camp and missed three weeks of action. In his first game back, he broke the same finger in a collision with teammate Michal Rozsival and missed another two months. Can you imagine that happening to a player on any other team but the Rangers?
Neither can we.CHAPTER 3
Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!
Role players have a funny way of flying below the radar until a contest has entered its most critical phase. With everything riding on the next pitch, the next down, the next lucky bounce of a puck, they suddenly emerge — seemingly from out of nowhere — to make the big play and seal their place in history.
Aaron Boone's walk-off home run against the Red Sox. David Tyree's "helmet catch" in Super Bowl XLII. Those were big plays. But knowing what we know now about the course the 1994 NHL playoff season would follow, it's not a stretch to say that Stephane Matteau's double-overtime goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals trumps them all.
Excerpted from 100 Things Rangers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Adam Raider, Russ Cohen. Copyright © 2014 Adam Raider and Russ Cohen. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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